2004 Kia Spectra Reviews and Ratings

Sedan 4D LX

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2004 Kia Spectra
Tom Lankard

Kia really isn't trying to confuse us. That the company's dealers have two 2004 Spectra models for sale is the consequence of federal fuel economy regulations, not the car maker's choice.

Fortunately, it's easy to distinguish the new 2004 Spectra from the old 2004 Spectra. The old one is a carryover from the 2003 model year. The new one is all-new, with sharper styling. It's noticeably bigger. It's also priced only a couple of hundred dollars more.

Mechanically, the new 2004 Spectra is all-new. The engine is more powerful, more fuel efficient and cleaner. The wheelbase is longer, which improves the ride. The track is wider, which improves handling. Four-wheel disc brakes are now standard, where the previous model had rear drum brakes.

The interior is redesigned and upgraded. Materials are higher quality. Fit and finish is better. Ergonomics are improved. There's more headroom, more hip room and more rear legroom. The trunk is larger.

All these advances and improvements pale, however, alongside the new 2004 Spectra's occupant safety features. No other car in this price range or size class, nor many costing thousands of dollars more and in larger classes, offer the same, full complement of standard airbag supplemental restraints. In addition to the mandatory two frontal airbags, front-seat occupants are protected by seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and full-coverage side curtain airbags protect front- and rear-seat occupants. The competition has some catching up to do. Model Lineup
Kia offers the all-new 2004 Spectra in two models, the LX and the EX. Both are four-door, five-passenger sedans and come with a 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual. A four-speed automatic is optional ($975).

The LX ($12,620) comes with a short, but interesting list of comfort and convenience features. Auto-off headlights are standard, but outside mirrors are manually adjustable, and windows have hand cranks. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, but antilock brakes aren't even an option, nor is cruise control. But a tilt steering wheel is standard, as are an AM/FM/CD six-speaker stereo and a six-way adjustable driver's seat. Air conditioning is optional ($960).

The EX ($13,750) adds air conditioning, power windows, heated power mirrors, power central locking, remote keyless entry, and fog lights. Optional on the EX are anti-lock brakes ($400), alloy wheels ($360), cruise control ($200) and power tilt moonroof ($700).

Optional on both the LX and the EX are a rear spoiler ($250) and carpeted floor mats ($80).

The LX and EX enjoy impressively comprehensive standard occupant protection features, comprising dual two-stage frontal airbags; dual front seat-mounted side airbags; and front and rear side-curtain airbags. Walkaround
Bland is out. The new 2004 Spectra makes a styling statement, not a busy, fussy one, but one that's clean, with sculpted character lines and interesting surface planes that set the car apart from the look-alike, safe, conservative econo-box class.

The Spectra's face is more open, with a larger grille and lower air intake, the latter also split by one vertical divider, instead of the busier two of the previous generation. The EX's fog lights are now round, adding perceived height to the front end. Headlight housings taper upward at the outer edges, drawing the eye more naturally into the hood's increased slope.

A sharp groove etched into the Spectra's side and running from directly over the front wheel well all the way to the hindmost portions of the rear quarter panel accentuates the wedge shape. Embedding the door handles in the groove reduces clutter. The added two inches of wheelbase appear to have been dedicated to widening the rear door opening. Clearly defined fender blisters add sportiness to the wheel openings. The beltline beneath the nicely arched side windows grows out of the front fender blister and runs past the rear side window where it draws a distinct line between the car's lower and upper body beneath a softer flowing sail. An understated rocker panel flares outward beneath the doors, visually pulling the car's body closer to the ground. One stylistic hiccup is the rear fender blister, which isn't as well proportioned to the surrounding body panel as is the front blister and leaves the rear wheel looking undersized.

The back end draws all the various geometrics into a pleasing departure. The backlight (rear windscreen) is more steeply sloped, flowing more smoothly into a shorter deck. The deck lid ends in a sharp crease filling the arc between the large, angular taillights, from which it drops almost vertically from a slight indentation to the fully integrated rear bumper fascia. A large depression scooped out of the vertical trunk panel houses the rear license plate.

Badging is minimal, confined to a Kia logo centered in the grille and above the rear license plate. Interior
Interiors, too, can be stylish and user friendly, and without being expensive.

Large expanses of textured materials give the new 2004 Spectra's dash a quality look. The same large expanses make for fewer seams and joints that inevitably will come to squeak as they work against each other, and this plus good sound deadening promises quiet times for people riding in the new Spectra, a promise the car delivers. Even over rough pavement, only the sounds of tires against pavement penetrated the cabin. The look is quality, too, with a dark color over a lighter shade, giving the cabin an open feeling while minimizing reflected dash-top glare in the windshield. Door panels are finished with textured plastic panels and soft fabric insets that add to the openness.

The instruments, large, round speedometer and tachometer and smaller fuel and water temperature gauges, fill a deep-set pod easily viewed through the four-spoke steering wheel. The wheel rim is thick and easy to grip. The optional cruise control is managed by a multi-function stalk fixed to the wheel between the left spokes.

The radio sits high in the center stack, below two large, adjustable vents separated by an intuitively positioned hazard warning button, above which are positioned two, smallish screens with digital clock and seatbelt warning displays. Stereo controls are easy to read and use, save for the tuning function, a large rocker switch that scrolls at a fixed, agonizingly slow rate up or down through the frequencies. In the LX, one large and one smaller storage bins sit beneath the stereo; in the EX, replacing the smaller bin is a row of sizable buttons, only one of which does anything, namely, turning the rear window defogger on or off. Across the lower area of the center stack are the climate control knobs: large, round and basic, with tactile feel surprisingly consistent for an economy car. At the left end of the lower dash panel are readily accessible switches for opening the trunk and adjusting the dash lights above yet another storage bin.

Seats are generally comfortable and covered in a quality fabric with adjustable head restraints, save for the rear center position. Front seat bottoms could be deeper, however, with more thigh support. The center console armrest is high enough for elbows but too far rearward. Rear seats aren't as contoured as the front but occupants enjoy an added inch of legroom over the previous model. Headroom front and rear is up an inch or two from the previous Spectra and equally above the primary competition, the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus; the last, though, bests the Spectra by a half inch in rear-seat headroom. Rear-seat legroom is on a par with competitors. One problem with the rear seat is the proximity of the rear wheel well to the door opening; inattention when climbing out can leave traces of road dust and dirt on slacks or skirt. In hip room, the Spectra gives front-seat occupants between an inch and four inches more than the competition and between four inches and seven inches in the back seat.

Only in trunk space does the new Spectra come in last, giving up between a half a cubic foot to slightly more than 1.5 cubic feet; it does, however, better its immediate predecessor by almost two cubic feet. The trunk floor and sides are finished, but grocery shoppers should beware of the gooseneck hinges that can crush items packed too tightly.

The center console houses two cupholders and a bin forward of the shift lever fitted with a grippy pad. Two more cupholders fold out of the rear of the center console for use by rear seat occupants. Molded map pockets run the length of the front door bottoms; in the EX, these have cup-sized rounds molded into the front portion. The EX also gets magazine nets on the back of the front seats. Driving Impressions
As fresh and improved as the new 2004 Spectra is, it's still an economy sedan with a four-cylinder engine. Even with abundant sound deadening between the engine compartment and passenger cabin, this means occupants are going to hear engine buzz under hard acceleration in the lower gears, in both the manual and automatic. Only while cruising in the top gears do things truly quiet down. Which they do, and quite well, as road noise and other mechanical sounds are remarkably mute, in both the LX and EX. For the most part, wind noise is minimal, too, except for an occasional low moan from the front passenger's side window in strong, left-to-right crosswinds.

Power output is significantly higher than that of the previous generation Spectra and generally well above the competitors' comparable models. Acceleration is good, better in the manual than in the automatic, which is no surprise. But the automatic is more than adequate even for relatively high-speed, long-distance cruising. Buyers in California and certain northeastern states get engines with six fewer horses and three fewer pounds-feet of torque due to those states' stricter emission standards. Thanks to improved engine management electronics, the EPA also estimates that this cleaner and more power engine gets significantly better gas mileage than the previous Spectra's.

Downshifts in the automatic could be smoother. Also, shifting into third gear instead of Drive when shifting out of Park or Reverse is easy to do.

Outward vision to the front is good, with thanks to the height-adjustable driver's seat, as from the front passenger seat, the hood slopes away steeply enough to disappear from sight. To the sides and rear, the tall glass house and slim sails ease parking and quick manuevers in traffic.

Handling and steering are good, considering the car's height and the tallish tires. Put another way, the alloy wheels deliver more in looks than performance. When pushed, the car eases into understeer, which is common for economy front-wheel-drive cars. The brake pedal in the test car was a bit mushy, but not enough to cause concern. Ride is solid, not too firm, and a daylong, 400-mile-plus drive wasn't unusually tiring. Summary
South Korea's car makes have come a long way since the days of the infamous Hyundai Excel. And the new 2004 Kia Spectra is a good representation of just how far they've come in design, quality and technology.

Fit and finish is on a par with the best in the class. Styling is sharp and distinctive. Power and economy mesh well. Comfort and convenience are fully featured.

None of the competition matches the price of the Kia Spectra while offering the same level of occupant safety.

Go ahead, be the first on the block. Just make sure you get the new one.

Model as tested
Kia Spectra EX ($13,750)
Basic Warranty
5 years/60,000 miles
Assembled in
Hwasung, South Korea
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
automatic transmission ($975); alloy wheels ($360); cruise control ($200); carpeted floor mats ($80)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Kia Spectra LX ($12,620); Spectra EX ($13,750)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual two-stage frontal airbags; dual front seat-mounted side-impact airbags; full coverage side-impact curtain airbags; three-point seatbelts at all five seating positions; height-adjustable front seatbelts with pretensioners and force limiters; rear-seat child safety seat anchors; internal emergency trunk release
Safety equipment (optional)
2.0-liter 16v dohc inline-4
4-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning; AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers; 8-way manually adjustable driver's seat; power windows, mirrors and central locking; tilt steering wheel; 60/40 split folding rear seat; delay-off interior lighting; heated outside mirrors

Engine & Transmission
2.0-liter 16v dohc inline-4
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
138 @ 6000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
Suspension, front
independent, MacPherson strut, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Suspension, rear
independent, multi-link with struts, coil springs, stabilizer bar

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

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

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J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

* The J.D. Power Ratings are calculated based on the range between the car manufacturer or car model with the highest score and the car manufacturer or car model with the lowest score. J.D. Power generates a rating of a five, four, three, or two. If there is insufficient data to calculate a rating, “Not Available” is used in its place.

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