Unbelievable excitement ensues as two Seattleites prepare for a baby!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Driving with Chris: Kia Spectra SX


Kia Spectra SX - "But it's a POS!"

I'm going to lead off this report with a vignette that will have Kia's marketing and PR people rushing for the nearest sharp objects upon which they can impale themselves.

Leigh's Aunt Linda came over this weekend to help us prepare for childbirth. When she came in the front door and the requisite hugs were exchanged, she asked me if the Kia parked out front was my newest text car. When I confirmed that it was, she said, "But it's such a POS!"

Yes, Kia has a bit of an image problem. The 2005 Kia Spectra SX is a decent-enough-looking small car - smooth and inoffensive in the Honda Civic mold, with a thoroughly unnecessary spoiler on the trunklid. But the best you can hope for from onlookers is studied indifference; once people start to notice the Kia badging, their lips start to turn up into a sneer. Our friendly neighborhood panhandler almost took pity and threw cash at the car when I was on the way home last night.

The thing is, for a $15,800 car, it's not that bad. Damning with faint praise, perhaps? Possibly. But in an age where a Honda Civic can easily top $20,000, the Spectra qualifies as an excellent buy for the price.

One thing is for certain - the Spectra is not an inspired engineering exercise. Our example had a pretty typical 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine, a long-throw five-speed manual, skinny tires, and a non-sporting "sport" suspension. Applying power out of a turn, the Spectra displays lots of torque steer - pretty remarkable, considering torque is an extremely limited resource in this car.

After sampling a bunch of high-end sports luxury cars, dropping into the Spectra feels at first like being shunned to the penalty box. The seats are hard, and the dashboard is pretty plain. It's all enough to make one pout like a wronged schoolgirl.

What's remarkable, though, is that the more time I spent in the Spectra, the more I liked it. The hard seats actually give quite a bit of support. There's not much on the dash, but the two-tone color scheme and simple but clean layout is actually quite handsome. The air conditioner works very well, and the Spectra hums along fairly quietly at highway speeds. The six-speaker CD stereo system is passable, if slightly tinny. Everything feels solid, well-built, and smartly put-together.

And, if you put in some effort, the Spectra is not thoroughly dull to drive. It's light enough to be tossable in the turns and actually has decent power when you're frenetically stirring the gearshift.

Sometimes, driving a slow car quickly is more fun that driving a fast car slowly. Thrashing along in the Spectra, I was reminded of a classic trip in which I frightened the bejeezus out of Kevin and Brian in Kevin's raggedly 1983 Honda Prelude on the mountain roads outside Leavenworth. That was a demonstrably slow car, with a shifting action reminiscent of moving a knife around inside a jar of peanut butter - but I don't know that I've ever had a better time than airing out everything that car had to give.

The Spectra has that same sort of infectious eagerness - it's not very capable, but if you put in the effort, it will too.

The one nearly fatal flaw is the Spectra's clutch. The Spectra's clutch is possibly the worst of any on a new car I've ever experienced. It's so terrible, in fact, that I'd consider going with an automatic instead - except that giving up control over what's happening in the drivetrain would probably sacrifice the small flashes of spirit that make the car so endearing at times.

The problem is that the clutch engagement point is right at the top of the clutch pedal's travel - which makes it abrupt, extremely awkward, and difficult to get used to. It felt remarkably like some joker had stolen the clutch out of a 200,000-mile 1973 AMC Gremlin X and bolted it into a brand new Spectra with only 1,800 miles on it.

No doubt a new owner would get used to the clutch - and now, after four days, I'm to that point - but it's still ridiculously poor. I'd hate to try this clutch out with another 50,000 miles on it.

Overlooking the clutch (with difficulty), the Spectra is a thoroughly professional, handsome small car for a relative pittance. While it would be tempting to buy a five-year-old used BMW instead with that same $16,000, that BMW would probably have upwards of 60,000 miles on it and wouldn't have a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

All you need to know is that by the time she left, Aunt Linda had come around and said the Kia was "really pretty nice." Now that's high praise.

2 Comments:

Blogger mrclm said...

As I have commented previously, after you dropped us off at the Westin, we made our way to the Thrifty near the Ferry in Seattle and picked up a new (1200 miles) Spectra5. You are 100% correct in your assessment of the craptacular performace of the automatic tranny. Passing at highway speeds requires forethought with the auto. You don't punch it. You mash the pedal, and the squirrels cycle up, and then a couple of minutes later you approach the speed you should have hit within a few seconds. Yes, the delay is nearly that slow at highway speeds. The performace is better in the 20-40mph range, especially if you shift it down manually. I had one of my all time favorite driving experiences in this car on an incredibly narrow dirt road (path) out on the Olympic Peninsula. I figure if you are going to launch off a road down a steep embankment into tons of trees, it might as well be in a rental. Kim seemed to buy that reasoning.

Pros: the Spectra5 is much better looking than the 4 door you have. The hatchback size is nice for a car this small. There was ample leg room for two adult women in the back seats, with me in front driving. Good leg room in front seats. Simple controls and easy to read displays. For a car this price, the stereo was pretty solid. I'm an audio nut, so it doesn't compare to my truck with amps, subs, components etc. but it was way better than the stereo in the Cavalier I rented last year. The brakes work really, really well. Feather touch, takes some getting used to, but when you are driving it hard, they don't fade (the fact that the car weighs just slightly more than I do does factor into this I suppose). The handling on pavement was rock solid considering it has glorified mountain bike tires underneath it. I really liked the rear window wiper.

Cons: needs 60 more HP. Really. It has about 50-60% of the power it really needs. I was afraid to push this car pretty hard in tight corners on the dirt road, as I did not feel there was adequate power to pull me out if the rear end got loose. The seats you seem to like are just painful for a guy my size. The lumbar region needs more support. The rear deck (in the 5 model) is held in place by elastic shoestrings and crappy little plastic pieces. These are not adequate, and will break. I had to "repair" one and our car only had 1500 miles on it when I was finished with it. The washer fluid spray for the rear window was pretty poor, especially when going down the road.

Big Chris
mrclm.blogspot.com

12:46 AM

 
Blogger Chris Hafner said...

Cool, thanks for the feedback, Chris.

I was afraid of what you're saying about the automatic. The Spectra's little four-banger just isn't strong enough to cope with a torque converter and needs to be kept in the high rev range.

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I figure if you are going to launch off a road down a steep embankment into tons of trees, it might as well be in a rental. Kim seemed to buy that reasoning.
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Kim is a kind and forgiving woman.

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the Spectra5 is much better looking than the 4 door you have. The hatchback size is nice for a car this small.
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No doubt. I've always preferred hatchbacks and actually rather like the look of the Spectra5. The four-door Spectra isn't offensive, but it's nothing special, either. It looks just like a Civic or a Corolla.

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needs 60 more HP. Really. It has about 50-60% of the power it really needs. I was afraid to push this car pretty hard in tight corners on the dirt road, as I did not feel there was adequate power to pull me out if the rear end got loose.

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The Spectra is underpowered, but I'd be a little frightened to drive a 200-horsepower Spectra - I doubt the rest of the car would be up to it.

Of course, you're absolutely right about horsepower helping straighten you out when oversteering on gravel - viva la horsepower!

10:16 AM

 

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