Ignore those who would cast aspersions on Kia, for the days of low-rent, dubious-quality have ended. The Sorrento proved that beyond any doubt; the new Spectra5 takes dependable engineering another step forward. Roomy, sporting, and handsome, the 5-door Kia Spectra is a practical contender in the compact class. Base price: $14,995, warranty 5 yr./50,000 mi. total car; 10 yr. powertrain.
I have this habit of talking to the cars I bring home. I start by informing them that we will begin our time together with a 1-hour, 35- minute ferry ride to Vancouver Island. If I was a press car and found myself deep in the hold of a ship I'd wonder what kind of weirdo journalist held the keys, so this must be reassuring. Then I explain that said car will be parked indoors, away from the ravages of bird droppings. I swear this bright red Spectra5 actually winked at me with its huge headlights when I uttered those words. What my fellow ferry passengers thought may be quite different but the car and I were obviously off to a good beginning. One which only got better as the roominess, the tall car ease of entry, the logical positioning of controls, and the pleasing manner in which it handled and performed, grew on me. It grew on my buddies, too, former pilots who meet at Mary's Airport Cafe every Saturday for breakfast and top it off with a look at whatever Philip's driving. They walked around, commenting on the attractive styling and then, at my urging, checked the interior, front seat and back. Approval, from a tough bunch of critics! Oh... in case you're convinced I'm crazy, when was the last time you talked to your car?
In the Driver's Seat
There is nothing about the 2005 Kia Spectra5's interior that is notably different. What counts, though, is the sum of the parts, how the important details are where you expect them to be and how they work together. The dash layout is excellent, dominated by a large speedometer. Controls are simple, their scale aimed at real people rather than 20-year-old computer geeks. Trim is subdued, perhaps too much plastic, yet set off with just enough faux-titanium to relieve the monotony. A thick leather steering wheel presents itself, seats are firm, not especially deep but height adjustable; manually, as are all the seat adjustments. No less than six weight-sensitive airbags protect passengers, a remarkable safety feature for a car of this class. Grab handles are provided on both sides, map pockets are long and deep, extra storage exists in and under the console. Sightlines are hampered by the low seating position, an odd dichotomy considering the 2005 Kia Spectra5's tall profile. Rear seat passengers sit high for clearer vision, get more than ample leg and headroom plus storage nets in the front seatbacks, grab handles, cupholders. The tall profile pays off in luggage space and with the 60/40-split seatback, carrying capacity is huge.
On the Road
Kia, you should be aware (because this fact is a positive), is owned by Hyundai. The two companies are beginning to share platforms and engines, with Hyundai moving upmarket and Kia enjoying the entry-level and mid-market territory. Thus the 2005 Spectra5's platform will be underpinning the next Elantra, while the existing Elantra 4-cylinder engine powers our test car. At 138 hp it had plenty of urge in the Elantra GT but seemed uninspiring in our Spectra5. That, however, may be because the Spectra had almost-zero miles when I picked it up; yours truly being first in the PNW to review the 2005 Spectra5. With enough miles performance should improve. The 5-speed manual might also help, yet I was pleased enough with the 4-speed automatic's response. Kia modified the suspension for the 5-door hatch, added alloy wheels and wider rubber, making this a car you can enjoy driving. Steering turn-in (a phrase that means nothing to most people but we know-it-all journalists use it anyway) is moderately quick but not what you'd call sporty, nevertheless the 2005 Spectra5 handles well. Though the engine gets rorty over 4000 rpm, tire and wind noise is commendably low, more important to the average driver.
Mazda3, Toyota Matrix, Ford Focus, et al, finally have a competitor that can undercut them in price while offering an industry-wide warranty leader. While the 2005 Spectra5 may not match the Mazda in gutsy styling, it's close enough in price and performance to become a serious alternative. The interior roominess is truly amazing, as much in the rear as up front, while the tall car stance is a boon to anyone for whom ducking and bending can be a serious challenge. Where I live, that's almost everyone. And yet Kia, by keeping the car wide where it counts, was able to design a car with a pronounced tumble-home (ratio of hip-width vs. roof width) to nicely blend style and function. It is almost a miracle of packaging. No, it's not a sports wagon, yet the handling is sharp enough to satisfy the enthusiast driver. So throw away your perceptions of Kia and take a test drive, but prepare for a surprise. At the price, nothing compares; raise the stakes and the 2005 Spectra5 can hold its own. Just remember to talk nicely when boarding a ferry.