The Story of Kia’s Biggest and Full-Size Sedans (Part III)


We have reached the end of the nineties in Kia’s midsize or larger sedan history. It was a time of modernization across Kia’s portfolio, and 1998 and 1999 were years of expansion in particular: Kia delivered an impressive nine completely new models in those two years.

For its larger sedan line, the dated Potentia (a reworking of the 1980s Mazda Luce) continued its popularity in the South Korean market. The Potentia was updated from its original 1992 appearance for 1998. That same year, however, Kia introduced a new full-size luxury sedan to its lineup. Once again, the company relied on Mazda, a friendly product partner. Let’s talk Enterprise.

The Enterprise was the sedan its author originally thought of when reflecting on Kia’s big sedans. It went on sale as a replacement for the Potentia in 1998, although the older of the two was popular enough for both sedans to occupy Kia dealer lots until 2001.

Underneath, the Enterprise was again a slight reworking of Mazda’s larger luxury sedan. Mazda called it the Sentia in its home market, and it was branded the 929 elsewhere (such as in North America). As mentioned above, the HD Sentia was a development of the HC Mazda Luce, the car that became the Potentia after Mazda finished with it.

Sentia was part of the big luxury branding exercise that Mazda planned to unleash on the world, which was to include the Aamti and ɛ̃fini brands. The company’s dreams of ruffled leather and Lexus competition came crashing down around it with the Japanese real estate crisis in the early 1990s.

In most markets, that meant fancier Mazdas joined the company’s standard fare and were dissatisfied soon after, so they were cheaper to produce. Think of models like the exquisite EunosCosmo, xedos sedans and hatchbacks, the new and more daring Sentia/929 and Millennia.

Mazda took a new direction with the HD Sentia platform: they wanted their flagship sedan to be modern and reflect a bolder, more dynamic attitude. It was a strong departure from the HC Luce and its conservative boxy nature. Development of Sentia began almost immediately after Luce was introduced, in early 1988.

Chief designer Shunki Tanaka had a hard time pleasing Mazda executives, who wanted something unconventional. They continually rejected his designs, which were initially more formal and developed into a “Prince’s Car” style, in honor of Crown Prince Akihito.

Mazda was frustrated and turned to American designer Peter Montero for some new ideas. Mazda requested that Montero come up with a new styling theme to follow. Montero reviewed the rejected scale designs and gave his advice: Emphasize those rear-wheel-drive proportions for true luxury.

A new look was obtained by taking a previously rejected Sentia design and moving the front wheels to the corners of the car. With a longer dash-to-axle ratio and fewer overhangs, the Sentia looked much more impressive.

The design was finalized by a new employee at the company’s design center in Hiroshima by the name of Dori Regev. After work on the design, it was approved in December 1988. Sentia prototypes were ready for 1989, and the planned production date followed thereafter in 1991.

Production began in 1991, with the Sentia and 929 going on sale as ’92 models. Notably, in Japan, Mazda’s luxury efforts were underway: the Sentia was luxuriously upgraded and later sold at the ɛ̃fini dealer chain as the MS-9. All global consumer examples were built in Japan.

There were two engines available in the Sentia, an option intended to please customers in its home market who paid road tax based on engine displacement. The smaller of the two was a 2.5-liter V6, making 158 horsepower. Deluxe examples (and all in North America) used a 3.0-liter V6 from Mazda’s J-family, making 197 horsepower.

Although the Sentia was brand new, sadly the 3.0 engine was just a port of the old Luce and remained on offer throughout the Sentia’s production run (albeit with slightly more power via a new intake manifold). The 2.5-litre was a newly developed engine. The Sentia tried to move up in its luxury distinctions, since it only offered six-cylinder power anyway.

Mazda threw all of its advanced technology into the new Sentia and included things like speed-sensitive four-wheel steering. Solar ventilation was also offered, where cooling fans ventilated the Sentia’s interior when it was parked outdoors. Solar cells in the sunroof gathered energy to power the fans. Some markets even had all-wheel drive Sentias.

The 929 was generally unsuccessful in North America, as large sedans with luxury prices but without a luxury badge had limited appeal. It is worth noting that specifically for Canada there was a new suffix for the nickname 929 – Serenia. The name didn’t do much for Canadians in Toronto and elsewhere who steered clear of Serenia. Mazda withdrew it from Canada in 1994 and from the United States after 1995.

More of a flop, production of the HD Sentia ended in 1996. And you hope Mazda’s piece of history ends there, but no! The overlap with the last few months of HD Sentia production was other generation of Sentia, the HE. Unlike the HD, which was a worldwide offering, the HE was limited to the Asian and Australian continents. It went on sale for the 1996 model year.

It was a bit disingenuous to call the HE Sentia a new generation when it was clearly an upgrade from the previous model. Wheelbase remained the same at 112.2 inches. Exterior dimensions were very similar to before (but smaller), as the length was reduced from 193.9 inches to 192.7 inches. The width was the same at 70.6 inches, although the height increased slightly from 54.3 inches to 55.9 inches. The sporty look hadn’t worked well for the first Sentia, so Mazda made the second Sentia look more upright and formal. Everything was a bit more conservative, which was exactly what Mazda was looking to avoid when it replaced the old Luce. Overall the look was a bit less modern and elegant.

From a mechanical perspective, the engine and transmission were a carryover from the HD. The HE was always powered by the 3.0-liter J-series V6 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. There was no manual transmission option on any Sentia generation.

The revised Sentia proved even more unpopular than the first generation, and sales were slow. Mazda discontinued sales in Australia after just one model year when it retired the new Sentia in 1997. Production would continue in Japan until 1999, but by then Mazda already had a plan to pay off the money the company spent on one last full-size, rear wheel drive car

While the HE Sentia was still in production, Mazda sold the entire thing to Kia. Kia spent very little time transforming the Sentia into its proud new luxury car, the Enterprise. Built in South Korea, it went on sale in 1998.

The Sentia was a godsend for Kia, who received a Current platform that was modern and advanced. It was a leap forward not to settle for a scrap like the old Luce platform, which was around a decade old when Kia got hold of it.

In the transition from HD to HE Sentia, the shortened sedan got a more upright front end, with more traditional-looking headlights that were taller and wrapped in a smaller corner marker. On the HD Sentia, the grille and lights were rounded and hugged the leading edge of the hood very smoothly. Both the grille and lights were squarer on the HE, and the grille itself was more upright.

Much of the second generation Sentia’s added formality was achieved through squarer bumpers front and rear. The panes were slightly reshaped to have stronger creases than before, although the window glass remained almost exactly the same. The plan was to transition the car from “non-luxury full-size global appeal” to “Japan’s conservative transportation businessmen.”

At the rear, the curvy trunk and lights of the HE were replaced with a square decklid that appeared taller than before. Combined with the squarer bumpers, the rear end looked more mature and less sporty. The brake lights were a square adaptation of the rounded version of the previous Sentia. When it comes to the interior, the most noticeable change from the new Sentia was the addition of lots of wood trim (the old Sentia had very little).

Fortunately for Kia, the large executive sedan customer the company had in mind greatly enjoyed the conservative design and formal appearance. Kia made very few changes in the conversion from Sentia to Enterprise. The most notable update was the grille. He went from the fine chrome vertical stripes of the Mazda design to a striped chrome look. The new nose was reminiscent of the Potentia grille, but slightly larger for added majesty.

Kia then applied Enterprise badges and put their new car up for sale. (Cool 360 degree model here.) Power was provided courtesy of two Mazda engine designs, though oddly more engine options became available after Mazda let its flagship go. Although all engines were V6-configured, Kia’s existing access meant buyers could have Mazda 2.5- or 3.0-liter engines, or a 3.6 provided by an unknown third party. The largest engine was a 24-valve design and produced 230 horsepower.

The Enterprise was reasonably successful in South Korea and was even exported to the European market, where haughty critics were eager to dismiss it as “just a Kia”. Regardless of the Enterprise’s merits, however, the world economy had its own ideas. There was a financial crisis in Asia in 1997, just before the debut of the Enterprise. It left Kia’s finances in complete disarray, and the company merged with the largest Korean automaker, Hyundai, in 1998.

And so it was that the Enterprise that would replace the old Potentia lived only a year longer than its much older brother. Enterprise was canceled in 2002, as by 2003 a new full-size Kia was ready to go. Kia would no longer rely on Mazda platforms, as his new father had plenty to go around. Next time we’ll take a step back to 1996 and talk about the Middle Creeds that replaced Concord and Capital.

[Images: Kia, Mazda]

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