Honda and Toyota practically invented the high-quality, low-cost family sedan nearly 30 years ago, and the giant Japanese automakers have dominated that market ever since. While several companies — both American and otherwise — have tried to topple these two mechanized goliaths from their throne at the top of the economy car food chain, most competitors have had a difficult time offering a high-quality car with a long list of standard features and a low price tag. Several Korean manufacturers have attempted to step into the ring over the past decade, but none have made it past the first or second round thanks to subpar quality control and anemic power plants.
After listening to these squawks and suggestions from consumers and the automotive press alike, the top brass at Kia set out to build a fun-to-drive compact sedan capable of beating the Japanese at their own game. We think the new Spectra accomplishes that goal and more, as its stellar warranty and sub-$15K price tag make it a solid choice for families and first-time new car buyers looking for sporty and economical transportation.
Rather than trying to update the previous-generation Spectra in an attempt to come up with a better package, Kia engineers decided to start with a proven platform borrowed from their sister brand and improve it in just about every way. We have already praised the Hyundai Elantra as one of the best values in its class, and a dose of that winning formula combined with a leap forward in build quality and ergonomics makes Kia's jaunty little sedan a truly successful endeavor.
First and foremost, the new car is lower, longer, wider and roomier than the previous Spectra. In fact, with 97 cubic feet of passenger space in the cabin, it has the largest interior in its class (and even bests a few European competitors like the Audi A4 and VW Jetta). Things changed drastically on the outside as well, where classic lines and tasteful styling touches give the car an elegant look that makes it appear more expensive than it really is. We see more than a touch of BMW 3 Series in the taillights and body lines, and if you're going to borrow a few styling tricks, the venerable Teutonic sport sedan is as good a choice as any to imitate. Jeweled headlamps, flared wheel arches and optional five-spoke alloy wheels lend further credence to the Spectra's upscale new look.
Take a peek underneath its sheet metal and you'll see the Spectra's underpinnings are all new as well, boasting independent suspension complemented by front and rear stabilizer bars and controlled by a new speed-sensitive power rack and pinion steering setup that ensures taut and responsive handling. Improvements in engineering weren't limited to the chassis, as a new 2.0-liter inline four manages to pump out 138 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque thanks to high-tech goodies like dual-overhead cams and Kia's first variable valve timing system. For those of you keeping track, that's an extra 14 hp and 16 lb-ft of torque over last year's model, making it the most powerful standard engine in its class.
With all that extra oomph underfoot, the new car needed extra help to slow things down, so standard four-wheel disc brakes were added to the package with ABS as an option. Other safety features include standard front, side, and side curtain airbags (six in all), a first in the economy car category. As an added incentive, Kia loaded up the higher-trim EX model with a pile of standard goodies, including auto-off headlights, keyless entry, eight-way adjustable seats, power windows and door locks, air conditioning and a six-speaker stereo. Factor in one of the best warranties in the business (five-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper; 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain) and you can see how hard the Korean automaker is trying to win over American buyers.
The best part, however, is the price. Our dark gray Spectra EX test vehicle carried a $13,750 base price, and the grand total after factoring in the added cost of alloy wheels ($360), cruise control ($200) and carpeted floor mats ($80) came to a meager $14,930. Consider the fact that a comparably equipped Toyota Corolla costs over a thousand dollars more, and you can see why we couldn't wait to get the Kia out on the road for a little real-world testing.
Sliding in behind the wheel, the front bucket seats are incredibly comfortable with thick foam padding and small side bolsters. Unlike most small cars we've sampled, the seats in the Spectra withstood long drives without any discomfort or back pain. This is probably because they offer the rare combination of excellent lower back support and a properly placed headrest that actually supports a person's head. The combination of an eight-way adjustable seat, standard tilt-steering wheel and plenty of legroom make finding a comfortable driving position a snap, and the wheel itself is thickly padded and easy to grip.
The interior design is excellent, especially for a car with a sub-$15K price tag. Two-tone dark gray and beige panels give the cabin a well-thought-out, classy look, and the dash layout is clean and simple with little clutter or unnecessary complications. Plastic panels abound in any car in this category, so we were very impressed with the fit, finish (gaps were extremely tight and even) and quality of the textured plastic. The console and door panel armrests are as thickly padded as the wheel, and all of the switches are clearly labeled and illuminated. Leg- and headroom are plentiful, and the plush upholstery is quite possibly the nicest we have ever experienced in an economy car. The carpet seems a little thin and matted down, but $80 optional floor mats helped to make up for the shortfall. We counted four cupholders and multiple storage compartments tucked away all over the interior. Overall, the Spectra's interior rivals or exceeds the competition in every way.
On the road, we were surprised by the car's power and agility. The 2.0-liter inline four provides more than enough muscle for the small sedan, making lane changes and passing on the freeway grin-inducing experiences. Acceleration is brisk across the power band, especially from 3,000 rpm to redline at 6,500 rpm. Our test vehicle came equipped with a five-speed manual transmission that was fine for low-speed cruising, but got a little frustrating in traffic thanks to a shifter that suffered from long throws, a notchy feel and an overly sensitive clutch pedal. Our only other complaint about the Spectra is that it makes an incredible racket on the highway at speeds above 70 mph. A combination of short gears and lack of insulation results in such excessive engine noise and vibration at highway speeds that holding a conversation at normal speaking volume becomes difficult. In fact, we kept reaching for sixth gear in an attempt to quiet things down, only to discover that a sixth gear didn't exist. We'd like to think that the four-speed automatic might be a better overall choice in this application.
Otherwise, we were very pleased with the way the Spectra handled itself in every driving situation, even in the twisty mountain roads near the Edmunds.com home base. The suspension feels very crisp and sporty, with little body roll and no torque steer whatsoever. Road feel is excellent, as the new speed-sensitive power steering makes the wheel light and easy during parking yet firm and stable at higher velocities. Overall, this does not feel like a low-cost economy car.
After spending two weeks of traversing traffic-clogged freeways, open roads and the grizzled streets of L.A., we feel that Kia has produced a solid contender that's more than capable of taking on the reigning Japanese economy car champs. Thanks to its peppy performance, unique upscale styling, top-notch warranty and highly competitive price, the 2004 Spectra is a great choice for new car buyers looking for something a little different than the same old Hondas and Toyotas. Now will someone please pass the kimchi?
System Score: 6.5
Components: Kia only offers one stereo in the budget-oriented Spectra, but it's a solid unit that puts out decent sound quality considering the car's low sticker price. The AM/FM/CD head unit is easy to operate with large, clearly marked controls that are well within reach of the driver seat. The numerical display is quite bold, as are the six preset buttons. Sound is pumped into the car's cabin via six speakers: two small tweeters mounted in the door panels aimed at the driver and passenger, two eight-inch midrange units mounted in the lower half of the front doors, and two large oval midrange speakers in the package tray behind the rear seat.
Performance: The head unit is well designed and easy to operate, and the placement of the speakers themselves is quite good. The stereo sounds very crisp and clear when listening to talk radio, classical music or anything else that doesn't have much bass. However, it suffered from distortion at just about any volume level whenever heavy bass was introduced into the equation, whether that music was rock, pop or rap. Dialing back the bass level and increasing the treble helped a bit, but a decent factory stereo shouldn't suffer from this much distortion from any song played on the radio.
Best Feature: An easy-to-read display and logical control placement.
Worst Feature: Bass distortion at almost any volume, not enough power to drive six well-placed speakers.
Conclusion: Considering that Kia is offering the same six-speaker stereo in both the base-model LX and more luxuriously equipped EX, the system gets the job done as long as you don't like much bass. Simple yet functional controls and decent speaker placement should keep most commuters entertained while puttering down the highway during their daily commute. However, now that features such as MP3 capability and satellite radio are starting to crop up in economy cars, we would like to see a second, more feature-laden stereo available as an option on the EX model. — Dan Kahn
Senior Editor Erin Riches says:
Given that this Spectra is based on the current Hyundai Elantra, one of my favorite economy cars, I expected to like it a great deal. While the Elantra can seem a bit dowdy compared with other budget sedans, the Spectra immediately comes across as a more stylish and up-to-date car. It's no Mazda 3, mind you, but the character line running down its profile reminds me of the 3 Series and the two-tone décor in the cabin certainly brightens things up a bit. Fortunately, the Kia's extra style doesn't come at the expense of convenience — all of the controls are easy to find and use, and with four cupholders in the front seat alone, there's no chance you won't be able to find a spot for your water bottle. Additionally, multiple lined slots in and around the center console ensure that your cell phone, garage door opener and sunglasses won't be rolling around in the footwells. Yet, compared to the Elantra's supportive front seats, the Spectra's driver seat felt rather flat and the lack of two-way tilt adjustment for the seat bottom made it hard to find that perfect fit. "Perfect" may seem like an odd word to use when talking about economy sedans, but the Hyundai's driver seat rivals the accommodations in more expensive cars and something was lost in translation to the Kia. At least most of the quality materials have remained intact. The rough plastic steering wheel is cheaper than its Hyundai counterpart, but the cloth upholstery and solidly closing doors could have come straight out of a Civic.
Out on the road, the Kia's credentials are average for this class. The 2.0-liter engine has usable low-end pull, so getting around in city traffic is no problem. Merging onto the freeway presents no problem, either, at least not with our test car's manual transmission, but once you hit 75 mph, the motor drones incessantly and makes it harder than it should be to carry on a conversation. This is unacceptable among current-day economy sedans, and given that I never noticed this in the Elantra, I can only assume that engineers undertook fewer sound-deadening measures in the Spectra. Once I got past this annoyance, the rest of the package did not disappoint, as the Kia has a smooth ride, predictable but not exactly nimble handling, and effective brakes. Overall, the Spectra offers a solid package for a relatively low asking price, but in my mind, it's not quite as well executed as its Elantra cousin. As a seasoned commuter, I'm sensitive to issues like engine noise and seat comfort, and in these areas, the Kia wasn't quite up to par. I'll stick with the Elantra.
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
I guess Kia doesn't want to be a second-tier player in the economy sedan segment anymore. Based on the venerable Hyundai Elantra, the new Spectra departs from its predecessor with a stylish new design I'm sure will draw in the first-time new car buyers Kia is hoping to attract.
The Spectra has several strong points going for it. First off, it has one of the lowest retail prices of any economy sedan out there, a point that should raise it close to the top of any budget car buyer's short list. Secondly, Kia's designers have spent a considerable amount of time freshening up the looks of the Spectra with a not-so-economy-looking exterior highlighted by chrome finishes, sporty character lines and an overall fun-looking shape. The good looks of the exterior are matched by a two-tone interior I found to be one of the best in the segment. The overall design was clean and functional, and the interior materials were nearly class-leading in my opinion. This year's bump in horsepower was a welcome treat for around-town driving. Granted, this is no performance vehicle, but the smooth ride and spirited handling should be appreciated during the everyday commute. Lastly, just because it has a relatively low price doesn't mean the little Kia skimps on safety. The Spectra boasts an impressive list of safety features that includes front-seat-mounted airbags along with full-length side curtain airbags and dual-stage driver and passenger airbags. The only issue that would make me hesitate to fully endorse the Kia to any first-time new car buyer would be its resale value. Though it can't challenge the dominance of the Honda Civic in that regard, its long-lasting five-year/50,000-mile basic warranty with 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage and five-year roadside assistance should help to offset some of those concerns.
"An overall wonderful vehicle. Excellent price and runs with the big dogs. Why pay thirty-thousand dollars for a luxury car when the Kia Spectra is equal to those cars if not better? Any vehicle will get you where you need to go, so why not be the smarter consumer and pay half the price for an equal amount of standards? And with gas prices soaring, the Kia Spectra is perfect. So when you can't see around that big SUV in front of you, just remember that soon they won't be able to afford gas and that will leave you on the open road to try out some power! My next new car will again be a KIA!! I also love that I can pull out into a busy street without worrying that I might get into an accident. The power is awesome, and the Spectra is also very roomy. I also love the body style. The seats are a little hard when you go on long trips or sit in traffic for a while. Also, the way the radio is set in the dash is a little uncomfortable to reach." — Mayday, May 21, 2004
"I originally wanted a Daewoo, but was horrified to learn that they had filed for bankruptcy a few years ago and the cars were 'apparently' no longer available as new in the United States. I then set my sights on the Kia Spectra. I did have to take it in already to get it aligned, but other than that I like it! I love the design of it. The car looks expensive and feels expensive." — Atrac, April 22, 2004
"While my Kia is small, it is big on style, mileage, handling, safety and fun-ability! The buying experience was first-class, and the warranty is unbeatable! The only thing I can find wrong with my Spectra is that the front-seat safety belts are tight on the hips. Other than that, I have absolutely no complaints for this entry-level car! It's an extremely user-friendly auto! It's so easy to drive and maintain! Everything is within reach when driving, fluid reservoirs are color-coded for ease of use! The fuse box is so handy, too! My Spectra really is a treat to own!" — wa_wabbit, Jan. 25, 2004