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Funny thing about the latest Asian compact sedan to reach North America: Punch the throttle after stopping at a traffic signal and, unless you meter the pedal willfully, the tires will squeal and tread will peel onto pavement. A compact economy car has enough spunk in a stoplight derby to leave rubber? It does when it's the new Sephia by Korean automaker Kia.
Kia Sephia (pronounced kee-ya sehfee-ya) is strengthened this year in a tight structural package with a twin-cam four-cylinder engine producing 125 horsepower. Good gear ratios in the manual transmission and engine torque slanted to excel at lower speeds quickens the action. So the Sephia really zips away from a stoplight start. It also acts forcefully at highway speeds, which builds confidence for passing.
Recent attention by Kia's engineers to tame engine vibrations and stifle sound from entering Sephia's five-passenger cabin has resulted in an enriched experience for riders and elevated the quality and tone of this car. It no longer feels or sounds like an unsubstantial tin box. Factor in the spark of Sephia's powerplant and some attractive price points skewed for several thousands of dollars below Japanese competitors like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, and the Sephia shines in a crowded field of compacts.
Although the assembly of Sephia occurs at Kia's production facility in South Korea, styling for exterior and interior elements was filtered through Kia's American design studios in Irvine, California. As a result, the overall appearance of Sephia seems familiar in a shape and format similar to other compacts on American roads. Of course, this is the class of cars where conformity in design and homogeneous styling become assets for a non-radical approach that blends into mainstream tastes. To that extent, the Sephia makes a subtle statement with shapely sculpting of what essentially is the three-box form of a small sedan, but with some upscale twists that add eye appeal.
At the nose, for instance, Sephia shows an unobtrusive narrow grille with body-colored bumpers and moldings yet a corner pair of clear-lens headlamps typically found only on more expensive cars.
The bowed hood has flanking notched creases which pick up curving contours of the grille and move these lines rearward to the A-pillars, where they melt into rolled shoulders of side doors. Side panels look flat, interrupted only by delicate bulges of soft flares ringing each wheel well. Door handles, side mirrors and various protective moldings match the body color on LS models as upscale accents. The superstructure above the doors shows more glass than sheetmetal, with a gentle arched line apparent from narrow roof pillars running front to rear across a flat roof.
In back, a high trunk deck rolls over the trailing edge in blunt descent to color-keyed bumpers. A sporty decklid spoiler may be attached as an option to any trim of Sephia, although it looks incongruent with the understated design.
Sephia's interior arrangement maximizes personal space for passengers and delivers more room for heads and legs and shoulders than the class-leading competitors. Twin bucket seats appear in front separated by a center console, while the three-person rear bench in LS models has a seatback that folds to expand cargo space in the trunk.
Also, there are a number of comfort features and perks aboard that are usually not available in this price range. The driver gets a footrest on the left side, for example. The driver's seat cushion on the LS tilts for a better fit, as does the steering column. Front seatbelt anchors on B-pillars adjust vertically for comfort.
The audio system, available as an option across the board, mounts high above the center console for better access, with control knobs and dials enlarged to fit American-size fingers. Dashboard instruments include an analog speedometer with white-on-black face, with a tachometer installed for the LS power package.
Sephia is nicely trimmed even at entry level. Fabric covers all seats as well as inserts in door panels, which have low map pockets. Twin sunvisors and cupholders are provided for front seats, along with two front air bags and three-point seatbelts. Windshield wipers offer two-speed intermittent operation and remote releases control the front hood, fuel door and trunk lid.
Some small cars skimp on safety features, but Sephia matches the class leaders with air bags and adjustable three-point seatbelts. Its chassis structure features integrated front and rear crumple zones, steel bracing in each side door, a collapsible steering column, childproof rear door locks and rear infant seat restraint anchors.
Take a Sephia out for a test drive and it sells itself with zippy acceleration and precise road manners. It particularly impresses with tight control for steering and the independent suspension. The suspension keeps body roll in check and maintains a relatively flat stance through a set of curves.
We played with a Sephia LS on winding strips of blacktop strung around granite ramparts in the pine-clad Black Hills of South Dakota on a cold and windy day. The narrow roads, cleared of summer's crush of vacationing tourists as well as speed patrols that would otherwise challenge our forward line, were best suited for nimble sports cars geared for aggressive action. But our Sephia romped through the mountainous terrain and transformed a morning's run into an exhilarating driving experience.
Sephia behaves well because it contains good equipment. To create its mechanical components, Kia teamed with noteworthy names from around the world for subsidiary automotive systems. Lotus Engineering of England was involved in the design of Sephia's four-wheel independent suspension system, while Germany's Getrag worked on the manual five-speed gearbox. Kelsey-Hayes devised the anti-lock brakes and Bosch LH Motronic did the engine's fuel system.
The suspension, with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link design in back, incorporates front and rear stabilizer bars to check the body roll. Installing sway bars in this economy class of compact sedans may be unusual but they're a welcome addition because they allow Sephia to handle the curves with confidence and comfort.
Brakes are conventional with front discs and rear drums linked to power assistance, although engine-speed variable assistance comes with the LS upgrade. ABS may be added to LS models for $800.
Power for Sephia comes from an iron-block engine originally developed by Mazda, which once owned a piece of Kia. The plant, now produced by Kia in Korea, delivers more horsepower than Civic and Corolla as well as most other compacts in this class, with lively acceleration in lower gears. However, fuel economy figures for Sephia's engine do not score nearly as high as the Honda or Toyota.
A manual five-speed gearbox is the standard transmission and shifts easily through a short-throw stick. The electronically controlled four-speed automatic is available for $975 at every trim level but saps some of the engine's bonus power points.
The Sephia makes most sense in barest form, where the bottom line at $9,995 clearly becomes an advantage amounting to several thousands of dollars.
However, even the top Sephia with additional power equipment and comfort features carries the cachet of a bargain when measured against competitor compacts. The Koreans have obviously figured out how to develop and build a nice Japanese-style compact sedan without the mark-up inherent with Japanese pricing. The fact that these new models lock out vibrations and noise makes Sephia an even better selection this year.
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