Kia Spectra reveals value beyond price

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Driving a vehicle for just seven days and seldom more than a couple hundred miles does not always give us a clear picture of what living with that vehicle for three, four or five years would be like.

We sometimes get caught up in the immediacy of performance, handling and knock-them-dead styling. Not to say that these things aren’t important. They are, indeed. But living with a car for years - which most people have to do to get out from under long-term loans or leases certainly impacts buying decisions. And what is comfortable for the driver and his passengers is just as important as the glittery things that come to the forefront in just a week of driving.

This came to mind as we were cruising through the countryside in the Kia Spectra, a compact sedan that was built to do battle with the Japanese stalwarts Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

We were driving a Spectra model made over for the second half of the '04 model year, really the precursor to the 2005 model. And it vividly showed just how far the South Korean Hyundai-Kia merger has come in developing cars that are capable of competing with the best in class.
The new Spectra, which starts at $13,160 and can be purchased in sedan mode well equipped for under 15 grand, is a comfortable fit, kind of like an old shoe that feels perfect on the bunion-afflicted foot.

The driving position is good. The seats are comfortable. The wheel falls nicely to hand. And all the little things are there to make the every-day commute a livable experience.

Two nice-sized drink holders between the seats will house the morning coffee cup(s). Two slender bins in the center stack will accommodate a couple of CD boxes, spare change or other odds and ends. A big bin in front of the shifter is a good resting place for a cell phone. A power point is located just above the bin.

The center bin/arm rest is two-tired with a slender shelf and a deeper bin underneath. There’s a coin holder to the left of the driver. And the door bins are carved out at the front to hold drink cans.

The three rotary climate control knobs are large and well marked.  Although the stereo face is small, the controls are intuitive.

A sunglass holder is positioned overhead and a button to pop open the trunk is in clear view on the dashboard. A clock sits up high in the center stack and can be read by anyone in the cabin. It doesn’t share duties with the stereo readout as in so many cars that cost thousands more. The gauges are large and easy to read.

Perhaps too many times overlooked or glossed over in compact cars is rear-seat legroom. Many compacts are comfortable for adults in the backseat only when those in the front seat adjust their seats far forward on the tracks.
No need for seat adjustment compromises in the Kia. Legroom abounds in back for a compact that measures only 176 inches long but contains a class-leading 97 cubic feet of passenger room. This means that Spectra owners can volunteer to drive to dinner or the theater without having to make excuses about tight rear quarters.
And family and friends will surely be impressed with the fit and finish and the high-quality plastics and cloth fabric used in the interior of the Spectra. The trunk is also spacious with 12.2 cubic feet of space, about the same as the Civic. The rear seatbacks fold down in a 60-40 configuration to add more cargo space.

The big improvements from the earlier ‘04 models come in engine size and suspension tweaks. The new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine has gained 14-horsepower and 16 pound-feet of torque from the rather ho-hum previous 1.8-liter engine.

The new engine has dual overhead cams and gains a variable valve timing system, Kia’s first use of the technology, for decent if not energetic performance.

It can be mated to a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic transmission. Our test car was outfitted with the manual. Although shifts cannot be described as silky smooth, engaging the gears was easy once underway. Finding the right clutch point was a problem at times off the line, however. Giving the Kia slightly more gas than necessary to prevent stalling the engine on startup was the rule rather than the exception.
Performance is reliable at all speeds with plenty of passing power simply by dropping down a gear or two. Zero to 60 has been measured in 8.4 seconds, a solid number for a family compact sedan. With the extra performance, the Spectra has been given extra stopping power with disc brakes on all four wheels. Antilock brakes are a $400 option however.
The suspension is tuned toward the soft side, but the Spectra is not roly-poly on the curves; actually handling the sweeps rather well. This little car can be entertaining if you have a proclivity to that sort of weekend amusement.

The new Spectra sedan comes in two trim levels, LX and EX. Be careful when you go shopping. The previous edition sedan, which also can be purchased as a 2004 model, comes in LS and GS trim levels and in GS and GSX as a hatchback.

The new model will also be available in a hatchback called the Spectra5, and next year as a sport-tuned SX sedan.

The LX starts at $13,160 and the EX at $14,290.

Standard equipment on all models includes front, side and full-length side-curtain airbags. That may be a first for a $13,000 car.

Other standard equipment on our EX test car included 15-inch tires, air conditioning, heated outside mirrors, stereo system with CD player and six speakers, power windows and door-locks, tilt steering wheel, and a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Extras on our test car were alloy wheels, cruise control and carpeted floor mats to bringing the bottom line to $14,930.

The Spectra is a legitimate rival to the compact champs at Honda and Toyota at a price that will undercut those guys by as much as a couple grand and with a 100,000-mile warranty that may last the length of your loan.

And the Spectra is a car that we feel you can live with comfortably for years even after you’ve made that last payment.