Kia Motors UK is celebrating the new year by introducing two keenly-priced versions of its heavily-revised Magentis upper-medium saloon. Specially tailored to the small fleet sector, the luxury models will be priced from under £12,000 in a bold move to undercut the volume brands.
Aimed at boosting Magentis sales to 1,000 this year, the aggressive marketing strategy has been formulated as part of the ambitions of the Hyundai-Kia group to grow across all European markets on its way to becoming one of the world's top five automotive producers by the end of the decade.
Business registrations are expected to help the fledgling South Korean car firm double its share of the UK executive saloon market in 2003 – largely at the expense of key players such as Ford and Vauxhall.
With a new 2.0-litre engine and a choice of manual or automatic transmission, the next-generation of Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra rivals will be pitched as offering unbeatable value in their class.
A spokesman said: 'We believe we have the best proposition possible in upper- medium sector motoring and we aim to make the most of it in the showrooms. Price is paramount in this sector and we see this as giving us an opportunity to open the doors to the fleet business we want to secure.'
As the new line-up of 2.0- litre and 2.5-litre V6 models was being launched to the press in Italy, he revealed that the first task for the company's newly-appointed national fleet sales manager, Phil Molkenthin, would be to spearhead a campaign to make the company less dependent on the private sector.
'We're showing this car to major contract hire companies and their customers and are introducing them to other vehicles in our range, such as the new Sorento SUV and the Carens mini-MPV, both of which offer the option of diesel power. Even though we will have to wait until 2005 for the replacement Magentis to have a diesel engine, we feel we can still make an impact in the small business sector, where a significant number of motorists are choosing to come out of company cars and spend their own money.'
The previous Magentis achieved only 744 registrations since it was introduced here 18 months ago in V6 form, but it has still outstripped V6 versions of the Mitsubishi Galant and the Peugeot 406 in the upper-medium sector for privately-owned four-door saloons.
The spokesman added: 'The volume may appear small, but it represents a big achievement. As many brands turn upmarket and prestige brands extend downward, the volume sector is being squeezed by the likes of Audi and Volvo. That's bad news for Ford and Vauxhall, but this situation is to our advantage.'
CAP national research manager Martin Ward said better quality and reasonable pricing would help Kia break into the fleet market with the 2.0-litre car.
He said: 'Kia's biggest problem is the image factor, but this could be resolved in a few years as the name gets more exposure. On that basis, buying into the brand would be an acceptable risk, as long as buyers steer clear of the 2.5-litre version. The current 2.5-litre is a terrible performer as far as residual values are concerned because it is worth only 23% of its new price after three years.'
The Magentis LX comes well equipped and the automatic version costs £13,195. At £15,995, the 2.5 V6 SE flagship version adds leather trim, climate control, cruise control, an electric tilt-slide sunroof and power adjustment for the driver's seat.
Behind the wheel
IT hasn't taken the design team at Kia long to appreciate that appearance is all-important in the keenly-fought market for large saloon cars. Only 18 months after introducing the Magentis to Britain, it has invested more than £50 million on a facelift – and it has been money well spent.
Better looking at both ends, the car has the greater kerbside presence it needs to make a favourable first impression, although I'm not alone in thinking that the brash front grille is the least successful part of the makeover and that a painted finish would improve the way it looks.
While extra equipment and upgrades to seating and brakes benefit the V6, there's no doubt the cheapest Magentis comes out on top in the value stakes. There's so much metal for the money here that even the keen price of the flagship version seems expensive by comparison. In base form, the 2.0 LX combines maximum comfort with minimal running costs, and the package works well in general.
That being said, Kia is clearly still trailing its European rivals in chassis sophistication.
Hustling the car through tight bends will highlight the limitations of suspension that has been tuned to give supple ride characteristics, and the steering lacks the precision that makes the Ford Mondeo such a hit with keen drivers. But while it trails its European rivals in handling finesse, the Magentis is an adequate all-rounder that will not disappoint those who spend most of their time on motorways. Thanks to extra sound deadening measures, this is a notably quiet and relaxed long distance cruiser.
If the most is made of its well-spaced gearing, the 2.0-litre engine also proves to be a surprisingly spirited performer, given the size of the bodywork it is hauling, which provides stretching room for five people plus 480 litres of bootspace.
ACCORDING to the old adage, 'you get what you pay for'. But Kia is putting a fresh twist on high-value motoring and offering rather more than might be expected with this car. The extra muscle of the V6 makes this the first choice only if automatic transmission is a must, but the 2.0 versions are a better fleet bet.