We approach the Kia, shut off the alarm, grasp its substantial door handles, and get into the Spectra5 for the ride home to Long Beach. "The panic alarm makes a friendly noise," my girlfriend, Liz, notes, "as if it's a stray inviting you to take it home as a pet."
K, K, K, Kia. It's not hard to imagine adding water and - poof! - two weeks later you've got a Spectra5 wearing a bright green 'fro. It's a lovable, scrappy, boisterous little car, like a Boston Terrier with wheels. It even growls good-naturedly when the revs climb.
Unfortunately, that growl turns into a drone at speeds higher than 75 mph, and during longer highway drives the Spectra5 reminded me of the racket my similarly lovable, scrappy, boisterous 1978 Ford Fiesta made when salted Michigan roadways finally caused the joint between the exhaust pipe and the catalytic converter to rust through.
But aside from excessive interior noise and front seats that prove uncomfortable to larger and taller people, there's little about which to complain when it comes to the roomy, handy, sporty 2005 Kia Spectra5. Unless, of course, you put an extra helping of faith into federal and insurance industry crash-test scores.
Despite this impressive roster of safety gear, the NHTSA rates the Spectra sedan for four-star crash protection all around, except at the rear doors, where it garners a three-star rating for side impacts. A five-star rating is best, and a one-star rating is worst.
Now, the bad news: In its 40-mph offset crash tests, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) was unimpressed with the Kia Spectra's crashworthiness. Saddled with a rating of "poor," the Kia Spectra did not control dummy movement in testing, according to the IIHS report, allowing the dummy's head to contact both the steering wheel through the driver's airbag and the B-pillar. The IIHS awarded the Kia Spectra with an "acceptable" rating for rear crash protection.
Note that in both sets of testing, the Kia Spectra sedan was used to generate the ratings. The Kia Spectra5, with its different roof structure, could provide better - or worse - protection. Also, Kia has requested a "do over," but to date, the IIHS is resisting another test to see if the Spectra can improve its results.
Kia equips the Spectra5 with the same 138-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that comes in the more conservatively styled Spectra sedan, hooked to a five-speed manual transmission that drives the front wheels. A four-speed automatic is optional. Regardless of transmission choice, engine drone becomes excessive at speeds over 75 mph, and the Spectra5 achieved a rather unspectacular average fuel economy of 21.4 mpg during our test-driving. But with a terrific powertrain warranty spanning ten years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first, and free roadside assistance good for five years and an unlimited number of miles, we can forgive the Spectra5's thirst.
Though power output isn't upgraded over the standard sedan, the Spectra5 feels more alive thanks to a standard sport-tuned suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars, 16-inch alloy wheels wearing 205/50 Goodyear performance tires, and a strut-tower brace under the hood. The strut tower brace helps to stiffen the front end, which results in improved handling and crisper response from the engine-speed sensing rack-and-pinion steering. Four-wheel-disc brakes are standard, with an antilock feature offered as an option.
The result is a nimble, entertaining, and surprisingly utilitarian little car protected by a great powertrain warranty.
Don't call "shotgun!" because the tall, firm, supportive, split-folding rear bench seat is the better spot to ride. The front seatbacks are covered in hard plastic, but even the knees of taller people barely brush them, so it's no big deal. Another reason to love the Kia Spectra5 is for it's handy hatchback design. The cargo area is roomy, equipped with a hard cover, and is illuminated so you can see at night. Plus, the rear seats are simple to fold - you don't even need to remove the headrests.
Interior materials are nicer than the expectation set by the Kia Spectra5's price tag, most of the controls operate with an upscale fluidity, and the layout of the cabin is simple and intuitive. Metal pedals and metallic-finish interior trim are unique to the Spectra5, and the car comes with a standard leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob. Other standard features include air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote keyless entry, a tilt steering wheel, a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, and heated power mirrors. Spectra5 buyers can pay extra for cruise control, floor mats, and a power sunroof if they choose.
There's plenty of refinement, features, and value for the price, but audiophiles be warned: low-voltage radio stations are difficult to find and keep with the Spectra5's stereo head unit and antenna.
It's too bad about the lack of front seat comfort, excessive interior noise, and the "poor" crash-test rating by the IIHS, because otherwise the 2005 Kia Spectra5 makes perfect sense for just about anyone wanting a nice set of inexpensive wheels. At least more than a 92-79 Lakers victory over the Portland Trailblazers, without Kobe or Coach Rudy on the floor.
Engine Size and Type: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 138 at 6,000 rpm
Engine Torque: 136 at 4,500 rpm
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 25/32
Observed Fuel Economy: 21.4 mpg
Curb Weight: 2,844 lbs.
Competitors: Chevrolet Aveo, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus ZX5, Hyundai Elantra GT, Mazda 3, Pontiac Vibe, Subaru Impreza 2.5TS, Suzuki Reno, Toyota Matrix, Volkswagen Golf
Photos courtesy of Kia Motors America