Sport utility vehicles and trucks are grabbing the headlines. But small entry-level cars are quietly making sales gains this year, too.
No wonder Kia, known for its bargain prices, is so busy bringing out new cars. In fact, the South Korean automaker plans to add at least three new ones to its lineup in calendar 2000.
The first is already here. The 2000 Kia Spectra is a hatchback derivative of Kia's Sephia sedan. The Spectra provides the same roominess as the compact Sephia, plus the cargo-carrying versatility of a hatchback, with a more sporty body style.
Dick Macedo, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Kia Motors America Inc., admitted hatchbacks haven't exactly been popular with Americans in recent years.
BASE PRICE: $10,795 for Spectra GS with manual transmission; $11,770 for Spectra GS with automatic; $12,995 for Spectra GSX with manual transmission.
AS TESTED: $14,304.
TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, compact, five-door hatchback.
ENGINE: 1.8-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder.
MILEAGE: 23 mpg (city), 29 mpg (highway).
TOP SPEED: NA.
LENGTH: 176.2 inches.
WHEELBASE: 100.8 inches.
CURB WT.: 2,575 pounds.
BUILT AT: South Korea.
OPTIONS: Cruise control, variable wipers and power mirrors $400; AM/FM stereo with CD player $295; rear window wiper $95; floor mats $69.
DESTINATION CHARGE: $450.
So, why bring the Spectra, a five-door hatchback already sold in South Korea, to the States?
''There's demand out there for a basic car,'' Macedo said, and young American buyers ''liked the styling and the hatchback was not a deterrent for them.''
The price can only enhance the Spectra's appeal, starting just a few hundred dollars over the Sephia's starting price.
The base Spectra GS with manual transmission has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price including destination charge of $11,245. But even this model includes some items that on other cars are usually extras -- rear-window defroster, body-color outside mirrors and body-color bumpers.
Hatchbacks such as the five-door Volkswagen Golf and three-door Ford Focus are less long overall than the Spectra and cost more.
And early sales show suggest the Spectra hasn't hurt Sephia sales, which remain better than a year ago.
The test car, an up-level Spectra GSX with five-speed manual transmission, readily showed its appeal.
With a final sticker price of just over $14,300, this hatchback included just about every amenity a buyer could want: air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, mirrors and door locks, as well as AM/FM stereo with CD player. And the GSX comes standard with side striping that accentuated the hatchback styling.
I'd prefer a power driver seat, too, but at least the tester had a cushion I could manually adjust to seat me higher.
Front-seat headroom in this front-wheel drive compact is the same 39.6 inches as in the Sephia sedan, and surpasses the Golf and Focus.
Rear doors on the Spectra aren't squished, making it easy to get inside. Headroom back there is reduced 1.1 inches from the 37.7 inches in the Sephia, because of the hatchback's slope.
As a result, my hair brushed the ceiling when I sat in the outer seats and my head brushed the ceiling in the middle of the back seat. I'm 5 feet 4 inches and note that the Golf and Focus have at least 0.8 inch more rear-seat headroom than the Spectra does.
But the Spectra's back-seat legroom of 34.4 inches is acceptable for a compact, and rear door windows go down about two-thirds of the way.
Everyone sits on pleasant-looking cloth seats. I'd prefer just a bit more firmness in the cushions. Some road noise is clearly audible inside the car.
Rear outer seats have three-point safety belts and head restraints; the middle person has a lap belt only.
Starting up, you hear the Spectra's 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine.
It did a good job of powering this 2,575-pound car around town and giving it a somewhat sporty personality. But the gearshift lever for the five speed had longer throws and a mushy, less-than-precise feel.
Maximum horsepower is 125 at 6,000 rpm and came on well for highway runs. Torque is 108 foot-pounds at 4,500 rpm, and working the five-speed, I was able to manage the torque so I could pass slower traffic.
In these days of high gas prices, the Spectra's fuel economy is worth noting. The car is rated at 23 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway with a manual transmission.
The rack-and-pinion steering responded readily. Still, I felt sharp shocks through the steering column on big road bumps.
Making good use of the Spectra's well-positioned dead pedal for the driver's left foot, I found this hatchback handled curves and slalom maneuvers with some grace.
But the front end dipped precipitously in panic braking. The tester did not include antilock brakes, which are an option.
The Spectra's suspension is the same as the Sephia's. There's a MacPherson strut setup in front and an independent multilink configuration in the back. Only 14-inch tires and wheels are offered; the Golf and Focus have 15-inchers.
I liked having a light inside the cargo area. There's 11.6 cubic feet of room back there, more than in the Sephia. The back seats split 60/40 and fold down.
Macedo said that while up to 65 percent of the Sephia buyers are women, Kia expects up to 65 percent of Spectra buyers to be men.
Sales projections are for 10,000-15,000 sales in calendar 2000.
Because it's a new model, Consumer Reports does not provide a reliability rating for the Spectra.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.