Kia Spectra Review

P.J. McCombs
by P.J. McCombs

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.

P.J. McCombs
P.J. McCombs

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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.

  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...
  • CEastwood From zero there is nowhere to go but up . BYD isn't sold in the U.S. and most Teslas are ugly azz 90s looking plain jane drone mobiles . I've only seen one Rivian on the road and it 's not looking good for them . I live out in the sticks of NW NJ and EVs just aren't practical here , but the local drag strip thrives in the warmer months with most cars making the trip from New York .