Compact car; Built in South Korea
  • 4-door hatchback
  • 4-door sedan
  • transverse front-engine/front-wheel drive
Good condition price range: $1,000 – $3,100*

1997 Kia Sephia

1997 Kia Sephia

2000 Kia Sephia interior

1999 Kia Sephia

1999 Kia Sephia

  • Optional antilock braking (certain later models)
  • Fuel economy
  • Price
  • Build quality
  • Noise
  • Stereo location

Prices have been attractive on the new-car market, and similarly tempting on used-car lots. Kia spokespersons claim their cars’ resale value has been strong, but it’s definitely not in the same league as a Toyota or Honda. That could be good news for used-car shoppers, but there’s more to value than price–especially when reliability is a question mark. Refinement, too, lags well behind the class-leading Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.


Although the South Korean manufacturer, Kia, has become best-known in the U.S. for its Sportage compact sport-utility vehicle, the subcompact Sephia sedan arrived on the market first. Previously, Kia Motors had been producing the Ford Aspire minicar (from a Mazda design). Sephia debuted in Korea in 1992, and an export edition began trickling into the U.S. late in 1993. Sales began only in 11 western states, and it would take several years for Kia Motors America to establish a nationwide dealer network. Similar in size and weight to a Ford Escort or Hyundai Elantra, the front-drive notchback sedan came with an 88-horsepower, 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine. A 5-speed manual transmission was standard, and electronic 4-speed automatic optional. Neither an airbag nor antilock braking was available. Sephias met the federal requirement for passive restraints with door-mounted automatic front seatbelts. Early models rode a 98.4-inch wheelbase and measured 170.7 inches long overall. Until 2000, the front-drive Sephia would be the only Kia passenger car sold in the U.S. Rivals included the Geo Prizm, Honda Civic, and Saturn sedan.

Yearly Updates

1995 Sephia
Kia continued without change into 1995, but upgraded its Sephia in mid 1995, making two new dual-overhead-cam engines available. Front ends were modestly restyled, and antilock braking became available. Three models went on sale: base RS, midlevel LS, and top-line GS.
1996 Sephia
For 1996, Sephias had standard dual airbags instead of the original motorized front shoulder belts. Antilock braking was available only on the GS model. The original 1.6-liter single-cam engine was dropped. Sephias might instead carry either a dual-camshaft 1.6-liter 4-cylinder with 105 horsepower, or a 1.8-liter with 122 horsepower. The 1.6-liter engine was offered only in California on the base RS model. Standard equipment included reclining front bucket seats, tinted glass, dual outside mirrors, a split folding rear seat, and a rear defogger. Air conditioning was standard on the GS and optional on the RS and LS models. Kia’s dealer network now reached into about 20 Western and Southern states.
1997 Sephia
Except for new colors and interior trim, little was new on Kia’s front-drive subcompact sedan. Again, all models except the California-market RS used a 1.8-liter engine with 122 horsepower.
1998 Sephia
Three models were sold this year: a base Sephia, an LS, and the LS with a power package. Antilock 4-wheel disc brakes were optional, except on the base model.
1999 Sephia
Once again, three models were sold: a base Sephia, an LS, and the LS with a power package. Changes were few this year. In South Korea, Kia was purchased by its former rival company, Hyundai.
2000 Sephia
Base and LS models gained some standard equipment this year. Power steering, an AM/FM cassette stereo, and a split fold-down rear seat went into the base Sephia. Power windows and locks, air conditioning, cassette stereo, and a tachometer now were standard in the LS sedan. At midseason, Kia launched a hatchback Spectra to complement the notchback Sephia sedan.
2001 Sephia/Spectra
Changes for 2001 were limited to larger front-disc brakes and longer warranties for Sephia and Spectra. Basic coverage was extended to 5 years/60,000 miles, powertrain coverage to 10 years/100,000 miles, and roadside assistance to 5 years/unlimited mileage. Corrosion was warranted for 5 years/100,000 miles.
2002 Spectra
Exterior and interior styling was slightly revised for 2002 and a driver-side lumbar support and automatic on/off headlights were among new features. Kia also added sound-deadening measures in an effort to reduce noise levels.
2003 Spectra
All Spectras gained an illuminated ignition switch, bodyside molding, and an AM/FM/CD player. Hatchbacks add a rear wiper/washer. Improved sound-deadening measures are intended to reduce noise levels, and the engine gained 10 lb-ft of torque.
2004 Spectra
Spectra sedans and hatchbacks saw no changes for a shortened 2004 model year. An all-new model was waiting in the wings for release as a 2004.5 model.


transverse front-engine/front-wheel drive

Early models used an 88-horsepower, 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine. During 1995, two dual-overhead-cam 4-cylinder engines were introduced, producing 105 or 122 horsepower. The smaller (1.6-liter) engine was used only in California-market Sephias. Any Sephia engine might drive either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.

dohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 1.6/98
Engine HP 105
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 100
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic

dohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 1.8/109
Engine HP 122-126
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 108-119
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic

ohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 1.6/98
Engine HP 88
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 98
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic

Road Test

Sephias broke no new technical ground, but offered competent–if unremarkable–performance. Even in its latest form, though, Sephia is a mediocre performer compared to most budget-range rivals. Acceleration is so-so, as are ride and handling. Even fuel economy has been unremarkable, as a recent test LS sedan with 5-speed averaged a nothing-special 22.7 mpg. An earlier GS model, in contrast, averaged almost 31 mpg, driving 40 percent of the time on the highway. Noise also has been a problem, and refinement lags way behind that of the class-leading Hondas and Toyotas.

Engine noise is moderate, but road and wind noise are prominent. Ride quality isn’t bad for a subcompact, though the suspension tends to “hammer” over bumps instead of absorbing them.

Sephias boast more interior space than many subcompacts, especially in back. Trunk space is also good. Except for the stereo, which was mounted low and had small, hard-to-use buttons, the early dashboard was well laid out.


Model Tested: 2001 Kia Sephia LS

Ratings values are on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best. With the exception of Value, these numbers reflect how the vehicle compares against the universe of vehicles, not just against rivals in its class.


Acceleration - 4
Fuel Economy - 6
Ride Quality - 3
Steering/Handling - 3
Quietness - 3


Controls/Materials - 6
Room/Comfort Front - 5
Room/Comfort Rear - 3
Cargo Room - 2


Value - 2

Total: 37


4-door hatchback
Wheelbase (in.) Length (in.) Width (in.) Height (in.) Weight (lbs)
100.8 176.2 66.9 55.5
Cargo Volume (cu/ft) Payload Capacity (cu/ft) Fuel Capacity (gal.) Seating Capacity
11.6 13.2 5.0
Headroom Legroom
Front Rear Front Rear
39.6 36.6 43.1 34.4
4-door sedan
Wheelbase (in.) Length (in.) Width (in.) Height (in.) Weight (lbs)
100.8 174.4 66.9 55.5
Cargo Volume (cu/ft) Payload Capacity (cu/ft) Fuel Capacity (gal.) Seating Capacity
10.4 13.2 5
Headroom Legroom
Front Rear Front Rear
39.6 37.9 43.3 34.4
Safety Ratings

Model Tested: 1999 Sephia 4-door sedan


(5 is the highest rating)

Front Impact Test

Driver Injury - 4
Front Passenger Injury - 5

Side Impact Test

Driver Injury - 3
Rear Passenger Injury - 4


(A score of 100 is average. Lower is better)

Collision 146
Injury 227
Theft 77

Trouble Spots

Brake wear
Description: Brake pads and rotors tend to wear prematurely. (1994-01)
Fuel odors
Description: Gasoline burps back out of the filler pipe during refueling. (1998-99)
Hard starting
Description: Hard starting or stalling on 1.8-liter engine may be linked to a faulty crankshaft sensor. (1998-99)
Hard starting
Description: Hard starting or stalling may be traced to a faulty crankshaft sensor on 1.8-liter engine. (1998-99)

Recall History

Description: Electronic-speedometer sensor can seize, causing speedometer and cruise control (if equipped) to stop functioning.
Description: If exposed to moisture, two connectors could corrode; over time, fuel pump will not receive enough current to operate, causing engine to stall.
Description: If pin tension in fuel pump’s ground connector is poor, or bolt securing connector to floor is not tightened sufficiently, poor connection as pump operates can create heat, which in turn increases resistance. Eventually, the pump may fail to operate, causing engine to stall.
Description: A valve on the fuel-filler assembly could cause fuel shut-off before the tank reaches 95 percent of capacity.
Description: Ball socket on windshield-wiper link may be out of tolerance, resulting in link disengaging under load. Also, wiper-arm retaining nut could be inadequately tightened.
Description: Front seat belt buckles may emit clicking sound during buckle-up process, even if it is not being latched.

Equipment Lists

Equipment lists are only viewable on larger screen sizes.


Used-car pricing varies widely depending on local market conditions. Therefore, we recommend visiting websites that list used cars for sale to get a better idea of what a specific model is selling for in your area.

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