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One thing you've got to hand to Kia, they're full of self-deprecating good humor. They know that their cars aren't necessarily the fastest or best performing, and they don't try to hide under PR-mush to make their cars sound as salable as possible without being sued for slander.
So when the Kia people were introducing the Spectra, they deemed it "the sportiest Kia yet." How is it sporty, inquired one grizzled journalist; they replied, "It looks sporty." One of their taglines, when speaking of the marketing strategy for the car, was that "it's a car that you can get laid in." Uh huh.
We don't really know about that last one.
Actually, it's not an awful-looking car. The sportiness is achieved from the way it rides low on the wheels, the headlight styling which is derivative of the previous generation Toyota Celica, and its overall shape. That's the selling point of the car - it really looks like a four-door sedan, when actually, the rear opens to reveal a hatchback that offers 1.5 cubic feet more space than in the Kia Sephia. Four-door hatchbacks are much more popular in Asian and European markets, but they seem to offend American sensibilities - Ford left out the five-door hatchback Focus from its U.S. lineup. Kia hopes to change the apprehension with its new Spectra, which has actually been selling quite well in Korea for over a year now under the appellation of Shuma.
The Spectra is offered in GS and GSX trim levels. The GS is pretty much a stripped-down metal box with a steering column. Step up to the GSX and you get alloy wheels, front and rear air dams, air conditioning, and power windows and locks. You also get a side pinstripe, which, uh, let's just say that you might want the GS just to sidestep getting such an abhorrence on your car. Although the price for the GS begins at a paltry $10,500, the GSX, when fully equipped with such basic necessities as ABS and rear window wiper ($95?!), is expected to top out at around $16,000. That's not chump change.
Both trim levels come with the same engine shared with the Sephia, the 16-valve, 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder DOHC motor that produces 125 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 108 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 revs. Kia officials admit that its competition, the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus, have similar engines, but reminded us that they are optional upgrades that would cost more. We've driven the competition, however, and we regret to say that the Spectra isn't really a contender. During a test drive of a GSX model with an automatic transmission from Las Vegas through the canyons of Red Rock, we were unimpressed with the performance of the four-banger.
There we were on a two-lane desert highway, at a four-way stop with no one else on the road. This was prime time for a spirited take-off. Step off the brake, mash the throttle, and hold on to your...wait a second, this car isn't doing anything!!! Sure it launched -- but the lag between second and third gears was so lethargic that we were frustrated every time we came to a stop because it would mean having to take off again. The lousy acceleration left us wondering about the safety of high-speed merges on the freeway with this sluggish transmission. The transitions to the higher gears were more swift, but when we (and by "we" I mean auto dorks in general, officer) reached 90 mph on the highway the car developed a floaty ride quality; the tires wandered and we were almost blown off the road by the wind shear from an 18-wheeler. Not confidence inspiring. However, the car remained remarkably quiet, and driving the Spectra around town should present no problems.
The Spectra utilizes MacPherson struts in the front and a multi-link suspension in the back, and the car was supposed to have been stiffened with front and rear stabilizer bars, but we found the ride to be mushy and sloppy due to excessive body roll and stops and starts accompanied by dips and squats. However, it handled itself around curves quite well, in part due to the sprightly steering performance, which was surprisingly responsive and nimble. In the aforementioned high-speed scenario, though, the steering became frighteningly light, which should not have been the case since Kia touts its speed-sensitive system. Chalk one up to lesson learned that you're not supposed to go over the posted speed limit -- in this car.
There's a certain acrid funk which seems to invade every Korean-made vehicle, and the Spectra was no exception. Certainly, it's a new car smell, but it's not pleasant. Otherwise, this writer was able to get quite comfortable in the unremarkable front seat. The interior is laid out in a functional, clean manner, except for the speedometer - there are extraneous dots congruent to every demarcated number which only served to clutter the gauge. On the whole the dash is composed of materials which don't scream "CHEAP." Nevertheless, you won't mistake it for the Taj Mahal. The glove box opens with a heavy, dead-weight "thunk!", but provides a decent amount of space. Kia has thoughtfully addressed previous complaints about the Sephia by augmenting the size of the HVAC/stereo controls, and now you can actually operate them without taking out the magnifying glass.
There are nice touches, like the tachometer, the strap on the driver's visor to keep those parking tickets handy, and the tilt steering wheel. The steering wheel itself, though, has a poorly placed, stiff ridge made of sharp plastic on top of the spokes that really started to bother our thumbs. Another complaint is centered on the cruise control. First of all, we've never seen the point of placing the "on" button away from the rest of the buttons, a sore on many a car. But the whole rationale behind steering wheel-mounted controls is for the driver to be able to keep her eyes on the road, right? Why are these steering wheel-mounted controls placed at the very bottom of the wheel, then? Very counterintuitive.
The rear seats fold down flat, but this probably comes from the fact that the bench-like seats are mounted so low to the floor that you'll get a good view of the stretch marks on your knee. There's a decent amount of knee room and plenty of toe space, but you're prohibited from sticking your doggies way under the driver's seat by a metal bar. Long-torso-ed passengers will complain of a headache as their heads hit the rear window. There are no storage bins in the rear, not even pockets in the back of the front seats, save for a useless little drawer that pops out of the center console.
The Spectra wasn't immune to the build-quality issues which plague most econocars - such as mottled paint and asymmetrical gap tolerances riddling the car from headlights to hood, the door to the pillars, the trunk to the side fenders. There are exposed screw heads inside - and the fabric on the seats - ugh. Look, we know that the fabric's supposed to be cheap but puh-leese don't insult our aesthetic sense with the "Fiesta" cloth - you know, the little squiggly rainbow colored designs on the gray background! A nice, neutral solid color will do just fine.
We also know that they expect the kids to have fun with this car, and that it would be cheap enough to make modifications to it. To that end, Kia took us journalists out to the Bragg-Smith Racetrack in Pahrump, Nevada (The biggest attraction in town? The Brothel Art Museum. Right next to Madame Butterfly's Massage Parlour, featuring the Ah-So-Sexy Oriental Girls. Honest.), where four modified Spectras were displayed. These were actually head-turners, with iridescent Chromalusion paint that shifts colors depending on the angle from which you're viewing the car. This option will be available soon at your paint shop, and will run you around two grand. The engine remains the 1.8-liter, but a Jackson Racing intake system guide and exhaust system help respiratory functions, allowing the engine to produce five to ten more horsepower than the stock powerplant. Also, Eibach springs, which lower the chassis by one inch, aid in handling, and the difference was certainly felt and appreciated when hugging the curves around the track. The souped-up Spectras were much more satisfying to drive than the cars that will be on sale to the public.
Sure, it was lots of fun going around the track in these modified cars, but it made us wonder about the marketing sagacity of putting us in a modified car then making us drive back to Vegas in the normal cars. It made the flaws stand out in bas-relief. The suspension was once again Snoball-soft. This time we got to drive the manual, which of course was much quicker and fun-to-drive than the automatic, but the incipient engine noise was above and beyond what would be called normal or acceptable by most consumers.
We know we're not supposed to expect much from economy vehicles, and the base Kia Spectra is among the cheapest of any new cars. However, once you decently equip the Spectra, the price point rises to the level where you can get a better-performing, equally equipped Focus or Nissan Sentra. The Spectra's appeal, then, is left for the mostly male audience who want to distinguish themselves from the Honda Civic herd, and customize their own ride with the various accoutrements that kids slap on their cars these days. Listen, we're kinda fond of the folks at Kia, and then there's always the pull for the underdog.