Lots Of Luxury For The Buck

Kia's Amanti gives pricier American sedans a run for their money

Out of the corner of your eye, it looks like a Mercedes, with those elliptical headlights. The grille that dominates the front? It must be a Jaguar. In profile, it could be a Lincoln, judging from the upright, formal rear pillar.

Surprise: It's the 2004 Amanti, a near-luxury sedan from Kia Motors, the Korean auto maker better known for budget cars. Kia is making a gutsy move for its first big car, shamelessly borrowing signature features from well-known luxury models to turn heads. It got my attention, and I suspect it will get yours.

Frankly, I was surprised by the sophistication of this car. I drove the $25,535 base model and found it roomy and comfortable, with a fit and finish that approaches the best European and Japanese models. I didn't like the handling much: The steering is loose, there's lots of body lean around corners, and on highways it has the floaty, bouncy ride of traditional American luxury cars. Then again, it's designed to compete with such big American sedans as the Buick (GM ) LeSabre and Chrysler (DCX ) Concorde, along with Toyota's (TM ) Avalon.

The Amanti is a lot of car for the price. Even the base model is fully loaded, with keyless entry, power seats on both the driver and passenger sides in the front, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with built-in audio and cruise controls. Even some luxury appointments come standard, including dual-zone climate controls and maple-grain trim. With standard front and rear side air bags and head-protecting curtain air bags, the Amanti's safety equipment bests the competition.

Options are as well-priced as the car. Outfit it with every possible choice -- heated leather seats, sunroof, trip computer, and traction-control system -- and the sticker still comes in under $29,000. Add all that to an Avalon, and you'll spend nearly $5,000 more than on the similarly equipped Amanti.

The Amanti comes up short in fuel economy, however. Its 200-horsepower, V-6 engine gets only 17 mpg in city driving, 25 on the highway. That's 4 mpg less than comparable cars. The Amanti reminds me of those $25 designer lookalikes you can pick up on street corners in Manhattan. It'll never fool anyone, but it does the job, and it's a terrific value.

By Larry Armstrong

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