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People buy compact economy cars because they're affordable and fuel-efficient, but the secret to building a great econobox is to make it look, feel and drive like a more expensive car than it really is. Kia never quite managed to do that with its now-defunct Spectra, though its replacement, the Forte is considerably closer to this ideal.
The original Kia Spectra hatchback and sedan were unrefined, underpowered and cheaply constructed. They reinforced the cheap-car image Americans held at the time regarding Korean cars. But the second-generation Spectra sedan and Spectra5 four-door hatchback counterpart moved up the scale considerably in terms of style, substance and refinement. However, the Spectra was still at the bottom of the crowded economy sedan segment when it was put out to pasture after the 2009 model year. If you just need wheels on the cheap, a used Spectra could satisfy, but we'd recommend anteing up for a more sophisticated rival.
Most Recent Kia Spectra
The most recent (second-generation) Kia Spectra was sold from midway through the 2004 model year through 2009. It was a compact sedan or (as of 2005) a hatchback that could seat four comfortably and five in a pinch. Both body styles featured a 138-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that provided spirited performance around town but felt a little winded during highway passing maneuvers. A standard five-speed manual transmission routed power to the front wheels, and a four-speed automatic was optional.
The sedan was offered in three trim levels -- LX, EX and SX. The Spectra5 hatchback was available in a single SX trim. The LX was bare-bones, but the EX boasted air-conditioning, a CD stereo, full power accessories and keyless entry. The SX model added upgraded interior and exterior trim, along with firmer suspension tuning and bigger wheels and tires. The Spectra's safety features included standard front seat-mounted side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and four-wheel disc brakes. Antilock brakes were optional.
In reviews, we generally praised the Kia Spectra for its lengthy list of standard equipment, user-friendly cabin design, decent build and materials quality, smooth ride and competent handling. Criticisms included the engine's lack of pep at high speeds, disappointing real-world fuel economy, and steering that was a tad sloppy. Those looking for a used second-generation Spectra should note that resale values are quite low, so good deals will likely be easy to find.
Past Kia Spectra Models
The first-generation Kia Spectra was launched in the 2000 model year as a four-door hatchback and was offered through the 2004 model year (with the changeover to the current model happening midyear). New to Kia's lineup, the four-door Spectra hatchback served as a more youthful and practical complement to the more pedestrian Sephia sedan, with which it shared its 124-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and major mechanicals. In 2002, Kia dropped the Sephia name altogether and began calling the sedan "Spectra" as well.
The Spectra hatchback originally came in two trim levels: GS and GSX. The base GS offered the essentials, little more than a CD player and a height- and lumbar-adjustable driver seat as standard (although air-conditioning became standard in '04). The GSX added A/C, power windows and locks, a tilt steering wheel and some body modifications intended to make it look sporty, while offering ABS, cruise control and a CD changer as options.
Once launched, the Spectra sedan carried over the Sephia's base and LS trim levels, which basically mirrored the hatchback's GS and GSX trims, respectively, in terms of features, save for the GSX hatchback's body modifications.
Editors at the time appreciated the Spectra's Lotus-tuned suspension, as it delivered decent handling and a smooth, if floaty, ride. Weak links included the brakes, tires and engine. Acceleration was sluggish at highway speeds, with a raucous engine note and unimpressive fuel economy. Inside, the Kia Spectra offered decent room for passengers, but materials quality and fit and finish were well below average. Anyone shopping for a used compact sedan or hatchback is advised to look elsewhere.