2004 Kia Spectra Expert Review:Autoblog
On the same day they took away the sweet RX-8 a shiny new Kia Spectra LX arrived. This is when that journalistic integrity kicks in and tells you you're reviewing the cars on their own merits, against the cars in their class etc. Of course the initial driving experience is still a shock to the system.
Actually, I had been looking forward to the redesigned Spectra because of all the hype around the improved quality of the Korean brands, namely Kia and Hyundai. When I got into the Spectra, which seemed heavily abused for only 5,000 miles on the odometer, it seemed like a decent economy car and something that would make a good rental. The plastic wasn't too off-putting but the lack of power windows and even door locks seemed a bit too barebones even for a base model. But at least the Spectra has that bare bones price, right? Well that was the kicker on this first day. Opening the Monroney sticker showed a final price of $15,175! My world was turned upside down. "Do you know what you can buy for 15 large?" my mind shouted. A stripped Honda Civic, a well-equipped Ford Focus or a base Mazda 3 all out-match the Spectra at this price. Sure the base price was $13,595 but the "options" of air conditioning, $960, and floor mats, $80, plus a destination charge of $540 got us over the $15,000 watermark. This little car has a lot to prove over the next week to make up for the initial sticker shock.
If the Kia Spectra is anything it's a workhorse that doesn't demand much attention. In highway traffic and around town the actual act of driving (steering, braking, accelerating) is pretty much forgotten about. The car goes where you point it without much or any difficulty. Sure accelerating on the highway inspires little confidence and on sharp turns feels tipsy. But for the most part it is a commuter car you couldn't complain about. A 6+ foot friend of mine hopped in after a Cubs game the other day and was impressed with the leg and head room. He said it easily beat the Saturn he drives.
I also dig the adjustable seating position of the driver's seat that I think shorter folks will also appreciate. For me I'm driving up high, but those well under my 5'10 height will still have a commanding view of the road. Otherwise the stereo, not surprisingly, squawks and hurts this audiophile's ears. Even the small tweeters fixed into the door handle apparatus offer no help. For my rant on the car's sticker price check out my first day in the Spectra.
As the final day with the Kia Spectra nears its conclusion there is little if any lasting impression the little economy car has made. This is not because of the snobbery of an automotive journalist (if that's what you can call me) who is used to higher performance cars. I've driven numerous economy compacts and been impressed. Even the boring Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla outclass the Spectra. For all its improved quality and JD Power rankings the Kia still fails to beat the competition in almost every measure.
In the end the price tag, just over $15,000 for the base LX with only air conditioning and automatic transmission as option, was never justified. In the end we were driving a stripped model and I could not fathom writing a check out for $300 a month (a rough guess of a payment from the company's website) to pay for such a car. I'd much rather be in a Ford Focus (with a lot more features), Mazda 3 (for slightly more money) or a base Civic or Corolla at near identical prices. What did I like? The Spectra was very easy to drive, easy on gas (25 city / 34 hwy mpg), had tons of room and met most basic day to day driving needs. But it lacked a soul and most importantly for the segment it's in, it lacked value.
Clarification: In previous reports the Spectra may have been called a 2005 model. In fact this is a 2004 model. The all-new Spectra is designated a 2004.5 model. So be careful when shopping. A tip, the one advertised in the paper for $8,000 is the old model.
New Car Test Drive
All-new model is stylish and safe.
Kia really isn't trying to confuse us. That the company's dealers have two 2004 Spectra models for sale is the consequence of federal fuel economy regulations, not the car maker's choice.
Fortunately, it's easy to distinguish the new 2004 Spectra from the old 2004 Spectra. The old one is a carryover from the 2003 model year. The new one is all-new, with sharper styling. It's noticeably bigger. It's also priced only a couple of hundred dollars more.
Mechanically, the new 2004 Spectra is all-new. The engine is more powerful, more fuel efficient and cleaner. The wheelbase is longer, which improves the ride. The track is wider, which improves handling. Four-wheel disc brakes are now standard, where the previous model had rear drum brakes.
The interior is redesigned and upgraded. Materials are higher quality. Fit and finish is better. Ergonomics are improved. There's more headroom, more hip room and more rear legroom. The trunk is larger.
All these advances and improvements pale, however, alongside the new 2004 Spectra's occupant safety features. No other car in this price range or size class, nor many costing thousands of dollars more and in larger classes, offer the same, full complement of standard airbag supplemental restraints. In addition to the mandatory two frontal airbags, front-seat occupants are protected by seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and full-coverage side curtain airbags protect front- and rear-seat occupants. The competition has some catching up to do.
Kia offers the all-new 2004 Spectra in two models, the LX and the EX. Both are four-door, five-passenger sedans and come with a 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual. A four-speed automatic is optional ($975).
The LX ($12,620) comes with a short, but interesting list of comfort and convenience features. Auto-off headlights are standard, but outside mirrors are manually adjustable, and windows have hand cranks. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, but antilock brakes aren't even an option, nor is cruise control. But a tilt steering wheel is standard, as are an AM/FM/CD six-speaker stereo and a six-way adjustable driver's seat. Air conditioning is optional ($960).
The EX ($13,750) adds air conditioning, power windows, heated power mirrors, power central locking, remote keyless entry, and fog lights. Optional on the EX are anti-lock brakes ($400), alloy wheels ($360), cruise control ($200) and power tilt moonroof ($700).
Optional on both the LX and the EX are a rear spoiler ($250) and carpeted floor mats ($80).
The LX and EX enjoy impressively comprehensive standard occupant protection features, comprising dual two-stage frontal airbags; dual front seat-mounted side airbags; and front and rear side-curtain airbags.
Bland is out. The new 2004 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, safe, conservative econo-box class.
The Spectra's face is more open, with a larger grille and lower air intake, the latter also split by one vertical divider, instead of the busier two of the previous generation. The EX's fog lights are now 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.
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 the 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 beneath a softer flowing sail. 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.
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.
Badging is minimal, confined to a Kia logo centered in the grille and above the rear license plate.
Interiors, too, can be stylish and user friendly, and without being expensive.
Large expanses of textured materials give the new 2004 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 new Spectra, a promise the car delivers. Even over rough pavement, only the sounds of tires against pavement penetrated 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.
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 wheel rim 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, one large and one smaller storage bins sit beneath the stereo; in the EX, replacing the smaller bin is 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.
Seats are generally comfortable and covered in a quality fabric with 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. Rear seats aren't as contoured as the front but occupants enjoy an added inch of legroom over the previous model. Headroom front and rear is up an inch or two from the previous Spectra and equally above the primary competition, the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus; the last, though, bests the Spectra by a half inch in rear-seat headroom. Rear-seat legroom is on a par with competitors. One problem with the rear seat is the proximity of the rear wheel well to the door opening; inattention when climbing out can leave traces of road dust and dirt on slacks or skirt. In hip room, the Spectra gives front-seat occupants between an inch and four inches more than the competition and between four inches and seven inches in the back seat.
Only in trunk space does the new Spectra come in last, giving up between a half a cubic foot to slightly more than 1.5 cubic feet; it does, however, better its immediate predecessor by almost two cubic feet. The trunk floor and sides are finished, but grocery shoppers should beware of the gooseneck hinges that can crush items packed too tightly.
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 the EX, these have cup-sized rounds molded into the front portion. The EX also gets magazine nets on the back of the front seats.
As fresh and improved as the new 2004 Spectra is, it's still an economy sedan with a four-cylinder engine. Even with abundant sound deadening between the engine compartment and passenger cabin, this means occupants are going to hear engine buzz under hard acceleration in the lower gears, in both the manual and automatic. 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 both the LX and EX. 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.
Power output is significantly higher than that of the previous generation Spectra and generally well above the competitors' comparable models. Acceleration is good, better in the manual than in the automatic, which is no surprise. But the automatic is more than adequate even for relatively high-speed, long-distance cruising. Buyers in California and certain northeastern states get engines with six fewer horses and three fewer pounds-feet of torque due to those states' stricter emission standards. Thanks to improved engine management electronics, the EPA also estimates that this cleaner and more power engine gets significantly better gas mileage than the previous Spectra's.
Downshifts in the automatic could be smoother. Also, shifting into third gear instead of Drive when shifting out of Park or Reverse is easy to do.
Outward vision to the front is good, with thanks to the height-adjustable driver's seat, as from the front passenger seat, the hood slopes away steeply enough to disappear from sight. To the sides and rear, the tall glass house and slim sails ease parking and quick manuevers in traffic.
Handling and steering are good, considering the car's height and the tallish tires. Put another way, the alloy wheels deliver more in looks than performance. When pushed, the car eases into understeer, which is common for economy front-wheel-drive cars. The brake pedal in the test car was a bit mushy, but not enough to cause concern. Ride is solid, not too firm, and a daylong, 400-mile-plus drive wasn't unusually tiring.
South Korea's car makes have come a long way since the days of the infamous Hyundai Excel. And the new 2004 Kia Spectra is a good representation of just how far they've come in design, quality and technology.
Fit and finish 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.
None of the competition matches the price of the Kia Spectra while offering the same level of occupant safety.
Go ahead, be the first on the block. Just make sure you get the new one.
Kia Spectra LX ($12,620); Spectra EX ($13,750).
Hwasung, South Korea.
Options As Tested
automatic transmission ($975); alloy wheels ($360); cruise control ($200); carpeted floor mats ($80).
Kia Spectra EX ($13,750).
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