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If you're looking for strong value in a compact package, you've come to the right place. The Kia Spectra is a nice little car. It represents one of the best values among compacts, with an impressive list of safety equipment for its modest price.
Styling is sharp and distinctive. Its cabin is roomy and pleasant with a modern design and nice-quality materials and good fit and finish. Everything is easy to operate. It gets an EPA-estimated 25/34 mpg City/Highway yet produces peppy performance.
Kia Spectra is an all-new car, totally re-designed and re-engineered late in 2004. New models have been added to the 2005 Kia Spectra line that add fun and versatility, including a sporty SX sedan and a new five-door hatchback called the Spectra5.
Safety features are impressive: The Spectra comes with a full complement of airbag supplemental restraints. In addition to the mandatory dual frontal airbags, the Spectra's front-seat occupants are protected by seat-mounted side-impact airbags; while full-coverage side curtain airbags protect both front- and rear-seat occupants.
The 2005 Kia Spectra line has doubled in size, with the addition of the new Spectra SX sedan and Spectra5 hatchback. Four models are now available.
All models are powered by a 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual; a four-speed automatic is optional ($975-$1,000). LX, EX, and SX are four-door sedans. Spectra5 is a five-door hatchback. All are front-wheel-drive compacts that can seat up to five passengers.
LX ($12,700) is the base model and comes with a short, but interesting list of comfort and convenience features. Among them: auto-off headlights, four-wheel disc brakes, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD six-speaker stereo, and a six-way adjustable driver's seat. Outside mirrors are manually adjustable and windows have hand cranks. Air conditioning is optional ($960).
EX ($13,850) adds air conditioning, power windows, heated power mirrors, power central locking, remote keyless entry, and fog lights. Fifteen-inch aluminum wheels (replacing 15-inch steel wheels) are optional ($360).
SX ($14,995) features a sport-tuned suspension with a strut-tower bar, 16-inch aluminum wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and unique interior and exterior trim.
Spectra5 ($14,995) is equipped identically to SX, but is a five-door hatchback instead of a four-door sedan.
Optional on the EX, SX, and Spectra5 are anti-lock brakes ($400), cruise control ($250) and a power tilt moonroof ($700).
Bland is out. The 2005 Kia Spectra makes a styling statement; not a busy, fussy one, but one that's clean, with sculpted character lines and interesting surface planes that set the car apart from the look-alike, safely conservative econo-box class.
Compared to the pre-2004 model, the new Spectra's face is more open, with a larger grille and lower air intake, the latter split by one vertical divider, instead of the busier two of the previous generation. The EX model's fog lights are round, adding perceived height to the front end. Headlight housings taper upward at the outer edges, drawing the eye more naturally into the hood's increased slope. The sporty EX and Spectra5 are distinguished by a more assertive front end highlighted by a black mesh grille, blacked-out headlight surrounds and a deeper front spoiler.
A sharp groove etched into the Spectra's side and running from directly over the front wheel well all the way to the hindmost portions of the rear quarter panel accentuates its wedge shape. Embedding the door handles in the groove reduces clutter. The added two inches of wheelbase appear to have been dedicated to widening the rear door opening. Clearly defined fender blisters add sportiness to the wheel openings. The beltline beneath the nicely arched side windows grows out of the front fender blister and runs past the rear side window where it draws a distinct line between the car's lower and upper body. An understated rocker panel flares outward beneath the doors, visually pulling the car's body closer to the ground. One stylistic hiccup is the rear fender blister, which isn't as well proportioned to the surrounding body panel as is the front blister and leaves the rear wheel looking undersized. Badging is minimal, confined to a Kia logo centered in the grille and above the rear license plate.
On the sedan, the arched roof flows gently into the deck via a soft, flowing sail panel. Then the back end draws all the various geometrics into a pleasing departure. The backlight (rear windscreen) is more steeply sloped, flowing more smoothly into a shorter deck. The deck lid ends in a sharp crease filling the arc between the large, angular taillights, from which it drops almost vertically from a slight indentation to the fully integrated rear bumper fascia. A large depression scooped out of the vertical trunk panel houses the rear license plate.
The Spectra5 makes an even bolder statement. It's nearly six inches shorter than the sedan, and exactly the same height; but its roof extends almost to its rear bumper, falling gently in height as it does, and visually separating from the more rapidly declining tops of the windows. The roof finally terminates in a bulky spoiler that looks as if it could actually enhance fuel economy while keeping the rear window clean. As with the popular Volkswagen Golf, there are no quarter windows behind the rear door glass, although on the Spectra5 a black plastic panel visually extends the door windows into the sail panel. The result, in our eyes, is less than aesthetically pleasing, with neither the distinctive identity of the Golf, the breezy style of the Mazda3, nor the sexy sass of the Elantra hatchback offered by Hyundai a few years ago. But Kia says the shape maximizes interior volume.
The Kia Spectra proves that interiors can be stylish and user friendly without being expensive. Its cabin features an organic design that's pleasant to look at. It feels like a compact, but doesn't feel cheap. Everything is easy to operate with no awkward or annoying traits.
Large expanses of textured materials give the Spectra's dash a quality look. The same large expanses make for fewer seams and joints that inevitably will come to squeak as they work against each other, and this, plus good sound deadening, promises quiet times for people riding in the Spectra, a promise the car delivers. Even over rough pavement, only the sounds of tires against road penetrate the cabin. The look is quality, too, with a dark color over a lighter shade, giving the cabin an open feeling while minimizing reflected dash-top glare in the windshield. Door panels are finished with textured plastic panels and soft fabric insets that add to the openness. Splashes of metal-finish trim, including aluminum-trimmed pedals, brighten the interiors of the SX sedan and Spectra5.
The instruments, large, round speedometer and tachometer and smaller fuel and water temperature gauges, fill a deep-set pod easily viewed through the four-spoke steering wheel. The rim of the steering wheel is thick and easy to grip. The optional cruise control is managed by a multi-function stalk fixed to the wheel between the left spokes.
The radio sits high in the center stack, below two large adjustable vents separated by an intuitively positioned hazard warning button, above which are positioned two smallish screens with digital clock and seatbelt warning displays. Stereo controls are easy to read and use, save for the tuning function, a large rocker switch that scrolls at a fixed, agonizingly slow rate up or down through the frequencies.
In the LX, two storage bins sit beneath the stereo; in the EX, SX, and Spectra5, the smaller of the two bins is replaced by a row of sizable buttons, only one of which does anything, namely, turning the rear window defogger on or off. Across the lower area of the center stack are the climate control knobs: large, round and basic, with tactile feel surprisingly consistent for an economy car. At the left end of the lower dash panel are readily accessible switches for opening the trunk and adjusting the dash lights above yet another storage bin.
The center console houses two cupholders and a bin forward of the shift lever fitted with a grippy pad. Two more cupholders fold out of the rear of the center console for use by rear-seat occupants. Molded map pockets run the length of the front door bottoms; in all but the LX, these have cup-sized rounds molded into the front portion. The EX, SX, and Spectra5 also get magazine nets on the back of the front seats.
Seats are generally comfortable and covered in a quality fabric; they have adjustable head restraints, save for the rear center position. Front seat bottoms could be deeper, however, with more thigh support. The center console armrest is high enough for elbows but too far rearward. The Spectra is roomier than most cars in the class. Headroom and hip room are better than the primary competition: the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus. (Other than in rear-seat headroom, passenger dimensions in the Spectra sedan and Spectra5 are the same.)
Visibility out front is good, thanks in part to the height-adjustable driver's seat; from the front passenger seat, the hood slopes down steeply enough to disappear from sight. To the sides and rear, the sedan's tall glass house and slim sails ease parking and quick maneuvers in traffic. We haven't tried the Spectra5, but we have to suspect that it has a blind spot in its rear quarters.
Rear seats aren't as contoured as the front, but occupants enjoy good legroom and headroom. Rear headroom is above most of the class, there's a lot more hip room, and legroom is on par, though a couple of inches short
The Kia Spectra is not a hot rod, but its performance is respectable. Power output is generally well above the competition's. Acceleration is good, better with the manual than with the automatic, of course, but the automatic offers more than adequate power even for high-speed, long-distance cruising. (Models with automatic transmissions sold in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont offers slightly less power due to those states' stricter emission standards; on the other hand, they qualify as Super Low Emissions Vehicles.)
Downshifts with the automatic transmission could be smoother, however. Also, we found it too easy to select 3rd gear instead of Drive when shifting out of Park or Reverse.
The Spectra is an economy car with a four-cylinder engine, so occupants are going to hear engine buzz under hard acceleration in the lower gears (with both the manual and automatic transmissions). Only while cruising in the top gears do things truly quiet down. Which they do, and quite well, as road noise and other mechanical sounds are remarkably mute, in the base LX as well as in the up-level models. For the most part, wind noise is minimal, too, except for an occasional low moan from the front passenger's side window in strong, left-to-right crosswinds.
Ride quality is solid, not too firm. We found a daylong 400-mile drive wasn't unusually tiring.
Handling and steering are good in the LX and EX, considering the car's height and its tallish tires. Put another way, the alloy wheels deliver more in looks than performance. When pushed, the car eases into understeer (plowing), which is common for front-wheel-drive economy cars.
We haven't tried the Spectra5 or the sporty SX sedan. Both come with a strut-tower brace to stiffen the unit-body, and heavier-duty springs and shocks biased more for handling and less for ride comfort. If nothing else, these sporty models' P205/50R16 tires (compared P195/60R15 for the LX and EX) should sharpen steering response and pump up cornering power.
The brake pedal in the test car was a bit mushy, but not enough to cause concern.
The 2005 Kia Spectra is a good representation of just how far South Korea's car makers have come in terms of design, quality and technology since the days of the infamous Hyundai Excel. Fit and finish in this economy car is on a par with the best in the class. Styling is sharp and distinctive. Power and economy mesh well. Comfort and convenience are fully featured. We could drive one of these every day and be happy. The new Spectra SX promises a sportier driving experience, while the Spectra5 delivers the added utility of a hatchback.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard reports from Northern California; with nctd.com editor Mitch McCullough in Southern California.