Lazy automotive writers love assignments on Korean vehicles. The review practically writes itself: just recap a few Letterman-esque Hyundai jokes, feign shock at how much the brand has come along, issue some heavily-qualified praise ("it's endearingly almost Toyota-like!") and Bob's your uncle. We here at TTAC reckon it's time to stop treating the Korean brands like they're special-needs children. It's time to judge these vehicles against their own self-proclaimed brand values. The Kia Spectra: "Simply put, it's a blast to drive." Simply put, we'll see about that.
Lest we forget, Kia fancies itself the "sporty" arm of the unflatteringly acronymed Hyundai Automotive Group; the econo-minded Spectra is the company's best-selling model. Hang on. Might we expect a sort of value-leader Mazda 3 (Spectra pricing starts at $12,985), combining sporty reflexes, features galore and a low, low sticker? At the risk of giving the game away: no, we mightn't. What, then, is the Spectra?
Let's start with this: it ain't a looker. The Spectra offers disinterested onlookers styling cues cribbed [weakly] from Honda and Toyota. In fact, the Spectra's sheet-metal is so deeply, profoundly generic it makes Liz Lang for Target seem like haute couture. The Spectra's strongest feature is its oddly-shaped profile. Call it a "character line"– provided the character in question is Quasimodo. Tight panel gaps and liberal daubs of chrome keep the Spectra from shouting "cheap," but the car's proportions are fundamentally awkward.
Those proportions feel better from inside, where the Spectra's tall roof and big windows create a bright, airy ambiance. Japanese cars used to have interiors like this: simple, mood-enhancing, with low cowls and easy sight-lines. While they've gotten somber and techy, Kia serves up the old cheery, pretense-free flavor.
Good stuff, but isn't Kia's trying to send a sporting message? The Spectra's cabin garbles the company line. The interior's soothing gray plastics and velvety-soft seat fabric would flatter an entry-level Buick. The steering-wheel rim is wimpy thin, and there's no lateral support in the driver's seat. But hey, check the velour-lined coin tray!
The Spectra shares its major mechanicals with the previous-generation Hyundai Elantra- a vehicle that, at last count, hadn't taken home many Solo II trophies. If you're thinking that the Kia Spectra is more of a Sam's Club Corolla than a marked-down Mazda 3, you're right. At least that's how it drives.
The sporty Spectra holsters a 2.0-liter, 138-horsepower four cylinder engine. Although this hand-me-down Hyundai mill is relatively mannerly and generates a decent whack of torque right off idle, it groans asthmatically when asked to climb a steep incline. Wanna try running it up to redline? Fine; see you next week. As with most Korean metal, fuel economy trails the class average. Drive the five-speed Spectra without deploying the advertised sporting intent and she'll suck down the gas at a rate of 25/33 mpg.
On the scale of stick-shift sensuality from one to ten, the Spectra lacks numeracy skills. The five-speed's gear-lever moves with light, wafty motions, but there's a clunky remoteness to its gear selections. Worse, the Spectra's prow rises and falls buoyantly with each dip into the long-throw clutch. Pistonheads who drive a manual for mechanical companionship, rather than fuel savings, will be left wanting.
After buzzing and clunking our way through the straights, what reward awaits in the twisties? A romp in a bouncy castle! Although the Spectra's ride is really quite comfy, Kia achieved this isolation the old-fashioned way: with Jell-O springs and Stay-Puft damping. As a result, sinuous roads call forth billowy heaves and sloshy body roll from the Spectra's suspension. And when you nail the brakes, the nose dives like WorldCom stock.
Nor does the Spectra's thin-rimmed tiller inspire much confidence. There's a nonlinear, squirmy spot right around the straight-ahead that makes the Spectra feel a bit distracted, particularly on the Interstate. At town speeds, the Spectra delivers the easy maneuverability typical of this class. Don't ask it to dance, and it won't ask you to take your Dramamine.
It's easy to see why most reviews of Korean cars are clouded with fluff. It's tempting to cheer on the underdog. But the truth is that Toyondissan has nothing to fear from Kia's sales leader. The Spectra is still the sort of uninspired car you buy because you can afford to, not because you want to. To change that, Kia needs to formulate a compelling brand image and stick to it like glue.
In the meantime, Kia still has The Big 2.8 shaking in their cement shoes. The Spectra nails the small car formula they've been bungling for decades: low entry price, lots of standard-features and cut corners hidden in places where Joe Motorist won't ever find them (i.e. corners). So the "sport" thing didn't work out so well. Never mind. There's always Chevy's lunch to steal.