Kia / Spectra / LS 5-dr hatch

December 1996 - May 1998 Kia Spectra LS 5-dr hatch Rear shot

Our opinion

Strong engine, roomy interior, big cargo area, dash redesign, value for money

Room for improvement

Manual gearshift, steering niggles, unavailability of passenger airbag/ABS, lap-only centre rear belt

By TERRY MARTIN 26/08/2001

LOYALTY to a brand doesn't count for much at this end of the market, where popularity tends to rise and fall according to the sticker price and special offers.

If it did, we wouldn't be faced with two name changes to a car in little more than 12 months. The car that was Mentor, and which was known as Shuma for a brief spell, is now sold here as the Spectra. Tomorrow - our best guess is the Kia Rehash, a computer-generated name that marries "revival" with, er, "hashish' in a similar way we suspect the Korean product planners combined "car" and "renaissance" to bring us Carens.

The name is much less important than the fact Kia offers a new vehicle with a fair splash of equipment and, in manual transmission form, still sits under the psychological $20,000 mark. For the time being.

With a 1.5-litre engine and the sedan version now long gone, the 1.8-litre five-door liftback continues as the sole combination Down Under.

And it's quite a bit of car for the dollars.

Spectra has a good deal more style, luggage space and interior room than some others in the segment and further incentives such as standard air-conditioning, a six-speaker single-CD stereo with electric aerial, central locking (no remote), driver's airbag, rear foglamp, body coloured mirrors, front maplights, vanity mirrors behind both front visors and power assistance for the steering, windows and wing mirrors.

The change from Shuma to Spectra has also brought improvements inside, outside and underneath.

New headlight and front bumper treatment have sharpened up the front-end appearance, suspension work has aimed to improve ride and refinement, the optional four-speed automatic gearbox has come in for an overhaul and attention paid to the electronics has brought automatic headlight shut-off and time-delay functions for the interior lights and windows - features not often found at this level.

Moreover, quite a bit of work has gone into making the cabin a nicer place to be.

Leaving a favourable impression is an improved cut of cloth for the seats, the addition of a folding centre armrest between the front pews, improved storage facilities (overhead sunglasses console and a bottle holder in the front door bin, to name two) and, significantly, a redesigned dash and centre console.

Of course, we often criticise the over-use of metallic plastic that designers would have us believe makes the car sportier - and Spectra has not been subtle in this department. But the dash is a vast improvement on its predecessor; bright and modern with more tactile switchgear, an LCD odometer/trip meter and appealing instrument gauges.

Alas, these same instruments are small and difficult to read at a glance with their twin-border design. The stereo has tiny buttons that make operation more time consuming than it need be. And the temperature controls remain too low on the dash fascia, with the oft-used fan dial still positioned on the far left-hand side.

Start living with the Spectra for a while and aspects like this become irritants. There is no driver's footrest, no real comfort or support from the "leatherette" seats and not enough seat travel to accommodate tall drivers.

Driver's seat height adjustment is limited to two dials that alter the seat cushion angle only. The thick rear pillar restricts vision. The glovebox cannot be locked. And while variable intermittent wipers are welcome, two buttons on the dash for rear wiper control make cleaning glass unnecessarily complicated.

Hard plastic surfaces are also used throughout the cabin and, upon closer inspection, inconsistent gaps between interior trim can be found. On the move, a disconcerting noise (which brought to mind images of mice chewing) also emanated from the headlining on our test car.

Not unlike the front, the rear seat has its good and bad moments. Unproblematic access, three headrests, a seatback pocket, 60/40 split-fold rear seatback and excellent space for the legs, feet and, if stooped forward, head are all appreciated.

Adults who attempt to actually use the head restraints could, however, find the rear glass hitting them on the scone first. There are also no other storage facilities, no seat-base fold with the split-fold operation (for a flat floor and a barrier between cargo and front passengers), and no centre rear lap-sash seatbelt - a big omission and a pointer to a few deficiencies Spectra makes in the passive safety department.

While long-overdue front seatbelt pretensioners have just materialised - along with bigger brake pads and claims of improved crashworthiness - a passenger airbag and anti-lock brakes remain unavailable.

The luggage compartment is generous in its depth (960mm bumper to upright rear seat) and width (1375mm maximum) and contains a full-size spare wheel, removable cargo cover, two shopping bag hooks and four plastic points for attaching a cargo net.

The fastback (as opposed to normal hatch) rear-end does bring disadvantages though, such a height restriction of 430mm from floor to parcel shelf trim, a narrow hatch opening, high loading lip and no doorhandle - being forced to use insert the key when returning with an armful of shopping frustrates time and again.

Child seat anchorage points are also located at the bumper end of the cargo area, meaning luggage space is restricted whenever tether straps are employed.

Though it lacks some of the polish and poise of its rivals once up and running, the Spectra has a strong engine on its side, respectable road manners and increasingly good levels of refinement.

The 1.8-litre engine is the highlight. Noise rises in conjunction with an increase in rpm but the engine never gets raucous and good acceleration can be found if the driver is prepared to dwell in the upper reaches of the rev range.

The engine is tractable, however, showing acceptable response in higher gears and motoring easily along the open road (100km/h) at 3000rpm in fifth.

With either a full load onboard or a rev-happy driver behind the wheel, fuel economy will also never surface as an issue.

What does disappoint is the vague, rubbery five-speed manual gearbox plus a chattering noise and vibration that rises up through the steering column when turning wheels meet chopped-up surfaces.

Otherwise the driving experience is benign. The brakes show good resistance to fade, the 14-inch tyres provide acceptable grip, undue body movement is well contained and the ride comfort almost never in doubt. Large bumps will still transmit some harshness into the cabin.

It seems a shame that most prospective buyers will fail to recognise the gradual improvements Kia has made with its Mentor.

There's no brand strength to speak of. No bright prospects come resale time. But there is value here with the new nameplate - and Spectra is the closest Kia's small-medium car has come to matching its (more expensive) Japanese and European rivals.

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