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SAN DIEGO— Say Kia to most people and you’ll get predictable responses, something on the order of, “Korean cars like Hyundais, right?” Or “they make cheap cars for college kids and have that big warranty.”
So what’s your response as a knowledgeable auto enthusiast? How about, “they’re good entry-level cars with a great warranty and now they’re making a minivan and a sport-ute too.” If you’re really good you can identify the latter as the Sedona and Sorento, respectively.
Prepare to seriously re-examine your Kia pre-conceptions, brothers and sisters. For the Amanti is coming soon to a Kia dealer (they hope, an exclusive one) near you. The “premium big sedan” is not only unlike any previous Kia, but also given its $25,535 starting price, it conceivably could be the most car for the least money available in the U.S. Skeptical? That’s understandable. As journalists gathered here for the Amanti’s press introduction, most expected to drive nothing more than another version of Hyundai’s XG350 sedan. Well, remember the old saw about what happens when you assume?
“The Amanti’s platform is about a fourth-generation evolution of the XG350’s,” said Kia public relations director Kim Custer, “with improved side impact protection and four inches of additional length. Plus they’re not built in the same plant; no Kias or Hyundais are.” To expand the comparison a bit, besides the additional 4.1 inches of length (1.9 of which is wheelbase), the Amanti is 0.9 inch wider and 2.6 inches longer than the 2004 XG350. But it weighs 370 pounds more, which might explain the Hyundai’s slightly better fuel economy, 17 city/26 highway vs. Amanti’s 17/25.
2004 Kia AmantiEnlarge Photo
Power for both is a 3.5-liter, dual-overhead cam V-6 with a cast iron block and aluminum cylinder heads. In the Amanti, it produces 200 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, the latter delivered with a very flat torque curve, Custer said. The XG350 delivers a little less, 194 hp and 216 lb-ft. Both cars utilize a five-speed automatic transmission with a sequential manual mode. But hey, why am I comparing them? According to Custer, “We’re not trying to compete with XG350. Ours is a completely different type of car, roomier and more quiet.” Kia says the Amanti’s main competitors are the Buick LeSabre, Chrysler Concorde, and Toyota Avalon.
As good a car as the XG350 is, the Amanti does surpass it (marginally) in every published interior measurement save rear hip room, and we can personally attest to its quiet. During our 150-mile drive, my driving partner and I commented numerous times on Amanti’s smoothness of operation (up- or down-shifts and tire noise for example) and how little noise filtered into the cabin. Not having first-hand knowledge of the generations of evolution involved, I would say that Kia’s engineers have worked some magic with the Amanti’s platform. Its ride quality is superb — practically Lexus-like smooth — with its double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension soaking up bumps and undulations with aplomb.
Part of the credit goes to the attention paid to Amanti’s unibody to ensure high torsional stiffness, which also helped in front and rear impact resistance. Reinforced A- and B-pillars and increased overlaps between the rear door side-impact beams and the wheel arches are expected to give Amanti superior side-impact and offset crash ratings. Thanks to a total of eight airbags — really a quantum leap in standard equipment in this price range — occupants inside should be in pretty good shape no matter what happens.
2004 Kia AmantiEnlarge Photo
To help prevent the worst from happening, four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated in front) with anti-lock are standard. They ride behind 6.5-by-16-inch, nine-spoke cast aluminum wheels wearing 225-60 tires. There’s no optional wheel or tire, but Continental Teves’ Electronic Stability Program, traction control and brake assist are a $550 option package, but it’s available only after you’ve opted for two other packages costing $1805 and $900. Not quite a pyramid scheme, but it would be nice if you could get those extra safety features without also paying for a sunroof, leather seats, an up-market Infinity sound system, et al. That said, a completely loaded Amanti lists for $28,790, and as I said above, it’s a lot of car for the money.
Another mechanical reason why is its steering, something the Kia folks didn’t really talk about much. We found the power rack-and-pinion system outstanding. As we negotiated the twists, turns, curves, and hills of California Route 78 (one of our favorites) from Escondido east to Santa Ysabel, the steering proved responsive and precise with a great on-center feel. We exercised the transmission’s manual mode during that portion of our drive as well, to maximize our driving pleasure. While Amanti may never tempt those whose hearts are set on a 5-Series BMW, Kia’s big sedan needs apologize to no car for its fun-to-drive factor. It makes us believe in the “big doesn’t have to be boring,” advertising tagline Kia will use to push Amanti beginning in January.
Like some recent BMWs, the Amanti’s styling might be questioned by some. Kia calls it “Neo-Classical” and “heavily influenced by European design themes.” You might call it derivative and see previous generation Mercedes-Benz headlamps, a Chrysler Crossfire grille and a formal-looking C-pillar that could’ve come from half-a-dozen cars. Beauty, as always, is in the beholder’s eyes. The Amanti looks pleasant enough, although some of its styling cues look better or worse depending from where you view them. Inside the cabin there’s much to laud; the Kia folks proudly pointed out little touches such as solar glass all around, chrome step plates, window surrounds to reduce rattles, and lighted steering-wheel redundant controls.
No question that the Amanti is an important car for Kia, a “breakthrough” in their words. “A way to move the brand to the next level,” Peter Butterfield, President/CEO, Kia Motors America told us. “Any time you move a brand up market you have issues of perception. It’s a challenge to our marketing people to get customers to put us in their competitive set.” At least Kia has given their marketing folks one heckuva car to work with. And anyone not considering the Amanti in their shopping considerations is making a big mistake.
2004 Kia Amanti
Base price: $25,535
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 200 hp/220 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed electronically controlled adaptive automatic with manual sequential control, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 196.0 x 72.8 x 58.5 in
Wheelbase: 110.2 in
Curb weight: 4021 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 17/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front- and rear-seat-mounted side airbags; front- and rear-curtain airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock. Electronic stability control, traction control, and brake assist are optional as a package.
Major standard equipment: 210-watt/eight-speaker AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system; dual-zone automatic climate control; power windows, locks, seats, and mirrors (heated); remote keyless entry with alarm cruise control
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles; ten years/100,000 miles powertrain