Car shoppers may still be surprised to see a South Korea-brand car with a $25,000 price tag. They remember, no doubt, the abysmal quality of the first imports from that country. Times have changed, however. The U.S. market has grown even more competitive, and every car maker wanting a piece of it has invested major sums of money in improving their products. Kia is no exception.
The Kia Amanti is an all-new nameplate. And with the 2004 Amanti, Kia has gone boldly where many might have thought such an upstart didn't belong. Those who harbored such thoughts had better wake up and smell the kimchi.
In fit and finish, in features both standard and optional and in just basic competency, the Amanti is the best yet from South Korea. The Kia Amanti is roomy and comfortable, comparable in interior room to the Toyota Avalon and big sedans from Buick and Ford. Kia admits it has some catching up to do in engine technology and metallurgy, but if the Amanti is any indication of what's to come, there's a new player in the mid-size, near-luxury slice of the U.S. new-car pie.
Kia describes the Amanti's styling as Neo-Classical. As far as the front end is concerned, perhaps neo-Cyrano is more apt, what with its prominent, proboscis-like grille. And the conflict between the grille's trapezoidal shape and the headlights' elliptical outlines only seems to emphasize the grille's dominance of the car's fascia. Belying the subordination of function to style, the top third of the grille opening is blocked with matte black-finished backing behind the egg crate inset, apparently to direct the air flow through the part of the opening feeding the radiator and engine air intake.
Viewed apart from the awkward grille, the elliptical headlight contours project luxury, borrowing as they do from many a luxury car from Europe or Japan. At night, their appearance is clean and sharp, and the crisp, precise blinking of the LED turn indicators readily catches the eye of drivers and pedestrians.
Side view is more of a piece, and more classic, neo or otherwise, than that from the front. An understated wedge-look begins at the top of the laid-back headlights then rises gently from the front fenders through the rear quarter, trailing off slightly before draping over rounded taillights. Remarkable for how well it's integrated into the car's overall proportions is the rear door, which closes on an opening several inches longer than is the norm in this size sedan. This large door opening makes for ease of entry to and exit from the rear seat. It also gives the Amanti a look of richness, of stretch intended to benefit rear-seat users.
As it accelerates away, the Amanti leaves a memorable image in its wake. A slight hump in the middle of the trunk lid's trailing edge functions as a mini-spoiler, breaking up the air flow over and behind the car, reducing lift at highway speeds. Eye-like taillights wrap around the rear fenders to each side and bracket a chrome-framed license plate recess in the vertical face of the trunk lid. At night, the juxtaposition of the red taillights and back-lighted license plate paints an especially striking picture.
Luxury cues abound inside the Kia Amanti, especially with the leather option.
The instrument panel and dashboard could have come from any of a number of high-end, much more costly cars. There is a hint of a Buick look to its build, with a heavy, eyelid-like hood running the width of the car; this may be intentional, however, as Kia lists the LeSabre as one of the Amanti's targets. The wood grain trim on the dash and center console looks less faux than some whose different bits and pieces truly are cut from the same burl. It's not overdone, but applied sparingly where it adds elegance, not just any and every place good glue can hold it in place. The dash-mounted monitor that comes with the Leather Package is under-utilized, a four-inch display surely can handle more than the usual trip computer info, time, date and audio selection, and it's redundant, as the same data can be called up in the instrument cluster.
Seats are supportive, comfy without being soft. A long day's worth of consecutive hours doesn't leave one's bum numb or even demanding a good stretch. Glass area is more than adequate, especially the side windows. The steep rake of the windshield brings the inside rearview mirror quite close to the driver's face, requiring a conscious turn of the head to scan. Power controls for the front seats mimic the metaphoric controls popularized by Mercedes-Benz and are as readily understood; mounted as they are on the doors (like Mercedes does), however, makes manipulating them somewhat awkward.
Interior room is comparable with the major players in the Amanti's target segment, comprising, in addition to the LeSabre, the Chrysler Concorde, the Ford Crown Victoria and the Toyota Avalon. In front-seat accommodations, the Amanti boasts best-in-class head and leg room and gives up no more than in inch in hip room. Rear seat passengers enjoy best-in-class head room but otherwise don't fare as well, losing 1 inch of leg and hip room to the Avalon and 2 inches to the LeSabre and Concorde, although the rear doors' limo-like openings are some compensation.
The Amanti comes up short in cargo space, by more than 3 cubic feet to the Concorde, but by less than 0.5 cubic feet to the Avalon. Kudos, though, to the trunk's full finish and the inside pull-down, sparing fingers from the dirt and muck that road trips routinely leave on a car's trunk lid.
The glove box is unique, the top third fitted with two cubbies to keep small items from rattling around. Otherwise, interior storage is routine, with the usual door-mounted map pockets, seatback-mounted magazine racks and cup holders. Three accessory power points are provided, one at the base of the center stack, another in the center console and the other on the back end of the center console for rear seat use. Missing, though, is a detent in the center console rim to allow a cellular telephone cord to fit beneath the closed console cover.
All controls, save for the front-seat power buttons, are conveniently placed and return good tactile feel. Easily scanned and comprehended climate control and stereo functions and settings are managed by familiar and user-friendly knobs, buttons and roller switches. Headliner-mounted assist grips are nicely damped front and rear, the latter fitted with garment hooks.
The Amanti does everything Kia expects it to, and very well, indeed. As a commuter, it's sufficiently agile with good visibility to maneuver in congested traffic. As a long distance traveler, it's a delight, quiet, smooth and tireless, both in willingness to make good time and in occupant comfort. The sound system lives up to promise, with good radio reception and quality sound.
Where it doesn't excel is sprightliness, in both acceleration and anything approaching sporty handling. Its 200 horsepower is lowest in class, while its curb weight tops the class scale. These factors, combined with the admittedly low-tech engine management system, may have played a large role in the 20 miles-per-gallon fuel consumption on a day-long, 500-mile drive at an average speed only slightly higher than California's posted maximum.
Similarly, the Sportmatic transmission promises more than it delivers, returning a smidgen of driveline lash on throttle lift-off and upshifting on its own in manual mode as the engine hits a pre-determined rpm.
Ride over handling governed choice of tire specifications, as did cost the choice of tire supplier; the Michelins originally considered lost out to local guy Hankook, and steering response and cornering tell the sad tale. There's also more unsprung weight than is the norm in the Amanti's aspiration class, leading to noticeable suspension movement on rough roads.
The Amanti's anti-lock brakes delivered as promised, with controllable stops and light pedal pulses.
As a package, the Kia Amanti is a most remarkable car, its few shortcomings more than overshadowed by its surprising sophistication.
Save for the grille, it looks right at home at any country club or outside any five-star eatery. No apologies are necessary for the interior. Quite the contrary, as that's easily the Amanti's top bragging point.
With the Amanti, Kia has removed any remnants of an econo-class stigma from South Korea's carmakers and tendered an impressive opening gambit in a class heretofore the exclusive property of the U.S. and major Japan brands.
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