Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Technology changes quickly. In most cases this is a good thing and we get to reap the rewards of having newer, more efficient products at a reasonable cost. The downside is that some things become outdated rather quickly and we end up wanting to buy the newest, latest gadget more often than we ought to.
There is another downside to this rapid progress, and it relates directly to new cars. Public perception plays a major role in how and why consumers buy or do not buy certain products and often perception doesn't keep pace with reality. For example, Kia has been selling cars in the U.S. for only 10 years. In that time, the company's cars have improved so much that only an avid enthusiast or automotive professional is aware of just how far they have come in those 10 years. The average person on the street would be hard-pressed to notice Kia's improvements, let alone name any of its cars.
There's little question that early Kia products (Sephia and Sportage) were poorly built vehicles that lacked the reliability and durability of their Japanese counterparts. But then came the Optima, Sedona and Sorento a sedan, minivan and SUV that sell at low prices in their respective segments, while offering solid build quality and performance. Now comes the second generation of Kia's volume seller, the Spectra, and it has the potential to raise consumer awareness of the Kia name.
Top Kia executives are the first to admit that although some people know the Kia name, very few customers can name a Kia model. This stands in stark contrast to segment-leading model names like Civic, Corolla, Focus and Sentra names that most Americans can recite almost as readily as brand names like General Electric, Maytag and Sony. Kia has no plans to change the name Spectra and hopes to build that model into the type of franchise enjoyed by the previously mentioned Japanese nameplates.
The second-generation Kia Spectra is an all-new car and shares virtually nothing with the previous version. It shares its underpinnings with the Hyundai Elantra, but it's hard to see many obvious similarities between the two cars. Now for the confusing part, the all-new Kia Spectra is a 2004 model year car. This is confusing because there is also a 2004 Kia Spectra that is the old car. If you're shopping for a new Spectra, be sure you're getting the new 2004 version. Because of U.S. emissions rules, a low-emission vehicle like the Spectra (the new version qualifies for PZEV and SULEV status) actually helps Kia more in the long run if the company sells it as a 2004 model year car essentially it can get more "credits" this way. Still think local smog check programs are about clean air? But I digress the important thing is that the new Spectra has a bigger, more powerful engine that is cleaner burning than its predecessor.
Making an impressive 138 horsepower, the Spectra's inline four displaces 2.0 liters. The car's 138-hp rating puts it ahead of such competitors as the Civic and Corolla and almost matches the output of cars like the Saturn Ion and upcoming Chevrolet Cobalt, which make 140 hp but use bigger 2.2-liter engines. Of course, cars like the Focus, Sentra and Mazda 3 offer even more powerful engine options, but this extra power is not without its price. In any case, acceleration in the Spectra is peppy, but no one would call the car fast. However, during one spirited run through the gears, I unintentionally got a second gear chirp from the front tires. If nothing else, this new engine is torquey, it's good for 135 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. The new 2.0-liter power plant represents Kia's first variable valve timing engine, the company is calling it CVVT for Continuously Variable Valve Timing. You may recall that the Elantra benefited from this upgrade earlier in the 2004 model year.
Available with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic, the Spectra has a sportier feel with the manual. The automatic transmission does sap some of the power, but not to the point where it would outweigh the convenience if you live in a congested area. Although the five-speed is more fun, the automatic tends to keep the rpm down, which results in a quieter cabin overall.
The engine is reasonably smooth at lower rpm, but begins to lose its composure at around 3,600 rpm. The power is still there, but at higher revs the engine becomes noisy not alarmingly so, but just enough so it's noticeable. One of my few complaints about the drivetrain is that the manual transmission lacks a precise feel. The gates for each gear don't feel exact, and the throws are too long. A shorter, tighter shift mechanism would be a great improvement.
Out on the road, the new Spectra feels remarkably solid. In fact, several journalists commented that it was perhaps the overall quietness of the car at speed that made the previously mentioned engine noise more noticeable. Road and wind noise are surprisingly low. Kia has been doing its homework and this really pays off with this car's ride quality.
The suspension is somewhat soft, but that resulting ride quality has to come at the expense of something. Kia is trying to split the line between sporty handling and a comfortable highway ride, and to a certain extent, the company has succeeded. In the end, the Spectra seems to have intentionally chosen comfort over sport. In a perfect world, the Spectra would be a little tighter, but only by such a small degree that most people wouldn't notice. Let's face it, the majority of consumers are going to buy this car because it's in their budget and will use the car primarily for commuting to work and school. This car is perfectly suited to those tasks.
The interior is not very exciting to look at, but start poking around and you'll quickly discover textures and materials that seem as if they belong in a much more expensive car. Soft-touch padding like that found in most Toyotas is abundant and the switchgear feels solid. From a styling standpoint, the Spectra is nothing special. Everything is where it belongs and there are no glaring mistakes, but it really does lack pizzazz. This is not uncommon in this segment, but the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mitsubishi Lancer all have a much plusher look. The test vehicle I drove had but three colors inside beige, black and gray. It's not the quality that's lacking here, just the appearance. Throw some color in there and I think the problem would go away instantly.
The good news is that the seats feel comfortable and the rear seats offer a lot of legroom. Up front, hip and shoulder room are more than adequate two large adults can ride in the front seats without complaint. As in the Sedona, the Spectra's cloth seats are very nice and soft. The cloth upholstery is of very high quality for this class and has a durable feel. The Spectra is bigger than its predecessor, and interior comfort is where the jump in size pays big dividends. The car is longer than the Civic and Focus but slightly shorter than the Corolla. In terms of width, the numbers explain why the Spectra feels so roomy inside. It is wider than the Corolla, Civic, Focus and Ion.
Kia is playing up the new Spectra's safety features and with good reason. There seems to be growing concern that the abundance of large SUVs on America's highways may lead to more risk to those who choose (or can only afford) to drive smaller cars. To combat this perception, the new Spectra offers four-wheel disc brakes, front side-impact airbags and full-length side curtain airbags and advanced airbags up front as standard equipment on all trim levels. The advanced airbags, or "smart" airbag system, is the same one found on the much higher-end Kia Amanti. The system calculates seating position, seatbelt sensors and a classification system to vary the rate at which the airbags are deployed. However, ABS is an option on the EX model and not even available on the less expensive LX. It seems odd to limit access to this important safety feature, because on the EX, the ABS option only costs $400.
While the Spectra's main hindrance might be a lack of name recognition in the marketplace, Kia has certainly put all its ducks in a row with this new economy sedan. It is a vast improvement over the previous-generation Spectra and now has what it takes to be considered seriously alongside the segment leaders. Is it a Honda Civic beater? Probably not, but this Spectra can certainly run with the pack. We recently completed a comparison test of economy sedans. Although this new Spectra was not out yet, I suspect it would have placed in the top half not as qualified as some cars, but obviously better than many. As always, Kia's ace in the hole remains its super-long five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and 10-year/100,000-year mile powertrain warranty.
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