2002 Kia Spectra
    MSRP
    $10,995 - $13,595
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    2002 Kia Spectra Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    Merger mania.

    Introduction

    Last year, the Kia Spectra was a hatchback version of the Kia Sephia, a 4-door compact sedan significant for being Kia's first model sold in the U.S. under its own nameplate, dating back to 1993. This year the Sephia name is gone, absorbed into a lineup bearing the Spectra name. So now there are Spectra sedans and hatchbacks. 

    All Spectra models receive freshened styling for 2002. 

    The base Kia Spectra sedan lists at just $10,995. Kia sweetens the deal with a warranty program that extends basic coverage to five years or 60,000 miles, and powertrain coverage to 10 years or 100,000 miles; it also includes five-year/100,000-mile rust perforation protection, and a five-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan. 

    At that rate it's hard to avoid looking at a Spectra. 

    Lineup

    Kia Spectra lineup consists of two body styles: a conventional four-door sedan and a hatchback with four passenger doors and a quasi-fastback roofline. 

    The base trim model is just called the Spectra ($10,995). An AM/FM/cassette stereo is standard, but air conditioning ($960) is optional. 

    LS sedan ($12,595) adds air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks as standard equipment. LS also allows the buyer to add options including a sound system with a CD player and a CD changer, antilock brakes and cruise control. 

    GS ($11,395) is the base-level hatchback. Air conditioning ($960) is optional. 

    GSX ($13,195) comes standard with air conditioning, alloy wheels, power windows, and central locking, plus a leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and an aggressive-looking body kit. 

    All Spectras are powered by a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 126 horsepower. They come with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission ($975) driving the front wheels. 

    Walkaround

    Last year's frumpier Sephia sedan gained the sleeker front-end styling of last year's Spectra GS/GSX. For 2002, that styling was massaged slightly. 

    Spectra's styling is pleasant, albeit 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, where a red Kia badge substitutes for Ford's blue oval. Between the clear-lens headlamps and the grille sit round high beams. The LS and GSX also get fog lamps. 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, for sedan and hatchback, 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. 

    The LS is distinguished from the base Spectra by chrome on the grille bar. 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. You have to look closely to see the gap around the sides and top of the backlight (rear window), and that's the only clue that the whole rear of the car opens up for access to a spacious cargo area. 

    Spectra's engine sits crosswise in the engine bay. It produces 126 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 108 pound-feet 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 suspension is impressive for this class of car. Lotus Engineering, creator of exotic, world-class sports cars, tuned the Spectra's suspension to optimize handling and ride quality. MacPherson struts are used up front while a multi-link arrangement replaces the usual twist-beam axle in back. Front and rear anti-roll bars are standard. Rack-and-pinion steering is standard, and power assist varies with engine speed to firm up the steering at higher velocities. All Spectras have vented front disc brakes. Kelsey-Hayes four-channel ABS is optional (at $800) on all but the base Spectra; it includes an upgrade to disc brakes in the rear. 

    Interior

    The Spectra is an inexpensive car, and this point is reflected in its interior. The dash design is generic and inoffensive; it could have come from one of many Asian sedans. The controls are easy to use. Kia has responded to earlier complaints about tiny radio buttons. As a result, even ham-fingered auto writers can operate the Spectra's radio without much distraction. The LS, GS and GSX have a standard tachometer while an AM/FM/cassette stereo is standard across the board. 

    Door panels on less-expensive cars are often plain plastic, but Spectras have cloth door-panel inserts. The GSX upholstery is upgraded to nicer sport cloth. The seat bottoms on the front buckets, however, are short on support for longer legs. The seats do have wider cushions this year-one hopes not a Korean comment on American derrieres-and a new fabric is used. The console provides adjustable cupholders, and the LS and GSX door panels have bottle holders, but the overall quality of the plastic parts in the interior seems below standard for the class. 

    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 on sedans and hatchback, offering cargo flexibility with the hatch that challenges a small wagon. The GS/GSX hatch design offers even easier access. Seats up, the official trunk for the hatchback has 11.6 cubic feet of luggage room, which is excellent for a small car. 

    Driving Impression

    The 126-horsepower Spectra engine is not blindingly fast, but if the driver is willing to rev it, there's spunky acceleration 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 confirms that impression. Anyone at all interested in acceleration in a Spectra should learn how to drive a stick. The manual gearbox also edges the automatic in fuel mileage. The five-speed has an EPA estimate of 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, two mpg better than the automatic for both circuits. 

    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. A tire upgrade would surely help. 

    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. 

    Summary

    With its extremely attractive price, particularly for the base sedan, the Kia Spectra should draw practical-minded shoppers, thrifty folks who will take notice of a showroom-new car, complete with an outstanding warranty, for no more money than many used cars. 

    The Spectra is roomy, versatile and willing; some minor trim items have been compromised in the name of cost, but the basic hardware appears durable. 

    Kia hopes the Spectra GSX will win the hearts and dollars of the front-drive hot-rod crowd, thanks to its affordable price and easy adaptability. (Kia has shown a modified Spectra to demonstrate its performance potential.)

    And if you want a five-door hatchback at this price, then the Spectra is the only game in town. 

    Model Lineup

    Spectra ($10,995); LS ($12,595); GS ($10,995); GSX ($13,195). 

    Assembled In

    Seoul, Korea. 

    Options As Tested

    antilock brakes ($800) includes rear disc brakes, AM/FM/CD stereo ($295), Cruise Package with cruise control, variable intermittent wipers, ($275), rear wiper/washer ($125), floormats ($79). 

    Model Tested

    Spectra GSX ($13,595). 

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