Korean Automaker Offers `Sephia' In Competition With Japanese Cars

Company aims to avoid quality problems initially faced by Hyundai

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`YOU only get one chance to make a first impression,'' and Kia Motors Corporation wants to ``do it right the first time,'' says company spokesman Geno Effler.

Kia Motors, South Korea's second largest automaker, will launch the Sephia (pronounced Seh-FEE-uh) compact sedan in the United States next month.

Sales will start in Portland, Ore. By spring, the Sephia will be available at about 50 dealers in 11 Western states. The automaker hopes to have 150 dealers coast-to-coast by the end of 1995.

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Kia is aiming to take market share away from Japanese producers in the US. The Seoul-based automaker believes that it can ``fill a void'' in the marketplace for a ``quality-built car that offers a lot of value,'' Mr. Effler says. With the yen's strength, many Japanese imports have become more expensive. Kia's main rivals will be the Toyota Corolla, Mazda Protege, and Honda Civic.

The Sephia, which has a Mazda-designed engine and transmission, will start at $8,495, with top-of-the-line models costing $12,000, Effler says.

In the fall, Kia plans to add a small four-wheel drive vehicle, the Kia Sportage, priced below $14,000. That compares with $24,000 for utility vehicles in the US, he says. Plans for a mid-sized sedan are also in the pipeline for early 1996, Effler adds.

Kia will be the second Korean carmaker, next to Hyundai Motor America, to establish its own franchise in the US. The Sephia will be sold at Toyota, Honda, Chevrolet, and Buick dealerships.

The reason for the company's slow launch, Effler says, is to ensure that the carmaker is not branded as a low-quality producer -

a reputation that Hyundai has had problems shaking. Hyundai's initial focus on volume led to problems with quality-control and customer satisfaction, Effler says. Kia - whose executive vice president, Greg Warner, is the former chief operating officer of Hyundai - says it plans to focus on quality and service.

``We realize that customer satisfaction numbers are critical to the success of car companies these days,'' Effler says. To champion its ``customer first'' policy, the Sephia will come with a 24-hour roadside assistance program, good for three years or 36,000 miles.

Although this is the first time the automaker will sell cars in the US under its own name, Kia has built the Mazda-designed Ford Festiva and its replacement, the Aspire. Ford owns 10 percent of Kia and Mazda owns 8 percent.

Currently, about 2,000 Sephias are in service with rental car fleets in the Western US.

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