2000 Kia Spectra Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Hatchback design lends practicality.
Conventional wisdom says Americans don't like three-door hatchbacks. This wisdom, based on sales, says Americans like five-door hatchbacks even less than they like three-door hatchbacks.
Because of this, Kia had not originally planned to offer its popular five-door hatchback in America. Then a group of American dealers saw the Spectra in Korea; they convinced Kia management that Americans would go for the Spectra. So Kia management decided to take the risk and introduce the five-door hatchback to the U.S.
Kia Spectra is based on the Kia Sephia sedan. It is powered by the same 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine. The Spectra, however, has sportier pretensions. According to Kia, the sporty Spectra is geared toward a younger buyer who 'hates traditional neckwear' and subscribes to the motto, 'So many women, so little time.' At first, we thought Kia's U.S. marketing department, noted for its sense of humor, was kidding with those descriptors, but maybe not. The company was certainly serious when it set Spectra's base price at just $10,795. If price sells cars, then we could see a lot of Spectras rolling off showroom floors.
The Spectra lineup consists of one body style: a hatchback with four passenger doors and a quasi-fastback roofline.
The base trim model is designated the GS and lists at $10,795. At $12,995, the Spectra GSX adds air conditioning, alloy wheels, power windows, central locking and an aggressive-looking body kit.
All Spectras are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 125 horsepower. They come with a 5-speed manual or optional 4-speed automatic transmission ($975) driving the front wheels. Options include antilock brakes ($800) and CD stereo ($295).
The Spectra's styling is pleasant. It looks vaguely derivative. The front end seems to owe a lot to the Ford Taurus, with elliptical headlamps and a central grille opening with a crossbar; a red Kia badge substitutes for Ford's blue oval. Between the clear-lens headlamps and the grille sit round high beams. Bulges in the sheetmetal that sweep back across the hood trail the high beam bezels. The front bumper is integrated into the body profile, its plastic cover encircling the cosmetic grille above the bumper and the larger, functional radiator opening below it. Bumpers and mirrors are body color, an upscale feature for a car in this price range. The Spectra's profile won't upset anyone. The windshield has an average rake, and the greenhouse comes out of the designer's standard playbook. A fine crease at door-handle height keeps the side from being too plain. Blacked-out B-pillars create the impression that the Spectra is coupe rather than a four-door sedan.
A winglet attached to the rear of the GSX suits the overall shape of the car, and a rear wiper/washer is optional on both the GS and GSX. The GSX gets front and rear air dams, door-sill extensions and spoked 6x14-inch alloy wheels with P185/65R14 Kumho radials.
The rear hatch is invisible from behind the car. On close inspection, the gap around the sides and top of the backlight is visible, but it's the only clue that the whole rear of the car opens up for access to a spacious cargo area.
Spectra's twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine sits crosswise in the engine bay. It produces 125 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 108 foot-pounds of torque at 4500 rpm. That's less than the optional engine in some of Spectra's primary rivals, but considerably more than the competition's base engines.
The Spectra's suspension is impressive for this class of car. MacPherson struts are used up front while a multi-link arrangement is in place of the usual twist-beam rear axle in back. Front and rear anti-roll bars are standard. Lotus Engineering, creator of exotic, world-class sports cars, tuned the Spectra's suspension to optimize handling and ride quality. Rack-and-pinion steering is standard; power assist varies with engine-speed to firm up the steering at higher speeds. Both the GS and GSX feature vented disc brakes in front with drum brakes in the rear. Four-channel ABS is optional, but only on the GSX.
The Spectra is an inexpensive car, and this point is reflected in its interior. The dash design is generic and inoffensive, and could have come from one of many Asian sedans. The controls are easy to use, however. Kia has responded to earlier complaints about tiny radio controls. As a result, even ham-fingered auto writers can operate the Spectra's radio without much distraction. The base GS has a standard tachometer and AM/FM/cassette stereo.
Door panels on less-expensive cars are often plain plastic, but both the GS and GSX have cloth door-panel inserts. The GSX upholstery is upgraded to sport cloth. The seat bottoms on the front buckets, however, are short on support for longer legs. Overall, the quality of the plastic parts in the interior is below the standards for the class. The GSX is enhanced by a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob.
The rear seat will accommodate three, but not if they're adult males who plan to be there for a while. The seat folds 60/40 for cargo flexibility that challenges a small wagon and, with the Spectra's hatch design, is even easier access. Seats up, the official trunk has 11.6 cubic feet of luggage room, which is excellent for a small car.
The Spectra GSX is not blindingly fast, but if the driver is willing to rev the engine it produces spunky acceleration performance with the five-speed manual transmission. The engine revs with abandon and seems happy to do so.
The gearshift lever has a rubbery feel, but we never missed a shift. Clutch take-up is smooth and light. We suspect the optional automatic transmission would sap a good deal of the engine's vigor; comparing the ratios of both transmissions seconds that impression. Anyone at all interested in acceleration in a Spectra should learn how to drive a stick. Nonetheless, the automatic has a tall overdrive ratio (0.70:1). Not only does that mean quieter cruising at freeway speeds, but it also delivers better EPA highway mileage ratings: 32 mpg compared to 29 mpg with the five-speed. The manual edges the automatic in city mileage, however, at 23 mpg vs. 22 mpg.
In cornering, the Spectra offers good balance, as one would expect from Lotus Engineering. Like most front-wheel-drive cars, its handling is predisposed to understeer (the front tires begin losing grip before the rear tires do). Turn-in for corners is a little sluggish: Our impression was that there's something rubbery between the steering wheel and the pavement, with a squishiness that has to be taken up before the Spectra begins to turn. This is particularly noticeable in fast, slalom-type directional changes.
The Spectra is quiet on the highway, with a surprising absence of wind or engine racket. It feels larger than its compact measurements would seem to warrant, even on an extended drive.
We were delighted by the performance of the standard brakes. We checked them out on a closed circuit that had several corners requiring high-speed braking. The Spectra's brakes never whimpered nor showed any signs of fading. That's extraordinary for an economy car.
Kia hopes the Spectra will be popular with the front-drive hot-rod crowd, thanks to its affordable price and easy adaptability. (Kia showed off a modified Spectra to demonstrate performance potential for the aftermarket.)
The Spectra's extremely attractive price should make it a major draw for shoppers who can buy a new car with an excellent warranty for the same price as many used cars. Spectra is a roomy, versatile vehicle at a good price. It has some compromises with trim items, but its hardware seems durable. If you want a five-door hatchback at this price, the Spectra is the only game in town.
GS ($10,795); GSX ($12,995).
Options As Tested
antilock brakes ($800), AM/FM/CD stereo ($295), Cruise Package with cruise control, tweeters, variable intermittent wipers, power mirrors ($400), rear wiper/washer ($95), floormats ($69).
Spectra GSX ($12,995).
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