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Kia Spectra receives an upgrade

August 28, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

If driving the much improved 2004 Kia Spectra tells us one thing, it's that an inexpensive car isn't necessarily a "cheap" car.

Nearly every entry-level company has, at one time or another, built its share of "cheap" cars: tiny body, tiny steel wheels, tiny engine, tiny features list, tiny comfort level, all balanced with a tiny sticker price.

Sure, Kia has built cheap cars. Its parent, Hyundai, built cheap cars, once, too. But we watched that company progress and build "inexpensive" high-quality cars with plenty of content. Proof is that Hyundai tied Honda for second spot in a recent J.D. Power and Associates quality survey. Both were narrowly edged out by Toyota.

Could Kia be headed in the same direction? The survey indicates the company has some ground to make up, but to say the Spectra is a step in the right direction is a gross understatement. From looks and roominess, to power and safety, the new 2004 model is better in just about every way, without inflating the sticker price.

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For the time being at least, it's available as a four-door sedan model in LX and EX trim. The hatchback version has been dropped from the lineup, but a sporty wagon, labeled the Spectra5, is due to take its place later this summer.

Compared to last year's cookie-cutter styling, the '04 Spectra's looks are considerably more distinctive and character defining. The aggressively shaped front fascia, framed by a pair of bulging fenders, gives the car more European flair. That theme continues with a dramatically sweeping roofline and short rear deck that projects an air of spaciousness. In fact, while the new Spectra is slightly shorter than the outgoing model, the wheelbase has grown by two inches as has the height. Those enlarged dimensions translate into a roomier cabin.

Space allotment aside, the Spectra's interior is also a more pleasant place to spend time. The dash and gauge package design is more attractive while high-end-looking seat fabrics reinforce a feeling of quality.

Since Kia is owned by Hyundai, the Spectra shares its platform and powerplant with the similarly sized Elantra sedan. As a result, the Spectra's considerably stiffened architecture has been designed to improve ride and handling qualities as well as keep excessive road noise from interrupting normal conversation. The Elantra-based 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine kicks out 138 horsepower, 14 more than last year's 1.8. A five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic completes the drivetrain.

A little more performance is appreciated as is the increased volume of safety equipment. Spectras come with six standard air bags: dual front; seat-mounted side-impact; and side curtain air bags that protect the heads of front- and rear-seated passengers.

The starting-point $12,600 LX includes four-wheel disc brakes, tilt steering, six-speaker audio system with CD player and a manual height adjustment for the driver's seat. For around $1,100 more, the EX adds air conditioning, fog lights, keyless remote entry, power windows, outside mirrors and door locks.

On the options list are anti-lock brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, power sunroof and a rear spoiler.

The soon-to-arrive Spectra5 wagon will have its own sport-tuned suspension as well as unique headlamps, black mesh grille, metal interior trim and foot pedals and available lower body cladding.

The new Spectra couldn't have arrived at a better time for Kia. With gasoline prices steadily climbing, the demand for comfortable, reasonably sized and fuel-efficient vehicles will no doubt follow suit.

The Spectra has some tough competition to fend off in the small-car category, but with a lot of basic goodness on its side and a five-year bumper-to-bumper protection plan to bolster confidence, this feisty little Kia should gain more respect from its peers as well as a lot more satisfied customers.

There's certainly nothing cheap about that.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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