Scaling the ladder

2007, Kia, Amanti

Scalability seems so clever. You buy the iPod, the computer, even the house
according to what it can do for you at the time, and according to what you
can afford, of course. Then, when upgrades are available or your rich uncle
plops that inheritance on you, you "scale up" with more memory, faster
chips, a solarium and pool in the back yard. Mo', bigga, betta: It's the
Scalable Way.

The automotive version of this tune sounds much the same. It starts with a
relatively affordable "near-luxury" sedan, then as your proficiency playing
musical cars improves, you work your way up the scale towards real luxury
and elite status. The progression from Kia Amanti to Volvo S80 to BMW 535i
couldn't be any more clear cut. And yet, as every virtuoso knows, it's just
as easy to play an ascending scale as a descending one.

It boggles the mind to ponder what Kia hath wrought in scarcely more than a
decade of selling cars in North America. In the mid-1990s, the only reason
to mention Kia in serious automotive conversation was to set up the
punchline for a joke. But the little nerd from Korea just kept pecking away,
and now Amanti is the result.

Amanti is a roomy five-seater sedan with decent power and road manners for a
jaw-dropping low price, which is burnished to an even brighter luster by a
10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. This is nothing short of
remarkable, considering how far Kia has come and how quickly it has learned
what U.S. drivers want.

For just over $25,000, an Amanti packages a 264-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 into
a front-wheel-drive sedan and tosses in a bundle of bells and whistles.
There are six airbags; dual-zone, thermostat-controlled HVAC; power windows
and locks; and AM/FM/CD audio. Curiously, electronic stability control is a
$500 option; and after adding the leather seating package ($2,500), premium
wheels and trim ($1,300) and a sunroof ($900), the as-tested sticker swells
to $31,375. But as will be apparent by the end of this review, Amanti is
still a lot of car for a paltry (relative) sum.

The car is Kia's flagship, and yet it also serves as an example of what
might be called "upstart" luxury. Amanti's exterior styling, for example,
looks like what only a party boss in Brezhnev's Soviet Union of the 1970s
might call elite. And as for driving feel, there's not much. Sure, there are
disc brakes all round and four-wheel independent suspension; and, yes, the
Amanti is agile and easy to drive. But it's not fun to drive, nor does it
seduce. Except in terms of price, and money in the bank does have its charm.

When's the last time you actually heard a Volvo growl? Hard to believe, but
this V8-equipped S80 sedan actually growls, both at idle and under
acceleration; and it's enough to transform the persona of this car. Because,
to an enthusiast, a simple, guttural growl communicates in an instant what
Volvo's superior engineering hasn't managed to do for decades, namely, that
Volvo can make exceptional cars.

The 4.4-liter V8 in the S80 was jointly developed with Yamaha, and it
delivers 311 horsepower and 325-foot-pounds of mid-rpm torque. Acceleration
is prompt and meaty, and mileage of 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/highway (using
premium) is respectable for this much performance.

With its wraparound, Nordic-flavored interior and logical controls, the S80
creates a cocoon-space for driver and occupants. Suspension tuning can be
manipulated electronically from "Comfort" to "Sport" to "Advanced" settings;
and all-wheel-drive handling is nicely balanced. Driving feel is never
"razor's edge," however. The S80 excels as a grand cruiser, not a street
fighter.

What starts off at a $47,350 base price rises promptly to $56,025 as tested
after appearance and safety options. Notable is the new Blind Spot
Information System (BLIS, for $595) which flashes warnings when cameras
detect other vehicles or obstructions in right- and left-rear blind spots.
Active headlamps can be switched from static illumination to
steering-directed operation while cornering. Ready Alert Brakes monitor the
S80's proximity to a next car ahead and automatically boost hydraulic
braking pressure in the event a panic-stop is required.

Clearly, Volvo's engineering prowess and safety innovations represent the
gristle in this many-featured, sleekly styled sedan. But it's the growl that
makes the sale almost every time.

By most enthusiasts' accounts, BMW's 5-Series sedans represent a top rung of
the status ladder, and this belief is hard to dispute. As a rule, BMWs are
jewel-like in craftsmanship, uncompromising in their sporty behavior. The
new-for-2008 535i is no exception. Whether that's a good thing or bad
depends on how well you know yourself as a potential owner.

For starters, the 535i manages to extract 300 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds
of torque from a brilliant little 3.0-liter inline-six with
twin-turbocharging. Because torque maxes out at an extremely low 1,400 rpm,
acceleration is stunning; and clever electronics virtually eliminate any
time delay before the turbos kick in.

Steering, braking, handling, they're all delightful. Driving this roomy
five-seater is like scoring an Xacto knife through balsa wood. It's all
forward progress and no wandering. Moreover, the interior is understated
elegance. It's in the realm of BMW's instrumentation philosophy, however,
that BMW marches to a different drummer. Instruments, whether integrated
into the often-infuriating iDrive central controller or not, are BMW-esque
insofar as nothing seems to work like it does in the rest of the automotive
world. This is not to say that things don't work at all; they just work
differently in a BMW. Driving one is like taking an exam, in which the car
is the final arbiter.ß

That's BMW's heritage, after all: You might be able to afford BMW's new
535i, but that's still no guarantee you measure up.

By Marc Stengel
26/07/2007 12:00 am

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Images of the 2007, Kia Amanti

2007 Kia Amanti front view
2007 Kia Amanti front view
2007 Kia Amanti rear view
2007 Kia Amanti rear view
2007 Volvo S80 front view
2007 Volvo S80 front view
2008 BMW 535i front view
2008 BMW 535i front view