By on January 6, 2010

Spectralogy? (courtesy:wikimedia)

TTAC Commentator osnofla writes:

I have a 2000 Kia Spectra GS manual with about 97k miles on it and lately it’s been doing something really weird. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the clutch. When I upshift the engagement is very rough, especially below 3k rpm. It kind of lunges forward and stops and forward again then finally picks up roughly around 3k rpm and the rest of rev range is smooth. On top of this there is also the matter of the tightening the belt for the power steering because it squeals at full-lock and fixing the brakes because I’m pretty sure the rotors are warped and need new pads and shoes.

So actually my question is whether I should actually fix these things since — and I’m going out on limb here — the repairs probably cost more than the car is worth. I’m in grad school and will be for the next year. As a result, I have very little money to go out and get another car, though my parents said they could help me out if I really need it. I’m not really attached to this car at all even though I learned how to drive with it. I just don’t see that many options for my tastes: I like manny tranny wagons and hatchbacks. Should I use my parents money while I still can?

Sajeev Replies:

Oh, so you are one of the 500 people in this country that like wagons with clutches? Nice. Since you’re in grad school, better stick with a cheap sedan with a stick until you have the cash reserves for something more to your liking.  A cheap sedan like a Kia Spectra.

Here’s why: the Kia will net $1000 on a trade-in, if you’re lucky. That’s provided the dealership makes a healthy profit on the car you bought.  Or keep your fingers crossed, hoping that someone buys it on Craigslist for $1500.  I don’t like either scenario.

The car probably needs $500 (quick guess) worth of work to fix the shifting issue.  It’s possible you need a new clutch, or the clutch’s hydraulic system is out of adjustment. Parts will be cheap, labor will not.  Brake pads/rotors can be $100-150; odds are you need a cheap brake job with the cheapest parts.  The power steering belt squeal is not an adjustment: a new serpentine belt ($25) is a likely candidate because I suspect yours is original and glazed like a doughnut.  All of this is normal used car stuff, and you shouldn’t be afraid to get them sorted.

I am more concerned about this Kia’s timing belt: another expense we haven’t considered.  Still, if I were you, I’d find a good non-franchise mechanic who runs a clean shop, has fair labor rates, and bite the bullet: get your parent’s help to get the car serviced. I suspect any alternative vehicle in your price range won’t be much better than your current ride.

My point: a big repair bill (for normal wear parts) sets a car straight for several years. By then your advanced degree can buy you a sweet wagon with a 6-speed stick.  And don’t forget the little people who got you there, ya hear?

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38 Comments on “Piston Slap: Service The Spectra Or Show It The Door?...”

  • avatar

    Show the cheap south korean Taurus knockoff the door.

  • avatar

    This generation of Kia was not a great car.  You should probably ditch it and get a used Mazda Protege5, Pontiac Vibe, or Toyota Matrix.  They are all hatchback that were available with sticks.

    • 0 avatar

      Right, but he can’t afford a new car of the types you suggest.  And any used car in his budget is going to be subject to “maintenance the previous-owner bothered to do” roulette.
      He should stick with the devil he knows right now until school is finished.

    • 0 avatar

      Right MrDot.  Fix the car you know the complete history of.  Drive it a few more years and then after you’ve got that job that required a Masters Degree, go buy yourself something nice.  Heck your going to have student loans to pay off soon enough!

  • avatar

    advice is spot on, these sound like mostly normal wear repairs and well worth it considering how much more expensive buying a new car is.

    This however, “Oh, so you are one of the 500 people in this country that like wagons with clutches? Nice.” is just totally wrong. I just shopped these exact cars last week (multiple dog owner), and if your definition of wagon includes hatches (it should IMO) the market is flush. There’s the Golf, Jetta, Fit, Mazda3, sx4, Impreza, older Civics, Matrix/Vibe, used A41.8T, used 3series, and ALL of them have sticks, usually available for test drives on the lot.

    The only wagons without sticks are SUV’s and now the big Germans. They don’t have them because they aren’t affordable enough for young people to buy in the first place, not because Americans don’t want manual hatches.

  • avatar
    Philip Riegert

    It is a tough call. The money you put in will likely keep it going for a long time. I am assuming release bearing for the clutch problem. The deal with the Kia is that it is a simple car with simple repairs. I work for Toyota and problems with newer cars can present newer problems that the Kia wouldn’t experience. All depends on what the history has been. Relatively maintenance free?

    Tough call for sure!

  • avatar

    You can do all the work outlined including the timing belt for about the equivalent of 3-4 months payments on a new car.  Keep it running until you can genuinely afford a new car that you’d want to keep.   With limited finances you’ll end up in a newer car but it’ll still not be the car you want.  Treat this thing as an appliance that you keep running until you graduate and have a good income.  It’s not good to start out right out of school with car payments tying you down.  You’d be inclined to take a suboptimal job just to avoid defaulting on the new car loan.

  • avatar

    Fix it.  Getting another used car will only cost you money for other repairs.

  • avatar

    Keep it. The kinds of repairs you are talking about for the (low!) mileage is very normal.  According to parts and labor could run you $537-$715 on a new clutch, $56-$89 on the drive belt, $228-$300 for front brake pad and rotor replacement, and $265-$342 for a new timing belt.  The ranges are for independent shop versus dealership.  So all together, $1086 to $1446 plus tax.  That’s a cheap investment to get a car running well for another few years until you can afford something more to your liking.  Plus, the car is already at the bottom of its resale value.  You’ll likely be able to sell it in a few years for close to what you can now (privately) especially with as few miles as you put on it per year and the number of years left the clutch and belts will have.  Don’t let the new car siren lure you.  As you get older you will realize what a grand waste of money cars can be.

  • avatar

    I’m guessing that actual sales data would argue against your assumption that young people aren’t able to afford expensive manuals vs. not wanting manual hatches.  Even looking at the myriad of low(er) cost hatches that you mentioned, I’d venture to say that the majority of those sold in the USA were/are automatic.  Having one or two on the lot available for test drives doesn’t equate into sales.  The reason one is one the lot is most likely due to the fact that it didn’t sell!  Most Americans (enthusiasts like us not withstanding) don’t want a manual transmission anymore, in any class of car.
    As for replacing or repairing the Spectra…tough call when a car gets that old and the potential repairs easily equal or exceed the value of the car.  My 1997 Tercel is sitting on 190k now, and though it does well enough around town, it’s not strong enough anymore to do long distance trips.  I’m all for not buying new (and buying in cash whenever possible), but at some point, it makes more sense to invest in something newer and less prone to breakdowns.  I guess if he could repair the Spectra for $1000 or less and expects it to last him a reasonable amount of time, then I’d go for the repairs.  Over $1000, then I’d start to consider a replacement.

    • 0 avatar

      I think this is the best advice here. Throwing money down the drain on a car that is worth almost as much as the repair isn’t smart, especially when the thing can have just as costly a breakdown in the near future.
      If the car has been good to you, and you know its entire past then taking that gamble is probably worth it. If not, I would we wary.
      Get a good estimate and do the math and see if it makes sense. It is true that it maybe hard to find a car in that price range that doesn’t have problems with it, so the fix may be worthwile. Just don’t spend too much money on something thats already worth so little.

    • 0 avatar

      It wasn’t one or two on the lot for test drives…they were the only available cars. The Fit for instance couldn’t be test driven in automatic period (might be a bad example as its not so easy to test drive one at all). Overall, the Honda dealer was clearly not having problems moving that metal, they sold the base model I test drove the same day it arrived, in manual (off the truck, called me in for my test drive, sold 3 hours later). They did not have a buyer lined up when they ordered it, or I wouldn’t have been given the drive.

      The VW dealership was ordering manual tdi wagons pre-emptively because they were in demand and they were skewed heavily towards stick on their GTI’s on lot, both pre-owned and new. The Speed3 and Si are manual only, 2 of the 3 Forte’s we saw were stick and Subaru had a healthy amount of both transmission options with the Impreza. The point here is that, yes they sell a lot of autos, but dealers themselves are ordering manuals when they are selling a car in the right price range for manual buyers.

      The only complaint I heard about sticks was the Honda dealer griping that the S2000’s needed an auto (this was a while ago). The problem was the $35k pricetag, because they move Si coupes all day long with manual trannies at $22k, and nobody prefers a civic coupe to the S2000.

      edit…to be fair to your point, I was shopping in a rural low income area, not a major metropolitan market. I’m sure local price considerations greatly influence those ordering trends.

  • avatar

    If it’s just normal wear repairs, then keeping it and fixing the issues makes sense.  The question is not if the repairs will be more expensive than the car is worth, but are the repairs going to be cheaper than getting a replacement car?  If you buy a cheap(er) replacement used car, you have no guarantees.   To buy a CPO car, you’d have to spend a fair amount of money.  If you can do it with your parent’s help without getting weighed down by car payments, then it may be worth it.  It’s a tough call.  A long time I bought a used K car (Reliant), and then spent all my spare money on fixing it until I chucked it.  How about going to AAA or CAA and having them inspect your car in great detail and tell you how it’s doing?  They might uncover more issues, or they might give it thumbs up (except for the issues you mentioned).

  • avatar

    I have a 2001 Hyundai Elantra GT hatch, which is mechanically identical to the Spectra.
    The P/S squeal is likely to stick around following a belt change and a proper adjustment. I went as far as a teardown and cleanout of the P/S pump, as well as a pressurized flush of the system, and mine still squeals just as you describe. I suspect a problem with the rack, but as long as my car still goes where I point it, I’ll live with the squeal.
    I suspect that you need the clutch to be replaced, as suggested above. Mine is at the top of the pedal movement for engagement, and is due soon. Now I know what symptoms to look for.
    Go to your local APS and buy rotors and pads – they are super cheap and it’s maybe a 2-hour job. I have had the brakes apart in my Elantra so many times I could probably do it blindfolded. This car should have gotten a big black dot in Consumer Reports for the brakes.
    The timing belt in the HMC/KMC 2.0 is due every 60k. It is also an interference engine. Replace it if you haven’t recently.
    A good rule of thumb when faced with a “repair or replace” scenario is about $2000 a year in repairs should be considered normal for a car of this vintage and lesser pedigree. A “new” car with a $300/month payment is going to be about $1600 more per year than the car I assume you own outright. This also assumes that the “new” car has NO maintenance issues.

    • 0 avatar

      My wife’s 2002 elantra had a steering squeal that ended up being the pulley.  Cheaper than the whole rack, but still annoying.

    • 0 avatar

      My 01 Elantra power steering squealed, and I tightened the PS belt to no avail.  Then I realized that it was actually the alternator belt that needed to be tightened, since it drives the PS system.  Problem solved.

      I also changed the timing belt on this car myself.  I’ve worked on lots of cars, and never encountered a more difficult bolt to loosen than the crankshaft pulley bolt.  Spec says torque to 150 ft-lbs, but I’ll bet I applied at least 300 breaking it loose.

      It’s still running nicely with 142k miles.

    • 0 avatar

      This was the last year of the Spectra before it started sharing platforms with the Elantra. The one in question was a pure Kia platform at the time, and most likely had a Kia engine and not a Hyundai engine, although I am not 100% sure on the drive train as Kia did get a pretty quick infusion of drive trains from Hyundai once they took control and instituted the 10yr/100k warranty.

  • avatar

    It’s a proven fact that many of todays cars will go 200,000- 300,000 miles easily with normal routine maintenance . I personally haven’t seen many Spectras with that high a mileage but it doesn’t mean that it won’t go that long. If you are at all mechanically inclined or have a friend that is do the brakes  yourself. They are a no brainer once you see how easy it is to do. Most people I know with the Hyundai cousin say they need to put brakes on these cars at least once a year so not sure how yours is for that. Failing that a local trustworthy mechanic with a reasonable hourly rate is your next best bet, especially for the clutch and timing belt which you are going to want done soon before you bend the valves and ruin the heads when the belt it’self breaks. This is an interference engine meaning when you lose the belt the pistons collide with the valves and bend them causing major expensive headaches for you. The serpentine belt squeal seems to also be an issue with the Hundai Elantra cousin as I know two friends with those cars and squealing belts. Again no real experience with your exact car but the engine I believe is the same 2.0 liter DOHC unit from the Elantra. I would keep what you have and get some estimates for the timing belt and clutch and go from there.

  • avatar

    If you can get it fixed for around a grand, there’s no reason not to. With the money you’d spend on 3 or 4 payments for a new one, you could likely have your current car running like a champ for another year or two, and keep the money saved for a rainy day.

  • avatar

    Best and Brightest: don’t forget the Parental Units can be tapped for financial help…either to buy someone else’s problems or to fix these.

    I’d get them to keep this Taurus nose’d, Intrepid butt’d, South Korean nightmare on the road for a couple more years.  Two years from now a well maintained Kia will sell for the same price as a neglected money pit in the making shall right now. This things at the bottom of the depreciation curve, and it doesn’t get any better than that for a grad student.

    Keep “The Enemy You Know” until you graduate.

  • avatar

    Steven Lang has recently weighed in on a $3000 alternative that the OP will absolutely hate, hate, hate  –  a late model Ford Taurus –  the one just before the Volvo derived thingy. Reliable transportation with all thrill of beige wallpaper. Couldn’t be worse than the Dodge Polara that I and my siblings used while in college, though. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

  • avatar

    How about learning to work on your car? I always see “it’s $XX to get whatever it is fixed”. Yes it will mean getting your hands dirty and yes there is still a lot of DIY that can be done on the newer cars and a ton of online info, forums, etc.
    Maybe not everyone can rebuild the transmission, but belts and brakes are certainly do-able.
    I remember our (thankfully gone) A4 with the 1.8T engine – I hated that car, but became an honarary Audi tech on timing belts, cv joints, windows, the list goes on.  Not because I wanted to, but because of the cost and time to take it in.

    I think we sell ourselves short on a lot of things these days.

  • avatar

    This is what i did when I needed to replace my High-School neon sport coupe manual with 190,000 miles: I found a Chrysler PT Cruiser wagon with a manual, 24k miles– 2008 model. 18 months/12k warranty, one-owner vehicle. $7,990.00 on It’s ultimately more practical, more refined, more adult and isn’t as kitschy as some will make it sound. The car drives like a luxe model after a decade in a semi-punishing(don’t ever listen to reviewers that say a car is tightly-sprung, but will work for the day-to-day– they don’t keep them long enough for the things to compress their spines) econocoupe.
    Convince the parentals to pop for it and you’ve got another decade of driving for the price of 6 courses and books. It’ll still be worth something when you can afford to get your own, and give it back– or they can bite the bullet and just make it a gift like mine did. I plan to gift this one to my 12 year-old Niece with the “mom’s minivan fetish.” It’s a special little girl that appreciates the virtues of a LWB Town & Country– a very special little girl, indeed.

  • avatar

    I feel your pain. I would say kill it with fire, but Sajeev is right. In your situation best to live with it until a more opportune time arises. Any used car generally requires $1000 worth of service within the first year or two anyway. So even if you bought a relatively nice $3-5k car, you still would be looking at a repair bill sooner or later. As for tradin or resale value, for this, nothing, nada, forgedaboutit. Just drive it into the ground and get what you want when you can.

    I also second the guy that says consider doing some of the work yourself, especially the brakes. That is only a few hours for even a first timer. Plenty of info on howto available on google. Maybe find a friend to help out who has done brakes before, but really it’s straightforward, easy and relatively painless.

    As for the warped rotors, I have often experienced that tire shops do not tighten the nuts on tires to the proper torque values. Having a combination of too-loose and too-tight nuts is often the cause of warped rotors. If you have a couple too loose it can even feel like a warped rotor without it actually having happened yet. A $10 torque-wrench is all you need. 80 ft-lbs is the general rule on lug nuts. Here is a chart to be specific
    Also – don’t torque the nuts with the car on jacks, just tighten them, set the car down, then do the torquing.

    If they are actually warped you usually can get a brake shop to refinish the rotors instead of replacing them. They’ll tell you if they are too worn to be refinished.

    • 0 avatar

      dolo: If they are actually warped you usually can get a brake shop to refinish the rotors instead of replacing them. They’ll tell you if they are too worn to be refinished.
      Most non-AutoZone parts stores do the same.  It’s a win-win for them, either they make a sale on rotors or they turn them for $15 a pop.  Way cheaper than a brake shop, if you don’t mind putting your car on jackstands for a couple hours.

    • 0 avatar

      Good to know. I actually may be doing that soon with my girl’s car, who has a bit of a shimmy on highway braking. I just got a new set of tires for her (after she creamed a center divider taking out 2 tires at 1am, nice wake up phone call there). I was quite disturbed to find when I took the tires off that some of the nuts were torqued past 100 while others could be undone with just my fingers! No tire shop will ever touch my nuts again!

  • avatar

    I agree with Sajeev…Fix this car…Have your parents kick down for a timing belt and water pump job ASAP!…Not sure if this car is an old Mazda powertrain, but if it is, check out the clutch slave cylinder first…they have failed on both my 95 miata and 99 protege. If it needs a clutch, have your folks pay for that too.  Rotors for such a little car are $22 each at autozone, and pads about another $20 bucks…you have got to have a friend into cars that could swap them out for a pizza and beer, right?
    Even if you do get gainful employment I’d say keep this car until it dies, and pocket the $$$ that you would otherwise spend in car payments.

  • avatar

    Should I use my parents money while I still can?
    This is a rhetorical question, right?

  • avatar

    Being the ultimate miser when it comes to running old cars, I would repair the damn thing, but do it piecemeal, meaning the cost is spread over a longer period of time.
    First up I’d do the brakes – nice and cheap and it’s probably the most important.
    I’d leave the clutch until it actually starts to slip badly – you can’t really do much more damage. And whilst you suffer a couple of month of annoying driving, you can save up for the clutch to be replaced.
    Power steering? Just don’t push the steering wheel right up until full lock, ease off and you shouldn’t hear the squealing. Otherwise like the man says, just buy another belt – they’re not expensive and are easy enough to fit.
    Or the ulimate miser way is drive it to destruction and then buy another car for $200 from the local auction, drive that to destruction and repeat ad infinitum.

  • avatar

    unless the dealer’s doing one of those “well give you x amount of dollars no matter what” deals you’ll be lucky to get more than 500 on the trade in

    the most the dealers were willing to give on my dad’s 01 Sephia with 65,000k and no mechanical problems was 700 back in 06

    hell there was a used car lot with an 02 Sephia with “free” on the wiendshield for months (thats right you can’t even give away a Kia)

    you’re best bet is to get the 500 dollars worth of repairs done , save up till something else inevitably goes wrong, and then sell the car to a scrap yard

  • avatar

    I’m inclined to think Sajeev’s advice is sound, although it really depends on how well spectras of that era age. I checked some mid-’00s Consumer Reports; they had nothing on the spectra, but other Kias range from “average” to “much worse than average”.
    On the other hand, if osnofla could pick up a Honda or Toyota for a G or two that was in decent shape, it might be a better bet. But you have to expect to put $ into an old car, and it takes a lot of $ of repairs before it’s worth it to replace a car. I had a ’77 Toyota Corolla from ’85 to ’93,and every year I put more money into the car than it was worth (typically around $500, which probably equates to $750 in today’s $), and every year that car gave me excellent service.

  • avatar

    I’m pretty sure it has to do with the clutch. When I upshift the engagement is very rough, especially below 3k rpm. It kind of lunges forward and stops and forward again then finally picks up roughly around 3k rpm and the rest of rev range is smooth.

    Doesn’t sound like the clutch to me.  Rough engagement (often called chattering) is most noticeable when starting up from a stop in first or reverse gear.  The clutch is being slipped the most under these conditions and the torque multiplication of the gearbox is highest and so the vehicle gets shaken the most.   I’d suspect some type of engine problem.  Is the “check engine” light on?

  • avatar

    My wife is generally after me to replace my old truck because something breaks now and then.

    But think about it:  even a basic truck is $17000.  The sales tax ALONE is $1200.  $1200, particularly since I do most work myself, would pay for a lot of repairs.  Let alone all the other expensive of a new purchase.

    The cheapest car is generally the one you already own.


  • avatar

    “Here’s why: the Kia will net $1000 on a trade-in, if you’re lucky
    Uh, more like $500. If you are lucky. Dump it. Now.

  • avatar

    Thanks to Sajeev and to all the B&B at TTAC for giving such valuable insight.
    Since the writing of that email, I actually went through with the repairs which ended up costing around $1,200 for brakes, clutch repair, spark plugs and a coil assembly. While the problem with the rough acceleration was not caused by the clutch, I decided to replace it since it was well past its useful life. The actual problem was a misfiring cylinder at which point the spark plugs were replaced but since the problem persisted, the coil assembly was replaced.
    The good news is that my sister and I are swapping cars. I will be getting her 2008 Sentra with a CVT, a characteristic I lament but it’s for the better. But no regrets since I have extended the life of the Spectra by a few years making it still a really cheap car to operate and I hope she enjoys the penalty box.

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