Kia Spectra5

Review Notes: Kia Spectra5, manual transmission
Personality Surprisingly fun small car that happens to be a wagon
Above Average: Value, overall pleasantness and fun combination
Needs Work In: Gas mileage could be better with a higher gear ratio
Quirks Korean-standard power locks and windows
EPA gas mileage 25 city, 32 highway (34 highway with automatic)
Price Base, $25,535; as tested, $28,260

The Kia Spectra5 is a real departure for Kia, providing class-leading horsepower ratings and interior space in the highly competitive sporty small car market. Its best feature may well be the way it combines sportiness with shock insulation, so that it always feels ready to be tossed around corners or raced down the straights, without the stiffness and discomfort of many small and sporty cars. Even with a fairly substantial weight (2,844 pounds) and fairly low bottom-end power, the Spectra5 will easily beat a stock Honda Civic EX or Toyota Corolla in both acceleration and interior space, with greater comfort than the Honda Civic thrown in. The only down-side in the specs race is gas mileage - while 0-60 sprints come in about a full second faster than in a Civic EX, gas mileage is also considerably lower.

The Spectra5's interior is surprisingly large for such a small car, weighing in at just about the same size as a current-generation Neon - plenty of room for a family of four. Behind the back seat, the wagon/hatchback design provides a good amount of cargo space. With the back seats folded, you can carry a five foot long object. Headroom is quite good in all seating positions. The seats are comfortable even in the base model, with a manual height adjustment for the driver as well as the usual fore-aft and recline controls.

The Kia Spectra5 feels quite nimble, thanks in part to a strut brace up front - an unusual thing to see in a production car, it's normally used in the aftermarket to compensate for insufficient front end stiffness - and thicker sway bars than used in the standard Kia. Oddly, though, despite good-quality Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires in an aggressive size, it is easy to spin the front tires on acceleration - indeed, sometimes it's hard not to, especially when accelerating into a turn. This isn't much of a problem outside of first gear, but wheel hop and slide are almost everpresent in enthusiastic launches. On the lighter side, that spinning rubber doesn't seem to exact much of a control penalty, nor are the hops accompanied by the sound of tortured tires.

One area where the Kia really shines is in its handling of rough surfaces. It smooths out the bumps surprisingly well, providing a ride one would expect in a Camry or Galant, without sacrificing road feel. We really enjoyed the combination of isolation from harshness and quick, whippable reaction times; tossing the Kia around turns was fun, but not having it jitter and rattle and shock was very enjoyable. It never felt like a wagon, either - and there was no audible evidence of that open back, either. The combination of the two is unusual and endeared the little wagon to us.

The 2.0 liter engine puts out 138 horsepower, but you have to rev it high to get there, and if you're in too high a gear, it seriously bogs. On the other hand, it loves to rev, and once you get used to the idea of keeping the revs high, it's a lot of fun. The exceptionally smooth clutch and easy to use stick-shift make getting (or staying) in the right gear easy. The engine provides good feedback, generally, though there's no warning before you hit the rev limiter. Fortunately, the tachometer is standard equipment, and the rev limiter is the "soft" kind that keeps you at the redline with a gentle fall-off, rather than the sudden barrier many earlier cars had. The engine provides decent enough mid-range torque.

The Spectra5 is geared like the ACR (or 2000-2002) Neons, with a fairly low top gear ratio - in short, the engine revs pretty high at 55 mph, and even higher at normal highway speeds. The good news is that the Spectra5 is peppy on the highway; the bad news is that it also produces a lot of engine noise and gets relatively poor mileage on the highway (just as those Neons did). The good news is that most people don't mind engine noise much (it's wind noise that really annoys most people, and the Kia has surprisingly little wind noise), and the mileage is still very good when compared to SUVs, trucks, minivans, and larger cars - with EPA ratings of 25 city, 32 highway, you're bound to get in the high 20s on the highway, and, if you drive for economy, may even break 30 mpg. (By comparison, a Toyota Corolla will easily reach 38 mpg with EPA ratings of 41 highway, and a Neon should get about 34 with EPA ratings of 38 highway). We were unable to test gas mileage on our test car. Braking is straight and confident, though we recorded fairly long braking distances.

The controls are all familiar, standard types, with a good solid feel and sensible functions. The climate control, with standard air conditioning, can easily be operated with gloves on; the defroster works quickly. Our minor complaints are that the fan is a bit noisy on the lowest setting, and you can't set the vent control "between" settings (some new cars provide a continuous adjustment for the vents). We did not have a chance to test the power of the air conditioning unit, but it didn't have much of a drag on the engine. Heat comes up fairly quickly.

The instrument panel, again, is familiar, conventional, and clear, with a large speedometer and tachometer, and smaller voltage and gas gauges. The backlighting is just the wrong shade of green, which looks as though Kia had people fighting over whether to use traditional green or amber, and ended up compromising with a mixture of the two, but it's not too hard to get used to. The only quirk, which is shared with many GM vehicles, is a large amber warning light saying that the passenger airbag has been deactivated, when nobody is in the passenger seat. Having this on continuously when the driver is alone desensitizes people to warning lights, not a good idea.

Other quirks, as long as we're on the subject, include the standard Korean model of door locks, which assume that when the driver locks his/her door, all the passenger doors must also lock, which can be...bad. (Opening the driver's door now does not affect the other doors.) On the opposite side, locking the passengers out of the power windows also locks the driver out, which can also be bad when travelling with kids. The Spectra5 comes nicely loaded with a rear wiper/washer/defroster, fog lights, folding side mirrors, and intermittent wipers, but no cruise control - that's another $200 - or antilock brakes - another $400 (which is reasonable enough).

Visibility is good all around, with the large rear pillar compensated for somewhat by small windows between the pillar and rear windows. The headlights are strong and well focused, better than most cars. Headlights go off when you take the key out, and driving lights go out when you open the door.

The stereo is surprisingly good at music reproduction and easy to operate, though bass is a bit too strong for talk radio. Stereo separation is excellent, and the bass is strong at all speeds. Great-for-class sound insulation helps to keep the stereo sounding good at high speeds.

Storage space is available in many places aside from the generous hatch, including large map pockets in both front doors (with Big Gulp style cupholders molded in), a small rubberized change pocket on the left, small, open rubberized compartments in the middle, large and primitive cupholders molded into the center console, and a closing armrest with two compartments between the front seats to complement the capacious glove compartment. Rear passengers, alas, only get cupholders that fold out from the back of the front center console - not a good arrangement for tykes but good for adults.

This is one of the few cars we seriously thought about buying. That says quite a bit. (What turned us off? The thought that for $5,000 more we could have an SRT-4...and we haven't driven the Cobalt or next-generation Neon yet...Neons are being very heavily discounted...and we wish they'd address that wheelspin. But we're only casually in the market; if we were more serious, we'd be talking to dealers.)

This car is a far better deal than the less-enjoyable Matrix/Vibe, the cheaper-feeling Focus, the less-satisfying and much-slower Civic, and a number of other contenders. We hope it's a hit - we'll be disappointed if it isn't.