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Kia's reliability ratings have been climbing lately (just like parent company Hyundai), and according to Consumer Reports research released in 2005, it's now average for the industry, right between Mazda and Nissan on the charts.
2005 Kia Spectra5
Kia Spectra5 hatchback: Safety, space and value

By Bill Roebuck

As a parent, I feel it's always a challenge when you're looking for a practical vehicle that you are happy to have your kids driving. They'll want something that looks cool. (Or 'sick.' Or 'hot.' Or 'phat.') Anyway, you probably know what I mean. The practical features are not as appealing as the design and the image the car has with their friends.

Personally, I want something that's, first, really safe, and next, really reliable. Practicality comes next -- will all the passenger sizes we must accommodate fit? (My son is 6' 3", my daughter 5' 4".) Then there's price -- I want the most we can get that meets our criteria for as little money as possible.

In reality, when we went through this process a year and a half ago, we ended up with a 2003 Toyota Corolla CE. But if I was looking for a 2005 model, I'd have to give the new Kia Spectra serious consideration, in particular the Spectra5 hatchback version.

For a vehicle with a starting price of under $18,000, the Spectra5 not only offers good cargo capacity and easy access to it, thanks to its five-door hatchback design, but it also includes many comfort, safety and performance features you'd only expect to see on higher-priced models.

The front-wheel drive Spectra, first introduced in Canada in 2002, has been completely refreshed and updated for the 2005 model year. It's much better than its predecessor. It's now based on the Hyundai Elantra. (Hyundai owns Kia, so there's some sharing of technology.)

It's also noteworthy that the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) crowned the Spectra5's sister, the 2005 Kia Spectra sedan, as the “Best New Economy Car” for 2005. Compared to the Spectra sedan, the hatchback version we tested is designed to provide a sporty ride as well as offer cargo-carrying benefits.

Back in the fall (2004), Kia Canada president Bill Porter told me that the company is 7th in the world in terms of volume production, and it wants to be in the top five by 2008. He said the company also plans to open a new cold weather testing facility in North America this summer (2005).

He also told me there were 30 new dealerships under construction in Canada, to help boost sales from 30,000 units per year to 50,000 by 2007. Cars like the Spectra5 should help out a lot in achieving this goal, he expects (and I agree).

In January 2005, Kia was officially named "the fastest growing automaker in the world" by the research firm, Global Insight. The Global Insight study showed that Kia Motors was the fastest growing car brand in the world among those automotive manufacturers producing over a million vehicles per annum.

A key to the redesign of the Spectra5 is a sleek European-influenced skin aimed to appeal to male and female buyers 25-30 years of age. The front end features Kia's new trademark horizontal grille, along with large, slanty, modern-looking headlamps.

The rear end has large, angular tail lamps and a clean design that looks more like German styling than Korean. Overall, the Spectra5 appears more like a station wagon than a hatchback, yet it's appealing.

The 16-inch alloy wheels on the SX model look good -- like aftermarket tuner designs. Tuners will be interested to know Kia dealers offer suspension and exhaust upgrades for the Spectra, as well as a ground effects body kit.

The Spectra5 is affordable, with a base price of $17,395, and it comes with a five-year, 100,000-km warranty so frugal drivers won't have to worry about unexpected repair costs for several years. As well, first-year adjustments for consumable items such as bulbs, wiper blades, fuses, brake pads, etc., are covered. Five-year roadside assistance in case of mechanical breakdown also is included.

At the top end, a Spectra5 SX with the optional "Package 1" and automatic four-speed transmission has a list price of $22,695. The package gives you four-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS) and has vented front discs. Rear brakes also are the disc type.

Testing during AJAC's TestFest saw the Spectra5 stop from 100 km/h in 38.5 m (126.3 ft), which was, in comparison, a bit better than a Toyota Corolla XRS at 39.5 m (129.5 ft).

The package also includes a power sliding-glass sunroof, a feature that I think almost everyone universally finds appealing. (The ABS option is highly recommended for any vehicle you might be considering, in my view. The fact that Kia makes you pay for a sunroof to get ABS is frustrating, but probably not that big a penalty.)

Add delivery of $995, plus air conditioning excise tax of $100 and Ontario's gas-guzzler tax of $75, and this car is still a pretty good deal.

Our SX tester had the Package 1 but with the manual five-speed transmission. The $19,995 SX includes many extra features that make it very well equipped for the price.

Included as standard equipment in SX models are remote keyless entry, an anti-theft security system, a six-way manually adjustable driver's seat with lumbar regulation, air conditioning controlled by simple-to-use round dials, and cruise control.

It also has a six-speaker, single-CD stereo that also plays MP3s. I was impressed by the good sound quality of the stereo.

Standard safety features, always important in any small car, abound here, even on the base model. They include dual-threshold front air bags, front-seat side impact and front and rear side curtain airbags (just like in a Volvo), a whiplash-reducing active headrest on the driver's seat (in the SX), and front seatbelt pretensioners.

With all that safety gear, I wouldn't worry much if one of my kids was driving this car. I don't know of any other car in this category or price range that gives you side curtain airbags as standard equipment.

The Spectra also has good four-star ratings for front passengers in NHSTA crash tests (see for details and to view a video of the crash test).

Inside, there's seating for five. Although there's no shoulder belt for the centre rear-seat passenger, all three rear spots get height adjustable headrests, like in the front. It's unlikely you'd make three passengers suffer the constraints of the rear seat anyway, though there's enough room back there for two full-size adults.

The Spectra5 also is loaded with lots of storage spaces for notebooks, maps, CDs, cellphones and whatnots. And the rear seat backs split and fold nearly flat to extend the rear cargo capacity.

Cargo capacity with the seats up is 518 litres (18.3 cu ft); with the seats folded it's big at 1,494 litres (52.8 cu ft). The hatch door opens quite high, so there's little chance of bumping your head when loading it.

In an era when glove boxes seem to be designed to hold not much more than a pair of gloves, Kia has given the Spectra one that is quite large. In the centre console, there's a handy rubber-lined tray, a pair of large cupholders, and a dual-compartment storage bin/armrest.

A liner in the cupholders can be removed to easily clean up spills, a design tip that should be adopted by more manufacturers.

Map pockets in the side front doors also are spacious. A small storage slot is also available under the radio. There's also a small storage nook on the left side of the instrument panel.

On the road, the Spectra5 drives like a larger car (its wheelbase is 2,610 mm or 102.8 in.). I remember reading a few years back that the safest cars were ones with wheelbases that exceeded 100 inches, so the Spectra is satisfies here.

It moves out quickly, thanks to its 2.0-l, 138-hp four-cylinder gas engine. However, the peak power comes at a high 6,000 rpm. On the highway, I wished the Spectra's five-speed manual had a better gear ratio to lower the revs and cut the engine noise somewhat. I was wishing for one more, higher gear. I expect it would be the same with the automatic.

Performance testing during AJAC's TestFest saw the Spectra5 run from zero to 100 km/h in 9.1 seconds. I figure under 10 seconds is good in this class.

The engine has double overhead cams (DOHC) and Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT), a system that enhances performance while improving fuel economy and reducing exhaust emissions.

On the highway, truck tire ruts tended to pull the car from side to side, which was surprising considering the Spectra5 has a front independent double wishbone and rear independent multi-link suspension with gas shock absorbers.

On smooth roads, the MacPherson front suspension helps to provide very good ride quality. The sensitivity to uneven road surfaces may be because the Spectra5 is sport-tuned and features higher spring rates, a larger front stabilizer bar and firmer shocks, compared to the sedan version.

At the rear, the Spectra5 also features higher spring rates, a larger stabilizer bar and firmer shocks than the four-door model.

In all conditions, though, the rack-and-pinion steering feels crisp and precise. No problems there.

Fuel economy in litres/100 km is rated at 9.5 (29 mpg) in the city, 6.6 (42 mpg) on the highway, and 8.2 (34 mpg) combined. In my week of testing, I averaged 9.8 l/100 km (29 mpg), not too far off the mark.

Competitive models in this price range and model size include the Hyundai Elantra GT, Chevrolet Optra5, Ford Focus ZX5, Mazda3 Sport, Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix.

Kia's reliability ratings have been climbing lately (just like parent company Hyundai), and according to Consumer Reports research released in 2005, it's now average for the industry, right between Mazda and Nissan on the charts.

That's just one less thing to be concerned about in a new model that's fun to drive, spacious, economical, and loaded with safety features and passenger comforts.

© Copyright Bill Roebuck, 2005. Posted 3/25/05.