• Nov 7, 2007
click above image for high-res gallery of the 2007 Kia Spectra EX

Time was, buying a small car from an entry-level brand meant you'd end up in the penalty box. Vinyl-swathed interiors, cheap and nasty plastics, medieval seats, etc. Those were the bad parts, but there were some aspects of basic cars that we miss. The widespread availability of manual transmissions, you-wind-em windows, money saving aircon and radio delete options are all things that we at least like to see on the order form.

Forgive us if it sounds like we're asking for a revival of the Escort Pony. Sometimes, though, it's refreshing to get into a car that is self-evident to operate and doesn't cost a fortune to run. After sampling the Kia Spectra EX, we're inclined to think that everything else might be overkill.



All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

click on any image to enlarge


Perhaps calling my daily driver Volvo S60 overkill is premature. That car is a whole different thing than the Spectra. Mainly, it was a whole lot more expensive for the original buyer. That brings up a second point; with the Spectra, you get a new car for used-car money. Sure, you could dig up any manner of used-up used cars that would trade for less, but for what you'd spend on a 3-4 year old entry level European car with high miles, you can get a Spectra with zero miles. Not only that, the Spectra has nearly as much interior volume as a 5-series BMW, with many dimensions actually marginally superior to the far more expensive Euro sedan. Neat trick. Oh, and try finding a 5-series in U.S. trim that will return 33 combined miles per gallon without being babied one whit.



Check the Monroney. Ours was filled with things like power windows, 4-wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, tilt wheel, power locks, and a stereo with CD and aux input, all standard in the EX. The only item in the option column was cruise control. This level of equipment was luxury-grade twenty years ago. From the EX trim level, you can go up to the sportier SX, or down to the LX. Look! you can even get rid of the power windows and the AC in the LX, just like the old days.

A departure from the old days, however, is the fact that the Spectra is a quality piece. Outside, the body panels are assembled with Lexus-tight gaps, and the styling has a whiff of Passat with its gestural character line tracing an arc through the flanks. The looks are not groundbreaking, though they're neither weird or ugly. In fact, the Spectra's quite handsome, and the front has a flared-fender stance that gives the car a little visual muscle. Inside and out, the Spectra needs no excuses or shroud of overwrought styling to distract from inferior mechanicals.

The SX is the model we wish we'd tried, just to sample the sportier suspension. Not that the EX is a slouch, but nor is it a sports car. A non-sporting bent mustn't always equal mediocrity; while the Spectra EX won't keep up with a Mazdaspeed3, it doesn't mind if you try. In the end, we get the impression that the chassis is capable of more, but in this case, it's let down mostly by its tires. There could also be a scoshe more firmness in the suspenders, but the sometimes loose wheel control in other Kias does not make an appearance here. The ride is smooth, bumps are absorbed with aplomb, and handling is sharp, until it's not. When the steering goes all gooey in the middle of a corner, you know the Goodyear Eagle LS tires have given up. Kia has done a good job infusing the Spectra with a lively feel while also giving it a smooth ride that doesn't smash its bump stops over every irregularity.



So, perhaps there are better autocross cars, but the Spectra's just right for the daily grind. The interior is quiet and attractively styled and none of the materials have that specular sheen of nasty plastics from yesteryear. Some surfaces look better than they feel, but the overall effect of contrasting earth tones presents well. The seats and door panel inserts wear an attractive fabric, and we were impressed that the interior felt like it would be at home in a car costing $10,000 more. There is room for improvement; the seats could use more bolstering, and some lumbar support would be welcome, too.

While the seats could improve, the ergonomics are above complaint. Three big knobs control the HVAC system, and they operate smoothly. All of the switchgear inside the Spectra feels high-end, in fact. Ancillary controls are usually taken for granted, until they're so horrible that you notice how flimsy things like blinker stalks are. Not so, the Spectra. This hardware would be at home in Kia's flagship Amanti. It's another example that a cheap car doesn't have to be a cheap car.

There's also plenty of power provided by the Beta II engine, part of the GEMA lash-up. The 2.0 liter unit in our car had California emissions, delivering 133 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque while earning an SULEV rating. Consider the 2,800-2,900 pound curb weight, and you'll see that the Spectra doesn't have a problem getting out of its own way. The iron-block DOHC four has a gravelly growl, but it's never thrashy or harsh. Idle is quiet and smooth, thanks to hydraulic engine mounts, and the torque delivery feels meaty, allowing the 4-speed automatic to jump for high gear as fast as possible. That propensity to get into 4th keeps the tachometer needle on the quiet side of the gauge, and we didn't catch the transmission hunting when climbing grades thanks to the torquey engine. When you do need to kick down, the transmission's a little reluctant, but the Spectra isn't a vehicle you need to cane incessantly to keep up with traffic.

The variable power steering can feel overly light at times, but the action is direct and you can tell what mood the tires are in at any time. On the highway, the Spectra has a good sense of straight ahead and doesn't require constant little corrections, which allows the driver to relax and enjoy the quiet demeanor. The simple, legible gauges keep you apprised of the vitals, and you go merrily on your way, possibly even singing along with the pretty good stereo.

Needless to say, this latest generation of the Spectra is leaps and bounds over the one it replaces. It's not just good among its own kind, the Spectra is generally a good car and a fantastic value. It used to be that Honda and Toyota were the small cars you recommended to people whom you wanted to retain as friends. Kia has earned itself a place on that list with the Spectra.



All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 20 Comments
      • 7 Years Ago
      Just wait for the $2,500 - $5,000 Indian China cars.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I echo your sentiments on the Spectra (I wrote a piece in my blog on it). Yet, the only complaint I have with the car is the trunk. Every time I closed it, it simply felt light and its "thunk" really didn't instill any confidence with it. Then again, maybe I should overlook this one detail on a very nicely done compact.

      It makes me want to go out and rent another one. Come to think of it, if the rear room passes "the test," I may even consider buying one when I shop for a new car next year.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Bought my '07 EX manual tranny Spectra in May of '07 and I couldn't be happier with my purchase. It just turned 23k and has not had a single problem. We live off road; 2.5 miles from pavement and our 5 mile round trip to the highway has plenty of washboard and potholes. I fully expected this little car to develop rattles and clinks, but it is still rock solid. Amazing. I've never gotten worse than 29 mpg, and have seen 36, averaging 33-34. I can't really express how pleased I am with this car...it has far exceeded my expectations in terms of value and fun-to-drive quotient. This is why the Big 3 are failing...quality, value, fun to drive, AND a 10 year warranty for under $14k out the door. Ford, GM and Mopar cannot touch this kind of value.
      • 7 Years Ago
      The GEMA engines are Aluminum with a timing chain and usually have VVT on both the intake and exhaust.

      This is and iron engine with a timing belt and VVT on one side only.

      Thank you for the misinformation AutoClog.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Amen. The Beta II is NOT part of GEMA.

        There are some subtle mods that can be done to the Spectra to improve handling- adding a front strut bar (which comes on some models or can be had at the dealer) and adding a rear sway bar from a Hyundai Tiburon are the best handling mods for the money (both can be had for about $200 total for new dealer parts).
      • 7 Years Ago
      nice write-up. I may go test-drive a Spectra5 to see how it is. Kia/Hyundai may now have a good small car to go along with their well-made upper-level cars.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I rented an '07 Spectra EX back in March. Overall, it was OK. Nothing more. The engine was buzzy and it handled like complete crap (almost spun the thing out taking a particular fast turn on my way to work...but to be fair, the same thing happened in a rental Impala) , but I don't think people that buy these care about stuff like that.

      Only big gripes were the windshield washers funtion didn't work (probably Enterprise's fault), the fact that the Korean version of "new car smell" smells like ass, and most disturbing, each time I turned on the car I would hear the sound of water gushing behind the center AC vents. Can't be good.

      In all, after reading all the press about how far Korean cars have come over the past decade, I wasn't impressed.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Sounds like the car you drove had a plugged condensate drain in the AC system, which would lead to bad smells and water gushing. Someone must have parked it under a pine tree or something.

        As for the handling - the Spectra handled quite well aside from the aforementioned tires being underachievers. The fact that you admit to almost spinning out two vehicles in the same location (last time i checked, Impalas have plenty of tire for what the W platform can do) leads me to believe you're hitting that curve too fast :)
      • 6 Years Ago
      Dan Roth is clearly brilliant, as he says what I say about this car.
      I drove the Spectra, Elantra, and Suzuki SX4 Sport (sedan) in my search. Chev dealer had no Cobalts, two Aveos which to me look like tin, and two HHRs. Honda dealer was so arrogant I left. I later drove a new Civic hybrid. Fun toy, rode like a buckboard, but not a superior vehicle to any of the three above-named cars.
      I liked the Suzuki cabin, handling, and cam chain, but at under 12 thousand (vs. $14,750) for my new Spectra EX automatic, I got a deal. A new Elantra would have cost about 15 grand.
      The Spectra also has a 14.5 vs. 13.2 (Suzuki) gallon fuel tank, and fold down rear seats, which the SX4 lacks.
      The engine is torquey, quiet, smooth, and capable of easy cruising at 80-90+.
      The auto will short-shift whenever it can, and it kicks down cleanly and quickly. Second gear is good for about 75 IIRC, so it doesn't leave you dropped into a weak 3rd at about 65 like my 2001 Accord 2.3 did.
      This car is a very intuitive driver, it practically drives itself. Effortless. The non-abs 4-w-disc brakes are excellent, I have nailed them very hard on dry pavement, and braking is even and balanced, with no lockup. This reminds me of some quality European equipment I owned in the late 60s-early 70s. Normally I would not even consider a non-ABS car, but these feel so dialed-in that I went for it.
      Handling is good, not as firm as the SX model but with my amazing skills it works OK.
      I love the straightforward dash layout. Three-dial HVAC controls: simple, clean, intuitive, just the way I like them. Honda got fancy in the 2003 Accord and complexicated what was a clean, simple layout.
      Downside is the speedo and other instruments. They are in an urban-cammo grey which blends quietly and effectively into the background, making speedo/tach etc. difficult to read, or even see in many conditions. Why? Did nobody test drive this dashboard?
      This car seems sensitive to E10, and I've gotten from about 26 to 36+ in mixed driving.
      I will probably replace the tires, GY Eagle LS which are OK on good pavement, but are not foul weather friends.
      Friendly cabin, comfy seats, easy driver, well built & solid, air bags everywhere, low cost, good handling and brakes, big warranty, incredible headlights, and I can go nyaa nyaa nyaaa nyaa! to Honda/Toyota snobs because I got a great package for little dough.
      As Mazda used to say, a GLC--Great Little Car.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Good write up! This is a pleasant car. And for the price, I think most buyers are quite satisfied.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I had this as a rental car when it came out. It was a pleasant car. Better than a Cobalt, Neon/Caliber, or Focus. I also drive an Elantra and liked it better interior-wise, but the Elantra's styling is a bit too odd in places so the Spectra wins there. A cheap car with a fantastic warranty and decent reliability and excellent safety features/scores. A win-win for people who want a less expensive car.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Kia is going turning into a threat, just like Hyundai already is.
      yrs ago it was toyota, now the best buys dollar for dollar are kia/ hyundai
      10 yrs ago I laughed at,and wouldnt be caught dead in one... now I own 2 Hyundai vehicles.
      you better move your asses 'big 3'
      • 7 Years Ago
      The Spectra is a sporty looking KIA, but I still think they would be wise to come out with something that is even sportier looking (like Hyundai did with the Tiburon)

      http://www.kia-forums.com
      thundabaaay
      • 3 Years Ago
      I love my spectra. Bought it 6 months ago, 2007 LX model. Love the DOHC motor and the slick 5 speed tranny. Very suprised at the quality of the interior, no rattles, but the materials are questionable, especially the black plastic around the radio/HVAC controls. Armrests have padding, interior is very large for this class of vehicle as is the trunk. The engine is nice and peppy with the manual although id imagine with the automatic it would be rather dull. The car costed me only $7500 +tax with 27,000KM (only 14,000 miles approx.) and is fully loaded. Awesome car for the money.. theres better cars out there, but for a A to B commuter vehicle, it is a simple but fun way to travel.
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