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New Car Review : 2004 Kia Spectra EX

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2004 Kia Spectra EX

Kia's second 2004 Spectra dares to compare itself with the established players in the compact class. That's a tough neighborhood. Although price is important - cars in this class are commonly called ``economy cars'' for reasons of both cost and operating expense - so is quality. Nowhere else is the difference between ``inexpensive'' and ``cheap'' so apparent, with ``cheap'' ensuring a short life and quick disappearance.

But after driving a new Spectra for a week, and getting more seat time and background information when it was introduced to the press in Southern California a few months ago, I feel that Kia is well on the way to establishing itself as a manufacturer of high quality, inexpensive vehicles. Automakers don't wait for the next calendar or model year to introduce new vehicles anymore, and so when the next-generation Spectra was ready, it went on sale. Internally codenamed ``LD,'' it is a completely different car than the old 2004 Spectra, but the name was kept the same for product recognition. Look to various Federal fuel economy, emissions, and other regulations for the logic behind it being introduced as a 2004 model rather than as a 2005.

Compared to the older Spectra, the new version is larger, more powerful, and better-equipped. It's the only car in its class with standard front side and front and rear side curtain airbags - even on the budget-minded LX model. The ``premium'' EX adds power windows, mirrors, air conditioning, and more as standard equipment. Power for both is from a 2.0-liter, 138-horsepower twincam four-cylinder engine, matched to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

My time in the new Spectra was enjoyable. With its interior space and comfort and chassis and drivetrain refinement, it can easily hold its own against the major players in the compact class. Safety and build quality are important, even to people looking to spend $15,000, not $50,000 on a car, and the Spectra scores well in those categories, too. Best, while the price is still quite reasonable, it's a car that will be bought on its merits, not merely for its price. It's inexpensive, but not cheap.

APPEARANCE: Compact sedans are not just commute modules anymore, there is a thriving performance aftermarket as well. So your basic small sedan has to appeal to both people who want basic transportation and people who want a bit more than that. A sport flair is good, but too much can turn off more conservative potential buyers. Kia has struck a good balance between the extremes with the new Spectra. In basic shape it is very similar to other cars in its class, but details make it stand out. If the front and rear sections are conservatively-styled, the side styling is unique - what looks like a front wheel fender flare is carried all the way to the rear of the car by an arching line that blends into the body just below the windshield A-pillar. A curving, incised character line three-quarters of the way up each side further highlights the shape. Disc wheels with plastic covers are standard, with alloy rims available.

COMFORT: Inspiration for the Spectra's interior styling appears to come less from its direct competitors than from cars a class or two above. It has a contemporary two-tone dark-over-light motif, with high-quality synthetic materials and very good fit and finish. Seat comfort is better than the class average, and room is at or near the top of the class for all dimensions. The front buckets are manually-adjustable, and the rear bench cushion is higher than the front for rear-passenger visibility, with no negative impact on headroom. Although the LX has manual windows and optional air conditioning, the EX boasts standard air and power mirrors, windows, and door locks with remote entry. Both models have full instrumentation, a good standard AM/FM/CD stereo, a 6-way adjustable driver's seat and split folding rear seat with passthrough, rear window defroster, and plenty of useful, well-designed storage.

SAFETY: Safety counts, and the 2004 Kia Spectra keeps its occupants safe with a chassis designed with front and rear crumple zones and side-impact protection beams. Advanced-design front airbags are joined by standard front-seat side and front and rear side-curtain airbags. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, with a four-channel antilock system available in the EX model.

ROADABILITY: Nowhere does the new Spectra shine brighter than in its chassis tuning - and it is very good in all other departments, too. Small cars are often designed and built to a price, and ride comfort and the sort of handling response that can make driving an enjoyable experience suffer. Not here. The new Spectra is built on a new chassis platform that is much improved in rigidity over that of the old Spectra. It features independent suspension at both ends, not merely at the front with a twist beam at the rear. If its MacPherson strut front and multilink strut rear design is not unusual, the care taken in getting the spring and shock rates correctly specified and matched is. It rides more like a more-expensive European-inspired sedan than a sub- $16,000 compact. Steering and handling response is very good. It's not quite firm enough to be called ``sporty '' - there is that compromise between commuters and young enthusiasts to be considered - but it is capable and enjoyable when driven in an enthusiastic manner. Braking, with standard four-wheel discs, is very good.

PERFORMANCE: The Spectra's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is a contemporary 16-valve, dual overhead cam design with variable valve timing for improved torque characteristics and lower emissions. Its 138 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 136 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm are up 14 and 17, respectively, over the output of the previous Spectra's engine, and place it near the top of its class. The engine is smooth and works well with both the standard five-speed manual or the optional four-speed automatic. I spent a day with a manual car at the introduction, and a week with an automatic at home. Unsurprisingly, acceleration and verve are improved with the stick, which has very slick and enjoyable shift linkage. But there is plenty of low-end and midrange torque to allow good performance with the the automatic, and fuel economy with either transmission is very good.

CONCLUSIONS: Kia's new Spectra combines comfort, refinement, and economy.


2004 Kia Spectra EX

Base Price $ 14,725 (with automatic transmission)

Price As Tested $ 15,905

Engine Type dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with continuously-variable valve timing

Engine Size 2.0 liters / 121 cu. in.

Horsepower 138 @ 6,000 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 136 @ 4,500 rpm

Transmission 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase / Length 102.8 in. / 176.4 in.

Curb Weight 2,892 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 21

Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal.

Fuel Requirement 89 octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires P195/60 HR15 Goodyear Eagle LS

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock optional

Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink strut Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 24 / 34 / 30 0 to 60 mph est. 9 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Alloy wheels $ 360 Cruise control $ 200 Carpet floor mats $ 80 Destination charge $ 540