The Kia Spectra is a good choice among a field of compact cars that offer few, if any, bad choices. The Spectra compact sedan and five-door hatchback offer excellent fuel economy along with Kia's strong warranty, which make for a compelling package for budget-minded buyers. It represents one of the best values among compacts, with an impressive list of safety equipment for its modest price.
More important for everyday driving, the Spectra is a nice little car. The Spectra is available as a four-door sedan or as the Spectra5 five-door hatchback. Both present styling that is sharp and distinctive.
Inside is a modern cabin that's roomy and pleasant with quality materials and good fit and finish. Everything is easy to operate.
Spectra gets an EPA-estimated 24/32 mpg City/Highway with an automatic transmission, yet produces peppy performance.
Safety features are plentiful: The Spectra comes with a full complement of airbag supplemental restraints. In addition to the mandatory dual frontal airbags, the Spectra's front-seat occupants are protected by seat-mounted side-impact airbags; while full-coverage side curtain airbags protect both front- and rear-seat occupants.
Kia Spectra LX ($12,895); EX ($14,895); SX ($15,995); Spectra5 ($15,995)
The Kia Spectra makes a styling statement, not a busy, fussy one, but one that's clean, with sculpted character lines and interesting surface planes that set the Spectra apart from the look-alike, safely conservative econo-box class.
The fog lights on up-level models are round, adding perceived height to the front end. Headlight housings taper upward at the outer edges, drawing the eye more naturally into the hood's increased slope. The sporty SX and Spectra5 are distinguished by a more assertive front end highlighted by a black mesh grille, blacked-out headlight surrounds and a deeper front spoiler.
A sharp groove etched into the side accentuates Spectra's rounded shape. Embedding the door handles in the groove reduces clutter. Clearly defined fender blisters add sportiness to the wheel openings. One stylistic hiccup is the rear fender blister, which isn't as well proportioned to the surrounding body panel as is the front blister and leaves the rear wheel looking undersized. Badging is minimal, confined to a Kia logo centered in the grille and above the rear license plate.
On the sedan, the arched roof blends gently into the deck via a soft, flowing sail panel. Then the back end draws all the various geometrics into a pleasing departure. The backlight (rear windscreen) is steeply sloped, flowing smoothly into a short deck. The deck lid ends in a sharp crease filling the arc between the large, angular taillights, from which it drops almost vertically from a slight indentation to the fully integrated rear bumper fascia. A large depression scooped out of the vertical trunk panel houses the rear license plate.
The Spectra5 makes a bolder statement. It's nearly six inches shorter than the sedan, and exactly the same height, but its roof extends almost to its rear bumper, falling gently in height as it does, and visually separating from the more rapidly declining tops of the windows. The roof terminates in a significant spoiler that looks as if it could actually enhance fuel economy (by limiting boundary-layer separation) while keeping the rear window clean.
Small vertical quarter windows behind the rear door glass neatly extend what designers call the daylight opening into what would otherwise be a bulky rear pillar. Large taillights wrap into a point that lines up nicely with that previously mentioned groove in the body side.
Visually more compact wagon than sporty hatch, the Spectra5 won't please everyone. On the other hand, now that once-sleeker competitors such as the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf have put on so much middle-aged bulk, the Spectra5 is looking better by comparison. Kia says the Spectra5's shape maximizes interior volume.
The Kia Spectra proves that interiors can be stylish and user friendly without being expensive. Its cabin features an organic design that's pleasant to look at. It feels like a compact, but doesn't feel cheap. Everything is easy to operate with no awkward or annoying traits.
Large expanses of textured materials give the dash a quality look. The same large expanses make for fewer seams and joints that inevitably will start to squeak as they work against each other, and this, plus good sound deadening, promises quiet times for people riding in the Spectra. Even over rough pavement, only the sounds of tires against road penetrate the cabin. The look is quality, too, with a dark color over a lighter shade, giving the cabin an open feeling while minimizing reflected dash-top glare in the windshield. Door panels are finished with textured plastic panels and soft fabric insets that add to the sense of openness. Splashes of metal-finish trim, including aluminum-trimmed pedals, brighten the interiors of the SX sedan and Spectra5.
The instruments, a large, round speedometer and tachometer and smaller fuel and water temperature gauges, fill a deep-set pod easily viewed through the four-spoke steering wheel. The rim of the steering wheel is thick and easy to grip.
The radio sits high in the center stack, below two large adjustable vents, above which are positioned two smallish screens with digital clock and seatbelt warning displays. Stereo controls are easy to read and use, save for the tuning function, a large rocker switch that scrolls at a fixed, agonizingly slow rate up or down through the frequencies.
In the LX, two storage bins sit beneath the stereo; in the EX, SX, and Spectra5, the smaller of the two bins is replaced by a row of sizable buttons, only one of which does anything, namely, turning the rear window defroster on or off. Across the lower area of the center stack are the climate control knobs: large, round and basic, with tactile feel surprisingly consistent for an economy car. At the left end of the lower dash panel are readily accessible switches for opening the trunk and adjusting the dash lights above yet another storage bin.
The center console houses two cupholders and a bin forward of the shift lever fitted with a grippy pad. Two more cupholders fold out of the rear of the center console for use by rear-seat occupants. Molded map pockets run the length of the front door bottoms; in all but the LX, these have cup-sized rounds molded into the front portion. The EX, SX, and Spectra5 also get magazine nets on the back of the front seats.
Seats are generally comfortable and covered in a quality fabric. They have adjustable head restraints, save for the rear center position. Front seat bottoms could be deeper, however, with more thigh support. The center console armrest is high enough for elbows but too far rearward. The Spectra is roomier than most cars in the class. Headroom and hip room are better than the primary competition: the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus. Other than in rear-seat headroom, where the hatchback offers an extra half-inch, passenger dimensions in the Spectra sedan and Spectra5 are the same.
Visibility out front is good, thanks in part to the height-adjustable driver's seat; from the front passenger seat, the hood slopes down steeply enough to disappear from sight. To the sides and rear, the sedan's tall glass house and slim sails ease parking and quick maneuvers in traffic.
Rear seats aren't as contoured as the front, but occupants enjoy good legroom and headroom. Rear headroom is above most of the class, there's a lot more hip room, and legroom is on par, giving up less than an inch to the roomy Focus. One problem with the Spectra's rear seat is the proximity of the rear wheel well to the door opening; inattention when climbing out can leave traces of road dust and dirt on slacks or skirt.
Trunk space at 12.2 cubic feet is at the low end of the class, though the differences are not dramatic. The trunk floor and sides are finished, but the gooseneck hinges can crush items if packed too tightly. The Spectra5's hatchback body expands cargo space to 18.3 cubic feet with the rear seat in place, or 52.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. That latter figure comes close to the carrying capacity of some smaller SUV-crossovers.
The Kia Spectra offers respectable performance from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It's a modern engine with continuously variable valve timing, and its power output is strong for the class. Acceleration is good, better with the manual than with the automatic, of course, but the automatic offers more than adequate power even for high-speed, long-distance cruising.
Downshifts with the automatic transmission could be smoother. Also, we found it too easy to select third gear instead of Drive when shifting out of Park or Reverse, not that unusual but something to watch.
Fuel economy, according to the latest EPA figures, is slightly better with the automatic transmission, at 24/32 mpg city/highway. Manual models are rated 23/30 mpg.
The Spectra is an economy car with a four-cylinder engine, so occupants are going to hear engine buzz under hard acceleration in the lower gears (with both the manual and automatic transmissions). Only while cruising in the top gears do things truly quiet down. For the most part, wind noise is minimal except for an occasional low moan from the front passenger's side window in strong, left-to-right crosswinds.
Ride quality is solid, not too firm. We found a daylong 400-mile drive wasn't unusually tiring.
Handling and steering are good in the LX and EX, considering the car's height and its tallish tires. The alloy wheels that are optional on EX are no different in their dimensions from the standard steel wheels, so they deliver more in looks than performance. When pushed, the car eases into understeer (plowing), which is common for front-wheel-drive economy cars. We found the brake pedal a bit mushy, but not enough to cause concern.
The Spectra5 and the sporty SX sedan come with a strut-tower brace to stiffen the unit-body, and heavier-duty springs and shocks biased more for handling and less for ride comfort. Their P205/50R16 tires (compared with P195/60R15 tires for the LX and EX) should sharpen steering response and pump up cornering power.
The 2008 Kia Spectra is a good quality compact with very good fit and finish. Styling is sharp and distinctive. Power and economy mesh well. Comfort and convenience are fully featured. We could drive one of these every day and be happy. The Spectra SX promises a sportier driving experience, while the Spectra5 delivers the added utility of a hatchback.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Northern California, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Southern California.