Kia updates Spectra

Friday, April 16, 2004

It's an improved, more stylish and more powerful version of the early 2004 model

By Ann M. Job ~ The Associated Press

Kia's best-selling nameplate, the Spectra, is all new, almost.

The compact four-door car arriving now in showrooms rides on a new platform, has improved engine power, new styling, a bigger trunk and an updated, quieter interior.

It's also the first compact sedan in the segment with standard head curtain airbags. Side-mounted airbags for front-seat riders also are standard, bringing to six the number of airbags in this low-priced car.

But the name isn't exactly new: 2004 Spectra.

There already has been a 2004 Spectra, basically a carryover from the 2003 model, that had been sold starting last year, early in the 2004 model year.

Thus, Kia officials call the new, improved Spectra arriving in mid-model year the 2004 "new Spectra." Kia officials explain the new Spectra carries the 2004 model year designation because Kia wants to gather fuel economy credits from the federal government for the 2004 model year.

Labeling the new Spectra a 2005 model, which also was an option, wouldn't have been as lucrative in government credits, which all automakers can collect and use to help them meet government fuel economy requirements for their fleets.

With just about all the old-style, 2004 Spectras sold and gone from dealer lots, Kia officials know consumers this spring aren't likely to fret over the label game.

Instead, they'll be busy noticing the changes in the new Spectra.

The car is a tad taller and wider than its predecessor, and styling is upgraded and pleasing in a non-flashy, mainstream way.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $13,160 for a base Spectra with manual transmission is up from $12,360 for the previous base 2004 Spectra that did not have all the standard airbags found in the new model.

The price compares with $13,500 for a base 2004 Honda Civic DX sedan with manual transmission and $10,995 for a base 2004 Saturn Ion 1 sedan with manual transmission.

None of these Spectra, Civic and Ion base prices includes air conditioning. While the Civic doesn't offer head curtain airbags, they're available as an option in the Ion.

The new Spectra rides on a more modern platform, a modified version of the Hyundai Elantra's platform. South Korea-based Hyundai also owns Kia.

Once inside the new Spectra, consumers will see an upgraded interior with clean, uncluttered appearance.

Upholstery is soft to the touch and with pieces of it inserted here and there on the inner door panels for an upscale look. The dashboard has a nice, two-tone appearance, and there's even a tachometer in all Spectra models. Also standard: A sunglasses holder on the ceiling, not far from the front map lights.

Cupholders that can accommodate large-size drinks also are standard, as is an AM/FM stereo with six speakers and a CD player.

But note Saturn offers an MP3 player and XM satellite radio for its Ion.

I wish the console/storage area between the front seats was a bit larger. When I positioned the new Spectra's driver seat comfortably for my 5-foot-4 frame, I found the console was a bit too far back to be of much use as an armrest.

Note there are two storage areas in this console -- a shallow one on top, and a deeper, rectangular space below.

Driving the Spectra, it's easy to notice this car is quieter than its predecessor. There was little perceptible wind noise in the test vehicle, and road noise from the 15-inch tires was not obtrusive.

But I did hear the buzz of the four-cylinder engine every time I accelerated, and the noise could get loud when the engine was really pressed.

The ride, itself, is improved from the previous Spectra, with a cohesive sense as the car moved through curves.

Many, but not all, harsh road bumps are kept from passengers. On some uneven pavement, the test car sent enough vibrations through that I felt as if my internal organs were jiggling.

And at just over 2,700 pounds in weight, the new Spectra could be buffeted by large trucks and high winds.

The Spectra remains front-drive, with an independent MacPherson strut arrangement at the front and an independent multi-link configuration at the rear. Both front and rear stabilizer bars are standard, as are four-wheel disc brakes.

Kia officials note that many low-priced, small cars use lower-priced drum brakes at the rear. Indeed, until the new Spectra, Kia's Spectra had drum brakes, too.

The discs are considered an upgrade, but the test Spectra still exhibited a bit of a mushy feel at the brake pedal when I applied the brakes. And antilock brakes still are an option on the Spectra.

The Spectra's wheelbase of 102.8 inches represents a 2-inch increase over the previous Spectra. But it's still less than the 103.2 inches of the Ion and the 103.1 inches of the Civic.

Overall, the Spectra is an inch longer than the Civic but 8.1 inches shorter than an Ion sedan.

The Spectra's front headroom is about the same as the Civic's and Ion's, but the Spectra's 38.2 inches of rear headroom and front and rear hiproom are more than what's in the Civic and Ion.

The Spectra's 35.4 inches of rear legroom is more than the 33.4 inches in the Ion but less than the 36 inches in the Civic sedan.

Rear seats have separate fold-down sections, with one being two-thirds of the seating area, which allows one passenger to still ride in the back seat when long cargo items are slid through from the 12.2-cubic-foot trunk.

But the seatbacks don't fold down completely flat for cargo.

The new Spectra is powered by a 2-liter, double overhead cam, inline four cylinder that incorporates continuously variable valve timing, a first for a Kia.

Mated to a five-speed manual in the tester, it got the car moving in an efficient manner from startup. As I worked the gears, it impressively kept power coming even on some rigorous uphill climbs.

Horsepower now is 138, up 14 from the predecessor Spectra. This compares with 115 horses in the four-cylinder-powered, base Civic sedan and 127 horses in the Civic with VTEC four cylinder.

The base Ion's four cylinder produces 140 horsepower. A supercharged engine in the Ion boosts horsepower to 200.

The new Spectra's engine produces a maximum 136 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm, up 17 foot-pounds from the previous Spectra.

This compares with 110 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm in the base Civic sedan and 145 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm in the base Ion. The supercharged Ion has an estimated 200 foot-pounds of torque.

Both five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions are available in the new Spectra.

Fuel economy is rated at 25 miles per gallon in city driving, about the same as for the Ion but less than the 29 to 32 mpg for the automatic and manual Civic sedan, respectively.

On the highway, the Spectra rating is between 32 and 34 mpg, depending on the transmission used. This, too, is comparable to the base Ion's rating, but less than the Civic's 38 mpg.

Peak sales for Kia's compact car came in calendar 2002, when 72,382 were sold.

Sales fell to 63,049 last year as the company prepared for production of the new Spectra, but the volume still was enough to keep the Spectra as the top-selling nameplate at Kia Motors America Inc.

Target buyers of the new Spectra are primarily between the ages of 25 and 34, Kia said.

About half will be women, with most buyers not having children in the household.

Median income is expected to be more than $45,000 a year.

In the summer, the new Spectra line will expand with the addition of the Spectra5, a five-door hatchback. The Spectra5 made its public debut this week at the New York auto show.

Because the new Spectra is an updated model, Consumer Reports does not have a reliability rating.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports no crash test results and no safety recalls of the new Spectra.

Steve Robertson is on vacation. His column will return next week.

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