2005 Kia Spectra5 Review

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Short Take: 2005 Kia Spectra5
By Carey Russ

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Kia

Think ``performance sport compact'' and Kia is probably not the first name to come to mind. That segment is important to Asian automakers, and their customers, and the Koreans are not about to miss out. But Kia's entry is a little different from the other cars in the class.

It's a wagon.

Kind of. The Spectra5 can be thought of as either a micro-wagon or slightly-stretched four-door hatchback. Which definition is a matter of a few inches. Either style is commonly thought of as ``five-door,'' counting the rear hatch as the fifth door, hence the name. Sheetmetal is mostly shared with the sedan from the windshield forward; behind that is a stylish body shape more familiar to Europeans or Asians than Americans. The Spectra5 gets an aero kit consisting of a ``splitter''-type front airdam extension, and side sill and rear lower fascia extensions. Although it's about six inches shorter than the Spectra sedan - and so even easier to fit into the elusive urban parking space - the Spectra5 has a cubic foot or so more interior space and six cubic feet more trunk space. Need more? Simply fold either or both part of the rear bench seat down, and there is far more accessible, useable room than in any small sedan. Large items that won't fit through a sedan trunk opening fit easily through the rear hatch.

The interior is stylish as well as utilitarian, with a two-tone motif unusual in this class and the expected simulated-aluminum trim. The front buckets provide good support and have decent side bolstering, which is a plus considering the Spectra5's character. More on that in a bit. Seat adjustment is manual, windows are power. The instrument and control layout is conducive to driving, as are the tilt-adjustable steering wheel and shift knob, both leather trimmed. The pedals, in the finest contemporary sport-compact style, are metal-faced with rubber trim. Unusually, their positioning and relationship are conducive to heel-and-toe driving, and there is a left-foot rest. Materials and construction quality are first-rate, and attention to detail shows in the many interior storage spaces - even a hidden space under the rear load floor.

If the Spectra5's space-efficient design says ``utility,'' where's the sport? Looks can be deceiving, but not in this case. The sporty aspects are in the engine compartment and, especially, the suspension. The engine is the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder as is found in other Spectra models, with 138 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 136 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. That's mid-pack for the small sporty car class, but enough for zippy acceleration, especially with the standard five-speed manual gearbox. Excellent shift linkage, allied with the good pedal arrangement, makes the Spectra5 fun to drive, and if it's not the fastest car in the world in a straight line, no big deal. Wanna go fast in a straight line? Buy an airplane ticket. Corners are where the fun is.

And corners are where the Spectra5 is fun. Need to shed speed going in? Hit the brakes - four-wheel discs are standard, with antilock available. The suspension is fully independent, with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup in the rear, tuned for fun and comfort, with ``plus-one'' P205/50 HR16 performance tires for traction. Like some well-known European cars, the Spectra5's suspension seems soft, and there is a fair amount of body roll in hard cornering. If, as the saying goes, it corners on its door handles, it corners very well on its door handles. Shock and spring rates are matched, for both comfort and adhesion on poor surfaces. And a little body roll is a good indicator to the driver that limits are at hand. The Spectra5 was not meant to be a race car, and it's not. It's meant for sport and utility on the street, and on a budget. There, it shines, especially with a base price of $14,995 that includes just about everything except antilock brakes. Kia may not be a well-known name today, but given the ground the company has gained in the past few years, the secret won't last.

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