Once upon a time, Japanese cars were considered cheap alternatives to over-sized, overweight, undependable American land yachts. This was back when your typical GM sedan used a 5.7-liter engine to make 160 horsepower, all the while getting eight mpg. The Japanese decided to go a different route by making smaller, fuel-efficient cars that were dependable and value-priced. At first no one noticed, but when the fuel crisis of 1973 hit, those funny-looking little Hondas and Toyotas suddenly made a lot of sense.
In the 25 years since gas lines formed at corner service stations, Japanese manufacturers have gone from offering low-end econo-boxes and tiny trucks to selling high-end SUVs, sports cars and luxury sedans. Honda still offers the Civic and Toyota still makes the Corolla for buyers needing a small, inexpensive vehicle, but just as it was for American manufacturers 25 years ago, upstart car companies from a small Asian country are once again vying for American dollars. This time, of course, the country is Korea and the companies go by the names Hyundai, Daewoo and Kia.
However, unlike the first Asian invasion, these Korean newcomers face a far better product than did their Japanese predecessors. American cars, thankfully, have come a long way since the early '70s, and the current crop of Japanese cars are some of the best available on Mother Earth. To compete, the Koreans have to offer as much or more quality for the same or less money. Enter the Kia Sephia.
The first thing you'll notice when climbing into the Sephia is that it doesn't appear to be a "cheap, low-quality Civic" as many have dubbed it. The seats, steering wheel and headliner all have a pleasant feel, with only the center console and door panels failing our "nice to touch" test because of their hard plastic surfaces. The gauge cluster, with its speed, temp and fuel indicators, is boring, yet functional and easy to read. A tachometer comes standard on the higher-priced LS model, but hardly seems necessary for Sephias equipped with an automatic as on our test model.
After a few minutes of settling into Kia's sedan we found ourselves reaching for the lumbar adjustment. Unfortunately, there wasn't one, which meant the subtle intrusion into our lower backs was not going away. Rear-seat passengers fared better, with no lumbar, legroom or headroom complaints. Actually, as a five-passenger subcompact sedan, the Sephia fares better than many of its more expensive competitors, including the Toyota Corolla and Daewoo Nubira. Only the upcoming Ford Focus offers superior rear-seat spaciousness. Kia also scores points for having adjustable-height seatbelt shoulder straps and fully functional headrests with four lockable positions. If they could improve the cupholders (too small and non-adjustable) and interior lighting (only one main dome light with no reading lights), Kia's value claim would be even stronger.
Close the door and a solid, reassuring "thunk" is further evidence of this subcompact's integrity. In fact, a quick inspection of our Kia turned up only one noticeable build quality faux pas: the inside wheel-well lip had an unfinished texture that a few minutes of high-grit sandpaper, before applying the final coat of paint, would have solved. The paint itself, a deep, violet color with the slightest hint of orange peel, complimented the Sephia's crisp front end, clean profile and five-spoke "swirl" wheel covers, giving the sedan a sporty look. For today's youth interested in the total "speed racer" image, an optional rear spoiler can be added for $175.
But while the Sephia offers roominess and quality in a $10,000 car, actual driving pleasure is certainly out of the question, right? Well, sort of... The 125-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine found beneath the Sephia's hood delivers unexpected thrust, at least from a stand still. The powerplant creates 108 foot-pounds of torque that, when combined with a 4.11 final drive ratio, makes for neck snapping acceleration-off the line. However, the Sephia loses much of its steam after about 40 yards, and keeping the throttle mashed forces the 1.8 into a high-pitched screech as it surges toward redline. After testing the sedan's zero-to-60 time (10.5 seconds) we decided that the Sephia is capable of spirited acceleration, but not particularly comfortable with it. The engine's excessive noise and vibration at high RPMs does little to inspire performance driving.
Coupled to this engine is a responsive, if somewhat unrefined, four-speed automatic transmission. During spirited driving, the automatic would usually downshift to an appropriate gear, though more than once it failed to drop a gear, allowing the engine to "lug" off slow corners or up steep grades. Its worst offense, however, occurred during second-to-third gear shifts, when it commonly lurched forward like a '60s muscle car with a bad tranny. As with the excessive lumbar support or high RPM engine noise, this transmission problem was mildly annoying at its worst, and wasn't enough to mar the Sephia's overall driving experience.
Regrettably, while the engine and transmission scored less-than-perfect passing grades, the brakes and tires were well below the "in need of improvement" range. After driving down a short, twisty canyon road, the little Kia's brakes sounded (and smelled) like something out of an industrial waste plant. The squealing noise and pulsing pedal would suggest that even moderately steep grades are not in the Sephia's repertoire. If such a short and non-demanding road got them this heated up, we'd have to recommend against a Sephia purchase for residents of San Francisco. Perhaps a Sephia LS with optional ABS would fare better.
Almost as disappointing as the brakes were the factory Hankook tires that adorned our Sephia's five-spoke wheels. At highway speeds, the Hankooks' drone was actually lower than expected, but the amount of noise and sidewall squish through canyon corners, even in gentle turns at low speeds, wreaked havoc with the Sephia's otherwise excellent suspension. A recent experience with Hankook-equipped Daewoos confirmed that these tires are woefully lacking by American standards. If you buy a Sephia and can spare the extra few hundred dollars, a new set of Goodyears or Firestones would radically improve the car's handling characteristics, allowing its four-wheel independent suspension to achieve full potential.
Yet even with the sloppy tires and weak brakes, the Sephia still managed to convey a sense of quality and value for the subcompact shopper on a budget. It's not as much fun to drive as a Civic, but its costs thousands less. And while its reputation for long-term durability doesn't match Toyota's, it offers far more front and rear seat legroom than the venerable Corolla. If it was our dime, we'd eighty-six the optional (and lame) AM/FM radio, as well as the appearance package. With the $480 saved, we could buy a set of quality tires and a superior aftermarket stereo.
This juggling of options and aftermarket product won't cure all of the Sephia's problems. There's still going to be a certain amount of wind and engine noise above 60 mph, and those anemic brakes will limit spirited driving. Also, with its five-year history in this country, Kia can hardly be described as an American icon. But, if getting the most car for the least money is a priority, the Sephia is tough to beat.
Now the only question is: In 20 years, where will the cars come from that try to undercut Kia's low-line models?