- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

Kia began selling cars in the U.S. in 1994 with the introduction of the Sephia. That year, sales were a meager 12,163 vehicles and very few of us knew much about the Kia brand. A year later, the Sportage was added to the lineup and the expansion began in earnest.

Now, the lineup boasts seven distinct models, including Spectra, Rio, Optima, Amanti, Sorento, Sportage, and Sedona. Kia has celebrated 12 consecutive years of sales increases with 2005 sales of almost 276,000 units. Five vehicles in the 2006 lineup have received minor improvements, but three are all-new models.

The all-new 2006.5 Optima is the latest step in the complete regeneration of the Kia product line. It combines distinctive styling with a wider track, increased horsepower, better fuel economy and much-improved driving dynamics.

The new longer wheelbase and increased width provide more interior volume (104.2-cubic feet) than most midsize sedans, including segment leaders such as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima. With six standard air bags, including full-length side-curtain air bags, the all-new Optima offers a high level of standard safety features.

Optima’s all-new aluminum 2.4-liter four-cylinder CVVT engine delivers 15 percent more power (161 horsepower) than the previous-generation engine. The new four-cylinder output surpasses the base four-cylinder engines from the Toyota Camry, Mazda6, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu.

The Optima’s 2.7-liter V-6 CVVT engine offers a horsepower increase of nearly 10 percent (185 horsepower) and provides better fuel economy than the standard V-6 engines from the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

A new five-speed gated automatic transmission with Sportmatic is standard on most Optima models. An improved, smoother shifting five-speed manual transmission is standard on the LX four-cylinder model.

The all-new Kia Rio is available in three variations: Base and LX four-door sedan models as well as the Rio5 SX five-door. Built on a new platform with a longer wheelbase (98.4 inches) and increased overall width (66.7 inches) and height (57.9 inches) compared to its predecessor and most of its competitors, the new Rio has a total interior volume of 92.2 cubic feet, giving all body styles more interior space than the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.

A new 1.6-liter DOHC engine incorporates Continuously Variable Valve Timing to produce 110 horsepower and 107 foot-pounds of torque. In addition to being more powerful, this new engine delivers 20 percent better fuel economy, including up to 38 miles per gallon on the highway. As a result, the maximum range for the Rio jumps from less than 370 miles to more than 450 miles — an increase of almost 22 percent.

Also built on an all-new platform with more horsepower and substantially larger dimensions, the 2006 Sedona improves upon the previous generation.

The Sedona is available in two trim levels, LX and EX, both of which feature an all-new, more powerful 3.8-liter 24-valve V-6 engine, producing class-leading 244 horsepower. The 2006 Sedona’s longer wheelbase and increased length and width contribute to the minivan’s nearly 15 percent improvement in passenger room over the previous Sedona.

More attractive exterior and interior styling and additional equipment — like fold-in-the-floor third-row seating, six standard air bags, three separate climate zones covering all three rows, and available power remote-operated side doors and rear lift gate — were designed to improve Sedona’s reputation as a safety and value leader in the highly competitive minivan market.

“Once again Kia is on the move, as evidenced by our best first quarter sales and best March ever,” said Len Hunt, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Kia Motor America.

Kia has moved from obscurity to household-name status with a very creative marketing strategy and has built for itself a reputation of accessibility, reliability and value. The company’s reputation was enhanced this month when the Kia Sedona minivan earned a five-star crash rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in both frontal and side impact crash tests.

Japanese automakers used to scoff at tiny Kia, saying the Korean automaker didn’t have the resources to compete with them. They aren’t doing that anymore.

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