Korean cars are going upscale, and the Kia Amanti looks surprisingly luxe. Too bad it drives like a boat.
My editors suggested I take a break from the tedium of testing BMWs and Z-cars and try something different: a Korean car. I had to admit they had a point. Korean cars are hot.
In 2004 Hyundai Automotive's two brands, Hyundai and Kia, sold nearly 690,000 cars and trucks in the U.S. And last year the Hyundai brand outscored Toyota, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz in a J.D. Power and Associates initial-quality survey. The Kia brand's rating was lower but still ahead of Nissan and Mazda.
All this represents a remarkable turnaround from the late 1990s, when a reputation for shoddy quality almost killed Korean cars in America. But Hyundai introduced 10-year, 100,000-mile warranties on its engines and transmissions, and then produced quality improvements to match. The implied promise of Hyundai and Kia vehicles is more car for the money.
The Kia Amanti, a near-luxury front-wheel-drive sedan that I tested recently, delivers on that promise, but only to a point. The Amanti has lots of standard features for a lower price than the competing Toyota Avalon. The catch: You have to tolerate the Amanti's mediocre driving dynamics.
The 2005 Amanti I drove carried a sticker price of $29,840, including optional equipment (all prices include destination charge). A lot comes standard, such as dual-zone climate control and an eight-speaker sound system. The optional equipment, which totaled $3,600, included leather seat trim, heated front seats, trip computer, sunroof, an electronic stability package and traction control. That's about as loaded as the Amanti gets.
The new 2005 Toyota Avalon is pricier. Its suggested retail price ranges up to $34,080 for the top-of-the-line Avalon Limited. Then again, you get more for your money. The Avalon's V-6 engine, for instance, cranks out 280 hp, a whopping 40 percent more than the Amanti's.
The new Ford Five Hundred sedan offers a base model priced lower than the Amanti — $22,795 for the front-wheel-drive version. For more money you can get more features, including all-wheel drive.
The Five Hundred's V-6 produces 203 hp, about the same as the Amanti's. But some features that come standard on the Amanti, such as side-curtain airbags, cost extra on the Five Hundred.
In short, the Amanti is priced attractively compared with competitors. And the car sports handsome styling with square shoulders and a large front grille that exude an upscale look. The Amanti comfortably holds five passengers. Besides being spacious, the interior offers quality materials that one wouldn't have expected on Korean cars of five or six years ago.
So far, so good.
But when it comes to driving dynamics, well, the word "dynamic" is a decided misnomer. The Amanti's acceleration is adequate, if hardly exhilarating. But the ride and handling are a throwback to American cars of the 1950s and 1960s, when the ideal was a sensation of floating serenely over the road as if piloting a hovercraft. Even worse, the Amanti's steering evokes the ultraloose power steering of that era, when one was supposed to be able to handle the car with one finger on the wheel. I was constantly tweaking the steering wheel to keep the Amanti going in a straight line.
The Amanti's only major drawback, then, is a big one. But if Kia can add more horsepower and dramatically improve the driving dynamics, the Amanti will be a real contender.