GROSSE POINTE WOODS - The week my husband and I test-drove the all-new 2004 Kia Amanti sedan -- the Korean manufacturer's first serious foray into the premium market -- we also had a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz E320 station wagon in the driveway.

When you put the two vehicles nose-to-nose, the similarity is spooky. Both seemed to be formed by the same hand, with curvaceous hoods and four nearly identical elliptical headlights. But the Korean designers seemed to prefer a Jaguar-style egg-crate grille, which they dutifully copied on the Amanti.

I've seen consumers swarm around New York City vendors selling knockoff Chanel handbags for $10 on street corners, and it appears that the Koreans may be on a similar track with the Amanti. A Mercedes-Benz look-alike with a base price of $25,535 can seem mighty tempting. And Kia, after all, is the company known for selling the lowest-priced new car in America -- the $10,280 Rio.

The Amanti goes up against mid-size competitors such as the rock-solid Toyota Avalon, which starts at $26,560 and costs about $30,000 for a fully-equipped model, and the Buick Regal, with a base price of $25,095.

The new front-wheel-drive, five-passenger Amanti, which is the sister vehicle of the Hyundai XG350, goes on sale Friday. A delivery man who rang the doorbell at our house last week asked the key questions: "How's that Kia?" he said. "I'm all about saving some bucks. Is it worth it?"


While the Amanti has some strong points -- styling and safety, in particular -- it suffers from uneven execution.

I began to have reservations about the Amanti -- Kia says the name is a takeoff on the Italian word for "lover" -- in the high-speed lane of eastbound Interstate 94 on a day when the winds were gusting to 50 miles per hour.

The Korean-built car, which is equipped with power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering that adjusts the steering rate according to vehicle speed, felt as if it wanted to drift over the lines in the road. The steering seemed heavy and didn't respond well to my input -- not a confidence-inspiring feeling in a big sedan.

At night, I was turned off by the unattractive, greenish-yellow analog gauges on the Amanti, which reminded me of the face of Dr. Seuss' Grinch.

They don't match the otherwise attractive and high-quality interior of the car, which is conservative with lots of real leather and decent-looking fake wood. And the gauges clashed with the 4-inch blue trip computer monitor screen in the center of the instrument panel that is part of an $1,800 leather package.

The ride quality on the Amanti is somewhat marshmallowy and reminiscent of an old Lincoln Town Car, although the Kia is lots smaller. The suspension is soft, giving the Amanti a lot of vertical movement on the road, which is especially noticeable from the back seat. I heard a lot of wind noise, too, especially at highway speeds.

The Amanti h as some things going for it, though, most notably eight standard air bags. These include side air bags for front and rear-seat passengers, as well as side curtain air bags. The Avalon has side air bags, but does not offer side air curtains.

Antilock brakes, another safety feature, are standard on the Amanti. Vehicle stability control, traction control and brake assist cost extra and are part of a $550 options package. You can't get adjustable pedals.

The cabin is well-equipped with such features as dual-zone climate controls and an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat. The seats feel supportive and comfortable, especially on longer rides.

I liked the substantial feel of this Korean sedan, from the oversized gearshift lever to old-fashioned pull-style exterior door handles. There are luxury touches, too, such as stainless-steel sill plates at the door thresholds, but Amanti lacks premium amenities such as an optional navigation system.

Buyers can also order what Kia says is the best sound system ever offered in one of its vehicles: An Infinity 270-watt, 8-speaker sound system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, AM/FM stereo and cassette. The upgraded sound system is part of the $1,800 leather package.

The Amanti's cabin has slightly more head and leg room than the Avalon and the Buick Regal.

The Amanti does have an impressive, roomy rear seat, although the middle passenger will have to contend with a small hump on the floor -- puzzling in a front-wheel-drive car. The rear center console has two cupholders and rear passengers have two air vents and a power outlet, and can adjust the rear temperature. However, the map pockets on the backs of the front seats appear to be too shallow to be of much use.

The trunk is cavernous and includes a cargo net, a first-aid kit and a full-size spare with an alloy wheel.

he Amanti is powered by a dual-overhead-cam 3.5-liter V-6 engine that makes 195 horsepower and 220 pounds-feet of torque, and is nearly identical to the powerplant in the Hyundai XG 350. Because the XG is lighter, it feels a bit quicker than the Amanti, which like its cousin is equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission with a Tiptronic-style clutchless shifting feature.

You would think that the addition of a five-speed transmission would give the Amanti better fuel economy ratings, but the EPA rates the Korean sedan at 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway.

In comparison, the Avalon -- which is equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission -- achieves EPA fuel mileage rates of 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

Like other Kia models, the Amanti is covered by an industry-leading 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Twenty-four hour roadside assistance is standard, as long as you own the car.

Kia says that it is aiming the Amanti directly at buyers like me: Baby Boomers ages 45-60.

"These are people who are comfortable buying an international brand," explained Kia spokesman Kim Custer. "They bought the first Accords. But now, they don't want to pay the price of a Lexus. We're not after fuddy-duddies. We're after people who are young at heart."

To prove this point, Kia dispatched two Los Angeles baby boomers, Louis and Mariann Mawcinitt, to drive cross-country in an Amanti and collect signatures on petitions to change the dictionary definition of Baby Boomer. They managed to get 12,000 of them and deposited them at the offices of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary in Boston Dec. 8. Kia wants the definition changed to reflect not only age, but a "forever young" state of mind.

Kia also commissioned a Roeper survey that ostensibly found that 85 percent of baby boomers say they are "growing up, not old."

This baby boomer is start ing to warm up to Korean brands such as Kia, as their quality gradually improves. But if my money were at stake, I'd opt for the base Avalon over this newcomer.