Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
We'll answer your biggest question first: The Kia Spectra GSX Hatchback has a base price of $12,995 (including destination charge), placing it in the bargain section of the auto market. Plus, it includes one of the best auto warranties going 10 years/100,000 miles. While the price may be right, what do you get for your money? And is there another new car or maybe a used one that's actually a better deal?
On the up side, the Spectra GSX Hatchback has clean lines, a comfortable interior and a gas-saving 1.8-liter, 125-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. On the down side, that little four-banger is loud at higher rpms, the brakes are soggy and there is a tinny quality to the doors and the hatchback lid.
Obviously, this is no Mercedes. Instead, Kia's intention with the GSX is to make a car that is affordable to young people or families needing a second vehicle for around-town jaunts. Judged for what it is, there are positive things to say about this little Korean import.
Kia has been steadily enlarging its presence in the U.S. auto market with the popular Sportage SUV, mainstream Kia Sephia Sedan and the bargain-basement Rio which, at $8,595 (including destination charge) might be the cheapest car out there. The company, headquartered in Seoul, South Korea, has its roots in the bicycle business. Consequently, it adheres to the mission of providing inexpensive, reliable transportation. With the Spectra GSX, Kia seems to be venturing beyond its purely practical intentions and providing a sporty little number that makes getting from here to there enjoyable.
Therein lies the problem. While the Spectra stretches to offer more room and extra features, its reach is beyond its grasp. It would have been better to begin with humbler ambitions and achieve them more fully. While the Kia might be a Civic pretender, it doesn't have the solid feel or offer the level of confidence of a Honda. Still, the GSX might be a sign of good things to come from Kia.
Starting with overall appearance the Spectra scores high. It even has the classy look of higher-end cars like the VW Passat. Efforts to jazz it up, such as the pinstriping and yellow "X" on the back, actually cheapen the look of it (younger drivers might disagree). The alloy wheels are pleasing and the understated spoiler on the rear deck adds a hint of sportiness.
Kia will win buyers simply because of this five-door hatchback configuration. Utility-minded economy car buyers lamented Ford's decision to kill this body style when the second-generation Escort was phased out of production at the end of 1996. When the Focus debuted this year, Ford left the five-door hatch in Europe.
Actually, it's easy to look at the Spectra and not realize it is a hatchback; it looks every bit a sedan until you open what you think is the trunk. Then the rear deck lifts to reveal the generous hatchback cargo space. With the 60/40 rear seats folded down the storage space is a downright impressive 11.6 cubic feet. One of the car's nicer touches is the trunk liner, which has an attractive edging rather than an unfinished rough texture. The temporary spare tire, jack and tools are conveniently arranged below.
Inside, the upholstery pattern looks like the Formica countertop in a '50s diner with colorful orbiting symbols that look like they're out of "The Jetsons." Front seats of dense foam offer sufficient support and ample legroom. The backseats are low and tight if a tall person is sitting up front but no more so than other cars of this size. One of our editors faulted the poorly affixed lower front seat trim that looks like it could all-too-easily snag and tear pants and dresses.
The gauges seemed unnecessarily plain, perhaps because the tach and speedometer are so large and the numbers are stark white on black. Most of the buttons are conveniently arranged except for the cruise controls that cling to the lower section of the steering wheel's center like an afterthought. They were also difficult to manipulate due to their location. Likewise, the climate controls are too low on the center stack for easy operation. The center console armrest was constructed of rock-hard plastic. A removable plastic dingus in a center storage tray serves to define the cupholder but it is too small and looks like it would always be falling out.
The GSX is fun to drive in the way that the old VW Bugs were. There wasn't a lot of power to work with, but the car is game and it does its best. The 16-valve DOHC engine accelerates adequately at some rpms; other times there is little response from the engine bay, which could be a safety factor when passing. Furthermore, if you rev the engine above 4,500 rpm it buzzes loudly. During cruising this becomes noticeable at 75 mph.
The five-speed stick shift is rubbery and imprecise. (An automatic transmission is a pricey $975 option.) A few times we put it in what we thought was reverse gear only to have it grind. Once the driver becomes used to these deficiencies the manual adds excitement to the driving experience.
The fun factor comes from the responsive steering and good road feel. When the car is pushed through tight curves there is body roll but it's not severe. Furthermore, the overall feeling is tight and wind noise is not bothersome. Even over rough roads there were few creaks and rattles.
At the track, the little front-wheel-drive GSX threaded its way through the slaloms in an average time (6.9 seconds at 59 miles an hour). Larger tires might have improved the handling over the crappy 14-inch Hankook all-season rubber the car came with. The brakes, on the other hand, perform poorly (our test model didn't have ABS). The car comes equipped with front discs and rear drum brakes. The pedal itself seems weak and the response does not build confidence. After several attempts to improve the scores, the brakes began to fade.
Two other editors here at Edmunds.com offered differing viewpoints of the Kia's drivability. One editor emphatically reported: "Driving the Kia is not fun. The engine makes lots of noise, the steering is sloppy on-center, the brakes are weak, the clutch difficult to modulate, and the transmission's gates are vague. The best part of the mechanical package is the suspension, which provides a smooth ride and handles decently in turns."
The second editor reported: "Overall I felt the car was almost fun to drive. It's got adequate power, a clutch and shifter that work well together, and a suspension that allows for body roll but still lets the car be tossed around without too much drama."
As we said before, this is no Mercedes. Still, it isn't a Yugo either. Due to its options, our test model stickered at $13,854 (including destination charge). That's a good chunk of change to drop on an economy car of this caliber. More refined, albeit less well-equipped, models are available, such as the Nissan Sentra XE, the redesigned Honda Civic DX, and the Ford Focus LX. Also, don't forget that larger, safer and more upscale models that are just a couple of years old, like the Nissan Altima, can be purchased as certified used cars for about the same price.
However, a big draw is Kia's new-for-2001 Long Haul Warranty program, which consists of a 10-year or 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, a five-year or 60,000-mile limited basic warranty, a five-year or 100,000-mile anti-perforation warranty (protecting against body holes caused by rust) and a five-year, unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan. This impressive package should add some peace of mind to Spectra ownership and may convince some shoppers to buy a new Kia rather than a certified pre-owned car.
For those people who just can't live without a five-door hatch, new car smell and a comprehensive warranty, the Kia Spectra GSX is the perfect car. For more discerning drivers, the many drivability compromises this car includes will make them look elsewhere.
System Score: 2.5
Components. This is a real "bare bones" audio system. It begins with a stripped-down head unit without a cassette player and with some strange features. For instance, the radio has a separate on-off button. Instead of having it built into the volume knob, as most systems do, this Kia setup requires you to press a separate button. This may seem like a minor complaint, but it's an annoyance that didn't stop there. The system does have a single-play CD player built into the dash, a little bit of a saving grace, along with 12 FM and six AM presets. Other than that, though, it's a pretty meat and potatoes system, with minimal features. The buttons are well spaced because there are so few of them. In addition to 4-by-6 speakers behind the rear seat, the front doors hold a pair of 6-inch mid-bass drivers coupled with tweeters above.
Performance. On the one hand, you can complain all day long about how lousy this system sounds. I'm reminded, though, of how far we've come in car audio the last 10 to 15 years. This system, while basic, still bumps down the road nicely, and plays loud enough to cause some discomfort (if you're into that). The tweeters, while not world class, are well-aimed and present a decent stereo soundstage to the listener. Like most cheap tweeters, they're too bright sonically, but they add some nice sizzle up top. There's a weird "bumping" sound that accompanies the bass notes, meaning the doors probably aren't baffled, not an unlikely occurrence in a car in this price range. It sounds strange and disconcerting, and I found it very annoying. Also, the right passenger door rattles with each bass note, not a good sign in a new car. Lastly, the amp craps out severely over half-volume, a sure sign of power ineptitude.
Best Feature: Separate tweeters in the upper doors.
Worst Feature: Funky separate power button on the faceplate.
Conclusion. Not a bad system for an inexpensive car. We can't give it a high score, but hey, it makes noise and even includes a CD player. Scott Memmer
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