Kia Amanti – anything but an oxymoron

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We drove an oxymoron to the beach. And it turned out to be, if not a perfect fit, a very suitable vehicle for hauling five passengers to dinner, cruising along the beach roads and traveling the 90 miles to and from with Allison Moorer’s live album playing through an ear-pleasing optional 270-watt Infinity sound system.

We were outfitted for a very relaxing week with a Kia luxury vehicle.

Kia? Luxury? That certainly appears to be an oxymoron. But slip behind the wheel of a 2004 Amanti for a test drive and you will find that this very descriptive word no longer fits.

Calling the all-new 2004 Amanti a luxury vehicle, however, may be stretching it just a bit, but the new Kia is a full-sized family sedan loaded with all the good stuff you will find on a fully equipped Toyota Avalon, Buick LeSabre or Chrysler Concorde.

Let’s call it near-luxury for those who like to place everything into compartments.

Kia has been known in the United States since the mid-90s for fuel-efficient and extremely affordable small and mid-sized cars and sport utility vehicles, all coming with gigantic warranties. So the thought of a big, quiet, soft sedan with a Kia name seemed a bit odd when it arrived at our office.

Basically the same car has been built for the Korean consumer for several years, but it has just reached our shores. It’s sold in Korea as the Opirus, a big, heavy car for people who can live in the back seat with a chauffeur doing the behind-the-wheel duties.

On this side of the Pacific, the new Kia is an inexpensive alternative to the large – if not full-sized entries – such as the Avalon and the LeSabre. Some people may also find it, with a well-equipped base price of $25,535, a spacious alternative to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord V-6 models on this side of the Pacific.

Although not quite full-sized in dimensions, stretching out 196 inches with a 110-inch wheelbase, the Amanti is loaded with interior room and with a large trunk good for suitcases, beach chairs and a set of golf clubs.

It makes an immediate impression with a wonderfully quiet interior, nice fit and finish, quality materials and nice-to-the-touch switchgear.

A decade ago, quality and Kia were not used in the same sentence. It took Kia, now owned by former rival South Korean automaker Hyundai, several years in the North American market to reach the refined standards set by the Japanese manufacturers.

The same 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty that was used as bait to attract customers when quality was a question mark remains today as an attractive feature.

Since about 2001, Kia has developed a full line of cars and sport utilities that can claim quality standards that match up very well with most of the competition. The new Amanti fits nicely into the improved quality Kia lineup.
But be warned, the Amanti is aimed at buyers – probably in the 50-to-65 age
group who enjoy a soft and relaxed ride, a cushy feel overall with well-boosted power steering, and decent responsiveness when the pedal is depressed at slow speeds.

But the soft, floating ride also translates into body lean that can be annoying if you prefer cars with stiffer suspensions.

The Amanti is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 200 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. This may be the weak link in a well thought-out sedan that weighs in at a hefty 4,117 pounds. (Didn’t one of the United Nations agencies recently issue a report on worldwide obesity?).

That being said, the Kia does offer a good measure of urgency from stoplight to stoplight and it answers the call in merging and passing. Perhaps some of its friskiness comes from a slick-shifting 5-speed automatic transmission. For purposes of measurement, the Amanti has been clocked in 8.9 seconds from 0 to 60 and 84 miles per hour in 17 seconds in the quarter mile.

We think the Amanti buyer will be satisfied with the performance and the sophisticated feel of the transmission, which can also be used in a manual mode.

Although the steering is well-boosted, on-road feel is good and handling is no problem. Just don’t get too frisky on the windy roads or you will be looking at the pavement from the driver’s side glass on tight right turns.

The exterior styling is rather square with a big, upright grille giving the Amanti a rather stately look. The big grille is flanked by Mercedes-style headlights. We admit, it’s different in a curious kind of way.

It’s inside that the Amanti shines and will delight its owners. Kia has unabashedly stolen some good ideas from other manufacturers such as the Mercedes’ unique door-mounted seat controls and the Volkswagen/Audi thumb-wheel heated seat controls.

The design process probably was, if it works for Mercedes it’s bound to work for Kia.

The automatic climate controls are easy to use and worked well generating the right temperature and fan speed. It took us a few trips around the block to figure out why there was no air coming out of the rear vents. A switch on the dashboard turns them on.

The stereo controls are a bit busy, but redundant steering wheel controls make changing stations and regulating volume a snap. Likewise, the steering wheel-mounted cruise controls are intuitive.

The gauges, black with white faces in daylight and emitting a yellowish glow with the lights on, are easy to read night or day. A trip computer display in the center of the dash has large numbers and is easy to read. But you will have to determine which is most important, outside temperature or fuel economy statistics; it won¹t display both at the same time.

The optional leather seating in our test vehicle was soft to the touch and well crafted. The seats proved comfortable and a good seating position was easy to derive.

Rear accommodations are spacious and it is possible to position three adults in the rear without hearing complaints. One complaint did arise. One of our passengers said the outboard cushions in back tended to push her toward the middle.

Safety equipment in the Kia is impressive. The Amanti is fitted with eight airbags, including two ceiling-mounted curtain bags, anti-whiplash headrests and antilock brakes with brake-force distribution. Optional are an Electronic Stability Program, traction control and brake assist.

In fact, there are only three option packages. Our test car included two, the convenience package including heated front seats, sunroof and auto-dimming mirrors; and the leather package, which included memory seats and an upgraded sound system.

That brought the bottom line to just $28,260.

Sales-wise the Amanti appears to be off to a good start in 2004 with 7,642 units sold through May. At the same time, the Kia’s target car, the Toyota Avalon, is down 5,374 units year over year from 2003. Is there a correlation here?