Kia has achieved a stealthy success in America by marrying good value and attractive appearance. The redesigned Spectra is the latest example. The creased, chrome-dipped exterior looks as good as anything Japanese, as does the interior, with its smooth dash, two-tone color scheme, and generous dimensions (although we’d like more supportive seats). The headline-grabbing value item is the air-bag count, with side and curtain air bags standard on both the $13,160 LX and the $14,290 EX.
The Spectra shares its platform with the Hyundai Elantra, so it gets Hyundai’s 2.0-liter DOHC four with variable valve timing (a Kia first). The sound quality can’t match that of the best Japanese fours, but at least the noise is well suppressed below 3000 rpm. The output of 138 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque is solid for this class, but unfortunately, the Spectra packs on a couple hundred more pounds than its competitors. Still, acceleration with the manual gearbox is fine, but those who go shiftless will also go slowly, as the four-speed automatic suffers sky-high gearing: first is taller than the manual’s second; fourth is taller than the manual’s fifth (and that’s before the higher final-drive ratio is factored in).
In terms of dynamics, Kia clings to the notion that softness is next to godliness. Despite front and rear anti-roll bars, the Spectra rolls easily, body motions are underdamped, and the 65-series Goodyear Eagle LS tires heel over in hard cornering.
Help should arrive in the form of the Spectra5 hatchback, with its firmer springs and dampers, thicker antiroll bars, larger wheels, and lower-profile tires. The Spectra5 arrives this summer; its sportier chassis bits will migrate to the sedan, the Spectra SX. So those waiting for a real driver’s car from Kia will have to keep waiting. But for most entry-level buyers, the news here is that the Spectra stands tire-to-tire with its long-established competition, and that’s not bad.