Kia Spectra Review

P.J. McCombs
by P.J. McCombs
kia spectra review

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.

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  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Aug 20, 2007

    Good review. But I wish TTAC wouild lose the "verb," "to holster," as in: The sporty Spectra holsters a 2.0-liter, 138-horsepower four cylinder engine.

  • Mr. Gray Mr. Gray on Jan 31, 2009

    My mother-in-law has this car. She likes it. It's nothing special. Yeah, I find it boring, but its kind of cute in an honest sort of way. What I mean is, it does what its supposed to, which is be cheap and practical, without trying to be something it's not. (Word to the makers of the Sonata: Cramming a stupid, clunky, bucket of bolts with luxury features doesn't make it equal to a Lexus.) The Spectra is a perfect example of basicness. Of all the Korean cars, I like the base-level ones the best (Spectra, Elantra, Rio, and Accent). They're cheap because they're basic, not because they suck. That's what's good about Kia/Hyundai.

  • Tassos SNAAB shot itself in the foot when it BASTARDIZED its unique brand by BADGE ENGINEERING its vehicles with GOD DAMNED GM, OPEL, CHEVY, LANCIA and who knows what other automotive RIFF RAFF. I know of no Saab Enthusiast (they do exist) who felt sorry when the stupid maker went BANKRUPT.
  • 28-Cars-Later Example is located in Coldwater Michigan, so..." needs work -- including new brakes."Brakes, brake lines, probably fuel lines. Probably should hit the master cylinder too unless there are seal only kits for it."It has an automatic transmission."Likely needs a new one of those as well."an exhaust leak"Add an exhaust to the list."an inaccurate speedo."Wow and TMU to boot!These days five to six bills isn't too horrible but this example could turn into a headache really quick due to parts availability. The right buyer for this is a small time tradesman, the HVAC guy who was just leaving my house is rolling a late P80 Volvo 850 sedan in manual which he treats like a truck. Said he'd love a wagon if he ever came across one... if you're local to Coldwater Michigan this is a nice work beater. Annual inspection/registration tax probably costs nearly as much as the car.
  • 2ACL Amazing price, but that's (IMO) a reflection of the interest in an old 2.0T repmobile made interesting only by being a wagon. The Epsilon 9-3 was a sanitized take on the Saab formula. That's not to say it lacks interesting variants, but this isn't one of them. If it had a stick, maybe. But this generation's automatics are sealed and known to become temperamental if not serviced. If the owner can't provide proof of regular servicing, run.
  • Tassos The 3 lt turbodiesel should be FAR, FAR more efficient than the 6.2. ANything that walks would be more efficient than the 6.2. Are you kidding me?The 3 lt turbodiesel in my 4,000 lb+, 208 HP, 400+ LBFT E320 Bluetecs is more efficient than even the 2.2 lt ICE with its meager 125 HP in my 1990, only 2,822 lbs, Accord Coupe 5 speed LX. 100%. I have the full detailed records to prove it beyond any doubt. I consistently get over 35 MPG HWY, which I never got with the Accord (usuallt 32-33 tops)The big question is, will GM ask $5k more for the diesel than for the gas version, as usual? Mercedes only asked $1k m ore for the diesel, $51k vs $50k for the gas back then, which you would recover in just ONE YEAR of average miles driven.
  • Cprescott Lucid has the right idea about building cars - I agree that these have a presence to them and certainly make all Teslas look like cheap golf carts with doors in comparison. I hope Lucid survives because they actually build luxurious products and not pretenders like Tesla.