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.
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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.