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LAS VEGAS-Andrea Campanella saw herself as the proud new owner of a sleek European sports sedan.

"I thought it was from Italy," she said of her bright red auto. "I said it was my little Italian sports car."

On second thought, Ms. Campanella said her car "kind of looks like the Lexus ... and some of the BMWs, too."

Actually, it's a Kia Sephia-South Korea's latest car export, and one that hopes to avoid the quality knocks of rival Hyundai.

Kia is off to a comparatively slow start, selling 12,000 cars last year vs. the 169,000 Excels Hyundai sold in its first year, 1986.

But Hyundai sales have fallen from their initial lofty heights, leaving Hyundai to try a fresh start this year with its new subcompact, the Accent.

By contrast, Kia is methodically building its business, starting in 13 western states and gradually expanding nationally.

Kia is easy to miss because it shares showroom space with better-known makes rather than having costly standalone stores. The Kia dealer here, the nation's largest, resides inside bustling Courtesy Oldsmobile.

Kia customers may not always know what they're buying. But they appear to be getting a good deal with the Sephia, priced from $8,895 up to $12,415 for a loaded model.

Kia also has drawn favorable reviews for a well-priced (nicely equipped for $14,495) sport-utility, the Sportage, that went on sale this month.

"We only have one mission: to build quality cars at affordable prices," said Dick Macedo, Kia's director of marketing, during a visit to this dealership.

If Kia can't undercut Japanese makes by at least $2,500, he said, Kia has no business being in business.

Not that Kia's perfect. "I don't think it's made real sturdy," said Ms. Campanella, a card dealer at Caesars Palace. "[But] it handles real well."

And the Kia dealer, she stressed, has gone out of its way to fix minor glitches like loose trim.

The dealer's service director, Phil Mountain, says Kia's fit and finish are far above Oldsmobile, the store's main line.

"They're not even close," Mr. Mountain said.

The experience of three Kia drivers here shows the importance of a strong dealer.

Ms. Campanella brought in her old Olds to look at a new one, and hadn't heard of Kia till the dealer pointed it out. She liked the looks and the payments, so she bought.

Michelle Grabusky, who works security at the Aladdin Hotel, was lured by a newspaper ad. What helped cinch the deal was a slick 16-page brochure, created by Kia agency Goldberg Moser O'Neill in San Francisco, that asked and answered all the right questions: "What the heck is a Kia?" "Why should I be the guinea pig?" "If someone slams into me, do I have a prayer?"

Ms. Grabusky steered clear of Hyundai "because a lot of people make fun of those cars." She bought an auto that most people don't know. Though Kia runs TV spots in Las Vegas, the women bought their cars without ever seeing one.

A third customer, Ray Slaughter, purchased a Kia for his business strictly on the recommendation of Chuck Lee, dealership co-owner and a friend.

Mr. Slaughter's associate, Pete Roy, sings the praises of Kia. But he initially had some explaining to do-to his girlfriend.

"She said, `What is it?"' Mr. Roy recalled. "I said `Kia.' And she said, `What is it?"' Perhaps it's too early to know.

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