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2001 Kia Spectra
John Matras

Americans have an aversion to hatchbacks not shared by the rest of the world. The hatchback has acquired a negative perception that has nothing to do with its actual function and that's a shame, because it's difficult to imagine a more practical vehicle for single-car households. What other body style can haul bicycles and skis, furniture or friends, all with equal aplomb? Okay, an SUV can. But isn't a small SUV just a very tall, underpowered hatchback that doesn't handle as well?

How cool is that? So we think Kia deserves major kudos for trying to sell the five-door Spectra to a skeptical American audience.

Spectra's base price at just $10,995. Kia sweetens the deal with a warranty program that extends basic coverage to five years or 60,000 miles, and powertrain coverage to 10 years or 100,000 miles; it also includes five-year/100,000-mile rust perforation protection, and a five-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan.

At that rate it's hard not to look into a Spectra, through all five doors if necessary. Model Lineup
The Spectra lineup consists of one body style: a hatchback with four passenger doors and a quasi-fastback roofline.

The base trim model is designated GS and lists at $10,995. Air conditioning adds $900 to that price. Or opt for the $13,195 GSX, which lists air conditioning, alloy wheels, power windows, and central locking as standard equipment, plus a leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and an aggressive-looking body kit.

All Spectras are powered by a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 125 horsepower. They come with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission ($975) driving the front wheels. Walkaround
Spectra is based on the Kia Sephia sedan, and powered by the same 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine. The Spectra, however, has sportier pretensions. Its styling is pleasant, albeit vaguely derivative. The front end seems to owe a lot to the Ford Taurus, with elliptical headlamps and a central grille opening with a crossbar, where a red Kia badge substitutes for Ford's blue oval. Between the clear-lens headlamps and the grille sit round high beams. Bulges in the sheetmetal that sweep back across the hood trail the high beam bezels. The front bumper is integrated into the body profile, its plastic cover encircling the cosmetic grille above the bumper and the larger, functional radiator opening below it. Bumpers and mirrors are body color, an upscale feature for a car in this price range. The Spectra's profile won't upset anyone. The windshield has an average rake, and the greenhouse comes out of the designer's standard playbook. A fine crease at door-handle height keeps the side from being too plain. Blacked-out B-pillars create the impression that the Spectra is coupe rather than a four-door.

A winglet attached to the rear of the GSX suits the overall shape of the car, and a rear wiper/washer is optional on both the GS and GSX. The GSX gets front and rear air dams, door-sill extensions and spoked 6x14-inch alloy wheels with P185/65R14 Kumho radials.

The rear hatch is invisible from behind the car. You have to look closely to see the gap around the sides and top of the backlight, and that's the only clue that the whole rear of the car opens up for access to a spacious cargo area.

Spectra's engine sits crosswise in the engine bay. It produces 125 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 108 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. That's less than the optional engine in some of Spectra's primary rivals, but considerably more than the competition's base engines.

The Spectra's suspension is impressive for this class of car. MacPherson struts are used up front while a multi-link arrangement replaces the usual twist-beam axle in back. Front and rear anti-roll bars are standard. Lotus Engineering, creator of exotic, world-class sports cars, tuned the Spectra's suspension to optimize handling and ride quality. Rack-and-pinion steering is standard, and power assist varies with engine speed to firm up the steering at higher velocities. The vented front disc brakes for both the GS and GSX have been made thicker and larger in diameter for 2001. Kelsey-Hayes four-channel ABS is optional (at $800), but only on the GSX; it includes an upgrade to disc brakes in the rear. Interior
The Spectra is an inexpensive car, and this point is reflected in its interior. The dash design is generic and inoffensive; it could have come from one of many Asian sedans. The controls are easy to use. Kia has responded to earlier complaints about tiny radio buttons. As a result, even ham-fingered auto writers can operate the Spectra's radio without much distraction. The base GS has a standard tachometer and AM/FM/cassette stereo.

Door panels on less-expensive cars are often plain plastic, but both the GS and GSX have cloth door-panel inserts. The GSX upholstery is upgraded to nicer "sport cloth." The seat bottoms on the front buckets, however, are short on support for longer legs; and the overall quality of the plastic parts in the interior is below standard for the class.

The rear seat will accommodate three, but not if they're adult males who plan to be there for a while. The seat folds 60/40 for cargo flexibility that challenges a small wagon and, with the Spectra's hatch design, is even easier access. Seats up, the official trunk has 11.6 cubic feet of luggage room, which is excellent for a small car. Driving Impressions
The Spectra GSX is not blindingly fast, but if the driver is willing to rev the engine, it delivers spunky acceleration with the five-speed manual transmission. The engine revs with abandon and seems happy to do so.

The gearshift lever has a rubbery feel, but we never missed a shift. Clutch take-up is smooth and light. We suspect the optional automatic transmission would sap a good deal of the engine's vigor; comparing the ratios of both transmissions confirms that impression. Anyone at all interested in acceleration in a Spectra should learn how to drive a stick.

The automatic compensates somewhat with a taller overdrive ratio (0.70:1). Not only does that mean quieter cruising at freeway speeds, but also a better EPA highway mileage rating: 31 mpg for the autobox, compared to 30 mpg with the five-speed. The manual edges the automatic in city mileage, however, at 25 mpg vs. 22 mpg.

In cornering, the Spectra offers good balance, as one would expect from Lotus Engineering. Like most front-wheel-drive cars, its handling is predisposed to understeer (the front tires begin losing grip before the rear tires do). Turn-in for corners is a little sluggish: Our impression was that there's something rubbery between the steering wheel and the pavement, with a squishiness that has to be taken up before the Spectra begins to turn. This is particularly noticeable in fast, slalom-type directional changes.

The Spectra is quiet on the highway, with a surprising absence of wind or engine racket. It feels larger than its compact measurements would seem to warrant, even on an extended drive.

We were delighted by the performance of the standard brakes. We checked them out on a closed circuit that had several corners requiring high-speed braking. The Spectra's brakes never whimpered nor showed any signs of fading. That's extraordinary for an economy car. Summary
Kia hopes the Spectra will win the hearts and dollars of the front-drive hot-rod crowd, thanks to its affordable price and easy adaptability. (Kia has shown a modified Spectra to demonstrate its performance potential.)

But Spectra's extremely attractive price should also draw practical-minded shoppers, thrifty folks who will take notice of a showroom-new car, complete with an outstanding warranty, for no more money than many used cars. Spectra is roomy, versatile and willing; some minor trim items have been compromised in the name of cost, but the basic hardware appears durable.

And if you want a five-door hatchback at this price, then Spectra is the only game in town.

Model as tested
Spectra GSX ($13,195)
Basic Warranty
5 years/60,000 miles
Assembled in
Seoul, Korea
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
antilock brakes ($800) includes rear disc brakes, AM/FM/CD stereo ($295), Cruise Package with cruise control, tweeters, variable intermittent wipers, power mirrors ($400), rear wiper/washer ($95), floormats ($70)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
GS ($10,995); GSX ($13,195)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front airbags, ABS optional
Safety equipment (optional)
1.8-liter dohc 16-valve inline-4
5-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
(GSX) air conditioning, alloy wheels, rear window defroster, 2-speed intermittent wipers, front and rear air dams, body skirts, rear spoiler, bodyside pinstripe, tinted glass, power windows, tilt steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift, power door locks, tachometer, center console, 60/40-split rear seatbacks, passenger-side vanity mirror, remote hood, fuel door and trunk releases, AM/FM/cassette

Engine & Transmission
1.8-liter dohc 16-valve inline-4
Drivetrain type
front engine, front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
125 @ 6000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc, with ABS
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

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