Kia Sephia delivers a reasonable ride for not a lot of money. It's a basic car without a lot of luxuries, but with a base price of just over $10,000. An entry-level buyer can expect a twin-cam four-cylinder engine producing 125 horsepower, four-wheel independent suspension, intermittent windshield wipers, and an AM/FM stereo with cassette player.
What buyers of entry-level cars don't expect, however, is the type of warranty that Kia is now offering for its 2001 models. Coverage includes 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain (the engine and transmission), a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty, five years of unlimited roadside assistance, and rust protection up to 100,000 miles.
With good gear ratios in the manual transmission and engine torque slanted to excel at lower speeds, the Sephia more than holds its own in commuter traffic. Factor in the spark of Sephia's energetic powerplant and a price several thousand dollars below Japanese competitors like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, and this Kia shines in a crowded field of compacts.
Sephia ($10,845); LS ($12,195)
Sephia is built in South Korea, but the exterior and interior were designed at Kia's American design studios in Irvine, California. As a result, the overall appearance of the Sephia seems familiar; it looks similar to other compacts on American roads. Of course, this is the class of cars where conformity in design and homogeneous styling become assets for a non-radical approach that blends into mainstream tastes. To that extent, the Sephia makes a subtle statement with shapely sculpting of what essentially is the three-box form of a small sedan, but with some upscale twists that add eye appeal.
At the nose, for instance, Sephia shows an unobtrusive narrow grille with body-colored bumpers and moldings yet a corner pair of clear-lens headlamps typically found only on more expensive cars.
The bowed hood has flanking notched creases that pick up curving contours of the grille and move these lines rearward to the A-pillars, where they melt into rolled shoulders of side doors. Side panels look flat, interrupted only by delicate bulges of soft flares ringing each wheel well. Various protective moldings match the body color on LS models as upscale accents. The superstructure above the doors shows more glass than sheetmetal, with a gentle arched line apparent from narrow roof pillars running front-to-rear across a flat roof.
In back, a high trunk deck rolls over the trailing edge in blunt descent to color-keyed bumpers. A sporty decklid spoiler may be attached as an option to any trim of Sephia, although it looks incongruent with the understated design.
Sephia's interior arrangement maximizes personal space for passengers and delivers more room for heads and legs and shoulders than the class-leading competitors. Twin bucket seats appear in front separated by a center console, while the three-person rear bench has a seatback that folds to expand cargo space in the trunk.
Also, there are a number of comfort features and perks aboard that are usually not available in this price range. The driver gets a footrest on the left side, for example. The driver's seat cushion on the LS tilts for a better fit, as does the steering column. Front seatbelt anchors on B-pillars adjust vertically for comfort.
The standard audio system, an AM/FM/cassette stereo, mounts high above the center console for better access, with control knobs and dials enlarged to fit American-size fingers. A CD player is optional for LS models. Dashboard instruments include an analog speedometer with white-on-black face, with a tachometer installed for the LS.
Sephia is nicely trimmed even at entry level. Fabric covers all seats as well as inserts in door panels, which have low map pockets. Twin sunvisors and cupholders are provided for front seats, along with two front air bags and three-point seatbelts. Windshield wipers offer two-speed intermittent operation and remote releases control the front hood, fuel door and trunk lid.
Some small cars skimp on safety features, but Sephia matches the class leaders with air bags, adjustable three-point seatbelts, and an internal emergency trunk release. Its chassis structure features integrated front and rear crumple zones, steel bracing in each side door, a collapsible steering column, childproof rear door locks and rear infant seat restraint anchors.
Take a Sephia out for a test drive and it sells itself with zippy acceleration and precise road manners. It particularly impresses with tight control for steering and the independent suspension. The suspension keeps body roll in check and maintains a relatively flat stance through a set of curves.
We played with a Sephia LS on winding strips of blacktop strung around granite ramparts in the pine-clad Black Hills of South Dakota on a cold and windy day. The narrow roads, cleared of summer's crush of vacationing tourists as well as speed patrols that would otherwise challenge our forward line, were best suited for nimble sports cars geared for aggressive action. But our Sephia romped through the mountainous terrain and transformed a morning's run into an exhilarating driving experience.
Sephia behaves well because it contains good equipment. To create its mechanical components, Kia teamed with noteworthy names from around the world for subsidiary automotive systems. Lotus Engineering of England was involved in the design of Sephia's four-wheel independent suspension system, while Germany's Getrag worked on the manual five-speed gearbox. Kelsey-Hayes devised the anti-lock brakes and Bosch LH Motronic did the engine's fuel system.
The suspension, with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link design in back, incorporates front and rear stabilizer bars to check the body roll. Installing sway bars in this economy class of compact sedans may be unusual but they're a welcome addition because they allow Sephia to handle the curves with confidence and comfort.
Brakes are conventional with front discs and rear drums linked to power assistance. ABS may be added to LS models for $800.
Power for Sephia comes from an iron-block engine originally developed by Mazda, which once owned a piece of Kia. The engine, now produced by Kia in Korea, delivers more horsepower than most other compacts in this class, with lively acceleration in lower gears. However, fuel economy figures for Sephia's engine do not score nearly as high as the competition.
A manual five-speed gearbox is the standard transmission and shifts easily through a short-throw stick. The electronically controlled four-speed automatic is available but saps some of the engine's bonus power points.
The Sephia makes most sense in barest form, where the bottom line at $10,845 clearly becomes an advantage amounting to several thousands of dollars.
However, even the top Sephia with additional power equipment and comfort features carries the cachet of a bargain when measured against competitor compacts. The Koreans have obviously figured out how to develop and build a nice Japanese-style compact sedan without the mark-up inherent with Japanese pricing. The fact that these models lock out vibrations and noise makes Sephia an even better selection.