Kia is the name of a Korean car maker. Pronounced Kee-ah, it is not one of those terra-cotta piglets sprouting green stuff and living in Christmas infamy as the gift that keeps on dying.

Kia's maiden model in America is the Sephia. Pronounced So-fee-ya as in Loren, there is no further resemblance between this vehicle and anything Italian, daunting or desirable.

What the Kia Sephia does resemble is a fairly priced, adequately equipped, quite roomy, nicely styled subcompact sedan.

If this were 1988.

But this is 1994, the Year of the Tyke, when little cars deliver big things, basic automotive technology is high, and the values of entry-level sedans are enormous.

These days, many bargain-basement subcompacts come with standard passenger- and driver-side air bags. The Sephia--which goes on sale next month at 17 Southern California dealerships--regresses to door-mounted shoulder straps that restrain occupants by strangulation.

Toyota's Tercel, Ford's Escort and other pocket autos offer optional anti-lock brakes. Kia's Sephia does not.

Honda's Civic is available with four engines and up to 125 horsepower. The Sephia offers one pallid four-banger developing 88-horsepower, which makes freeway access the ultimate adventure.

Its base price of $8,495 does not include automatic transmission, power steering, air conditioning or even a two-speakerradio.

For $480 more, you can buy a equally naked Dodge/Plymouth Neon. But standard on Neon are two air bags, a 132-horsepower engine, and more head and rear leg room than a stagecoach. Neon is more power, 30% better fuel economy and perkier looks.

Examining the undersides and insides of Sephia sets a new high in deja vu. Beneath hood and body panels are the obsolete front-drive engine and transmission of the 1992 Mazda MX-3.

Capping all negatives, however, is the mind-set of American consumers. They believe that Korea manufactures quality textiles and electronics, but not fine,reliable automobiles. The rise and crash of hapless Hyundai--from sales of 260,000 in 1988 to currently less than half that--only confirmed that view.

Even Kia--despite its 50-year background in building bicycles, motorcycles, cars and trucks in Korea--acknowledges that it is sledding uphill. The executive litany, to the media and at auto shows, is that no one knows Kia or the car, no one needs them and no one wants to hear from them.

But . . . they also say that by moving heaven and Detroit to re-establish the reliability of a Korean car, by coddling customers with a 24-hour roadside assistance program, by emphasizing value and taking the war out of warranties, Kia may come to mean more than Killed in Action.

Sephia will be marketed in three versions, all with the odd yet desirable perk of a theft alarm as standard equipment. The base RS is about as bare as small cars get, without even wheel covers or visor mi rrors. LS models include power and tilt steering, deluxe carpeting, tachometer and clock. Top of the line GS has power windows and locks, remote trunk and fuel-flap release, four-speaker sound system and power steering.

But add air conditioning, alloy wheels and cruise control, and the price of a GS nudges $13,000. That's just a whisker from the price of a Ford Mustang coupe with V-6 power, two air bags and power steering.

Our test vehicle was a Sephia GS with four-speed automatic and overdrive. Nothing was memorable about any portion of the vehicle, its looks or performance.

It wore 13-inch wheels--Toyota Corolla and Saturn opt for easier-riding 14-inchers--which provide a road feel somewhere between firm and numb.

Freeway passage was particularly unappealing. With only 88 horses on tap, there is little acceleration to spare and each journey became a matter of catching up and struggling to stay there. With such limited reserves, one certainly wa ched one's manners.

Engine noise was high. So were sounds intruding from God's great outdoors. The flexing heft of doors and hood clearly show where subcompact manufacturers save money and weight on insulation and sheet metal gauge.

Sephia's trunk deserves a dishonorable mention. Even gentle slopes of typical driveways unbalance the lid when raised for unloading. The first indication is an edge tapping the nape of your neck in passable imitation of Madame La Guillotine...TE:

Geno Effler, spokesman for Kia Motors America Inc. of Irvine, acknowledges that Sephia is not the best of subcompact cars. Nor the worst. But the little sedan does give Kia a seat at the pie-eating contest.

"Subcompacts are 23% of new car sales, and as long as people see we're interested in quality, not quantity, we'll be OK," he says. "But you don't get two chances (at success) anymore. Just one."

So Kia is praying for public patience with its slow, hesitant, underpowered, even false, start.

For each week moves the company closer to fall; a dealer base spreading beyond California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Texas and New Mexico, and the promise of 1995 Sephias with more muscular engines, optional anti-lock brakes and air bags.

In November, there will be the Sportage, a 140-horsepower sport utility with the looks of an undersized Ford Explorer. Next year, Kia plans a sedan for a doughty attempt on the mid-size crowns of Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Taurus.

For buyers, wisdom could be a single word: Wait.

1994 Kia Sephia GS

The Good Adequate room for subcompact. Value touches in anti-theft system, split and folding rear seats on base model. Won't exhaust life savings.

The Bad No air bags. Insipid performance from Mazda mechanical hand-me-downs. Outshined by Neon. No anti-lock brakes.

The Ugly Cribbed, unimaginative styling.

Cost Base: $10,945. As tested, $12,816. (Includes automatic, power steering, alloy wheels, premium sound system, air conditioning and cruise control.)

Engine 1.6 liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder developing 88 horsepower.

Type Front-drive, front-engine, subcompact sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 13.9 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 108 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 25 and 30 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,339 pounds.