Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Kia is launching an unexpected car here in the U.S. Believe it or not, the new Kia Amanti is aimed at a slightly more upscale crowd than usual; that's right, a luxurious Kia that offers a value-minded alternative to, say, a loaded Toyota Camry. To experience the Amanti, we flew to the car's home turf in South Korea (where it is already on sale as the Kia Opirus), and experienced the Amanti on beautiful Jeju Island.
The island is located at the very tip of Korea and is about an hour south of Seoul by jet. Many refer to Jeju Island as the Korean Hawaii, and locals know it is the destination for Korean honeymooners. It's not just the honeymoon business that gives Jeju Island its "Korean Hawaii" status; the place is simply beautiful. Lava rock and sandy beaches stretch for miles, while the water lapping at those beaches is so blue and clear you'd swear you were in the real Hawaii in short, a great place to take a new near-luxury car for a little test-drive.
Generally associated with small, inexpensive cars in the U.S., Kia (and parent company Hyundai) is nothing less than the South Korean equivalent of a company like Ford here in America. Kia makes large trucks, huge passenger buses and, of course, normal passenger cars. And Kia cars are all over the place Koreans seem to favor their own domestic cars and of those Hyundai and Kia dominate the market, at least from a casual observer's point of view. Kia's passenger cars range in size from ultrasmall economy cars to full-size luxury cars. It does take time to get used to seeing a Kia logo on the back of a car that is easily the size of a Buick Park Avenue or Cadillac DeVille.
So while many U.S. buyers may find it odd that Kia is now selling a large near-luxury car on our shores, a quick visit to the company's home market reveals that the Amanti is not revolutionary, but just the next logical step in a long-term growth plan. Normally, what's true in a certain manufacturer's home market be it Japan, or Germany or South Korea is not necessarily relevant to those here in the U.S. who simply want the best car at the best price. But it does bear mentioning that Kia has been building luxury cars for quite a while and that Korean customers have many choices when it comes to buying new cars.
American consumers have many choices as well, and the real question is, can Kia compete in an arena that is already dominated by the likes of Buick, Honda and Toyota? When looking at it in terms of the car itself, the answer is yes. Where the Amanti could fail is in the peripheral details dealership experience, service, marketing, advertising budgets and public perception. But the car alone is a worthy competitor and a choice worth adding to your shopping list should you be in the market for a car like a Buick LeSabre, Honda Accord EX V6 or Toyota Camry XLE V6.
The first thing one notices about the Amanti is the interior. The materials are first-rate and almost all switchgear looks and feels durable. Buttons like the climate control functions and stereo operation lack the cheap hard plastic feel that still plagues some midpriced American cars. It's obvious Kia paid a lot of attention to the inside of this car. In fact, my first thought upon sitting in the Amanti was "they've copied Toyota." Like many Toyotas, the Amanti has optional leather seats, and the quality, look and feel of that leather is top-notch. As I said earlier, the Kia Amanti is sold in Korea under the name Opirus, and that car has cool-looking electroluminescent gauges similar to those found in Lexus vehicles. In the U.S., Kia is looking to keep the price down and give the Amanti a bit of a sporty flair by using normal backlit gauges trimmed with faux stainless steel rings. All the displays are well-laid-out and easy to read, but the instrument panel lacks any real pizzazz.
The Amanti has a deceptively small look from the outside, but compared to Kia's midsize Optima it's considerably bigger in all dimensions. About the same size as a Buick LeSabre, the Amanti offers more legroom and headroom than a Toyota Camry. The size is noticeable once you get inside especially in the backseat. With two adults in the rear seat, the Amanti feels a little narrow but offers more legroom than some other cars in the same segment. A quick check of the specs page reveals that the Amanti is wider and longer than the Accord, Altima, Camry and Passat and about the same size as the Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon. Overall, the backseat offers more than adequate comfort for two, and has a fold-down armrest with a storage area, power point and cupholders. One obvious oversight is the lack of a fold-down feature for the rear seat instead, a small ski pass-through opening is offered.
"Yes, but how does it drive?" you may be asking. The Amanti uses the same 3.5-liter V6 that is available on a number of Kia vehicles including the Sedona and Sorento as well as the Hyundai XG350. This engine has a cast-iron block and does not use advanced valve timing or multicam technology. Therefore, the Amanti's V6 is good for just 195 hp. That doesn't sound like much when you consider even the Buick LeSabre offers 205 hp and the Toyota Avalon delivers 210 hp and both from similar-size V6 engines. Ten or 15 horsepower is one thing, but when a car like the Honda Accord or Nissan Altima offers as much as an extra 50 hp, you've got to seriously consider what you're buying and what features are important to you.
Thankfully, the Amanti is equipped with a five-speed automatic, so the car feels adequately powered in most driving situations. From a dead stop, the Amanti offers satisfactory acceleration, and only as the revs climb does the engine begin to feel taxed. The bottom line is that the current 3.5-liter V6 has served Kia well, but it's carried the company as far as it can. It's time to develop a new, more sophisticated power plant if Kia is to successfully compete with the likes of Honda, Nissan or Toyota.
In this segment, power is certainly important, but the smoothness with which that power is delivered is much more important. At first the refinement of the Amanti is surprising, but anyone who's driven a Hyundai XG350 or Kia Sorento can vouch for just how smooth and quiet the 3.5-liter V6 is. Under heavy acceleration, the Amanti's 3.5-liter engine makes a bit of a growl, but the cabin remains quiet. Even as the rpm climb, the V6 shows no sign of making excess noise or vibration. Overall it's a very composed engine that offers an appropriate level of quiet and refinement for a near-luxury car.
Handling is not quite as impressive, but the Amanti is not even pretending to have sporting inclinations. This Kia feels heavy and that weight makes itself known when cornering even slightly aggressively. In fact, the car weighs in at a little more than 4,100 pounds. The ride is not sloppy, but there is a good deal of body roll when rounding a bend at speed. The trade-off is that the suspension soaks up most bumps, ruts and potholes without transmitting any unpleasantness into the cabin. The Amanti's ride and handling sort of mimic the Buick LeSabre and Toyota Avalon and Camry in both good and bad ways smooth and pleasant in a straight line, but too much lean in the corners. No driving enthusiast would really have any fun in the Amanti, but a soft ride is not an unwelcome quality if you're looking for a comfy cruiser.
Still skeptical about Kia's near-luxury claim? Consider that in addition to a smooth V6, five-speed automatic transmission and plush interior accommodations, the Amanti offers plenty of comfort features. Ever heard of a Kia with one-touch up-and-down power windows with an anti-pinch feature? The Amanti has them, as well as 16-inch wheels, optional stability and traction control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 270-watt Infinity sound system with an in-dash CD changer, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, an eight-way power driver seat and an optional display screen that features a trip computer, digital clock and temperature readouts. For safety's sake, the Amanti offers side airbags for front occupants and full-length head curtain airbags as standard items.
These features might be nothing special if you're looking at a Toyota Avalon or a loaded Camry, but take into account the Amanti's base price of just $25,000, and the Amanti stacks up nicely against the competition. Now consider the stellar 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and it's obvious the big Kia has a lot to offer those looking for a little luxury at an affordable price. The Amanti is a decent car that offers plenty of desirable features for a reasonable price say, isn't this how Toyota got started?
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