The name Kia is unfamiliar to car buyers outside Korea. It won't be for long: the company plans to become one of the world's top 10 car makers by the end of the decade. It is an ambitious target - and a worrying one for European manufacturers unable to match the prices of Asian cars built with cheap labour in modern green- field plants.

Kia's first offering here was the Metro-sized Pride, based on the old Mazda 121. Its latest is the Mentor, known as the Sephia elsewhere (the importers were wise to change the name). The blurb suggests the Mentor is Kia's first in- house car, but that is not strictly true. The running gear, including the 1.6-litre 79bhp engine, is still Mazda-based, and none the worse for it. Several British engineering consultancies, including IAD of Worthing, also had a hand in the car's design and development. If anonymous mediocrity was their brief, all have excelled.

The styling is neither good nor bad, distinctive nor plain. The four-door bodywork is, however, well made and finished. It is also quite roomy (the boot is huge), so you get plenty of car for your money - pounds 8,950 for the base model, pounds 9,850 for the 1.6GLX, which has central locking, powered windows and an electric sunroof, among other things. A similarly equipped Ford Escort would cost considerably more.

As it was for the now-dated Pride, Kia's sales pitch is no-nonsense value-for-money, backed by a three-year/60,000-mile warranty (and RAC roadside assistance). If the performance of Hyundai, another Korean manufacturer using a similar square-deal marketing ploy, and the Malaysian company, Proton, is anything to go by, Kia cannot fail. The Asians have won a large slice of the market for cheap, good-value cars that are as dull as they're dependable.

Keen drivers will find little to amuse them in the Mentor. It is a means of transport, not a source of entertainment. Performance is adequate (better than the Escort 1.6's) and economy very reasonable, but the eager Mazda engine is a bit gruff. Although the suspension has been fettled by Lotus, maker of some of the world's best- handling cars, the Mentor lolls through corners with little finesse or poise. The brakes do not feel reassuring, but they stop the car quickly enough. On a scale of one to 10 for dynamic performance, the Mentor would score three.

The importer, MCL, plans to sell only 1,500 Mentors in Britain this year. But by giving Kia a presence in the huge Escort-class market, the new saloon is paving the way for future expansion - and a larger range said to include a hatchback derived from the Mentor as well as an all-new large car, powered by a Rover engine. Be in no doubt: the Asians are coming.


Fiat Tempra 1.6ie, pounds 10,550

Booted version of Tipo hatchback. An underrated saloon, roomy, and much more fun to drive than Mentor.

Ford Escort 1.6 LX, pounds 11,545

Solid Ford virtues in this four- door saloon (five-door hatchback same price), but no front-runner dynamically. Power steering and driver's airbag standard. Wide range of models; nicely made.

Hyundai Lantra 1.6GLS, pounds 10,299

Another Korean car, with Mitsubishi underpinnings. Four- door Lantra saloon is big advance on its Stella and Pony forerunners.

Proton Persona 1.6XLi, pounds 10,150

New, Malaysian-made four-door saloon, also Mitsubishi-based. Nicer to drive than Mentor. No airbag or alarm, stiff ride.

Seat Cordoba 1.6CLX, pounds 9,095

Four-door saloon version of Ibiza hatchback. Undercuts Kia Mentor GLX, but not as well equipped. Also available with more powerful engines and better equipment. Pert car made to VW standards.


Kia Mentor 1.6 GLX, pounds 9,850

1,588cc four-cylinder engine, eight valves, 79bhp, 5,000rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 11.3 seconds, top speed 107mph. Fuel consumption: 32-38mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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