Korean manufacturer Kia is making a fresh bid for a slice of the New Zealand new car market with a revitalied range of cars.
Kia has been here before, of course. The former distributor tried with the competent enough but outdated Mentor, a car that was effectively an old Mazda 323 re-badged.
It had reasonable success with the Sportage four-wheel drive with its vaguely retro-styling and reasonable on and off-road performance.
Its most successful product here wasn't sold under its own name. The Ford Festiva was a re-bodied old generation Mazda 121 whose good looks mated with the Ford badge did very well for the blue oval. Kia didn't build a successor which has left Ford with a glaring gap in its product line-up.
The resurgent Kia is now part of the Hyundai empire and is pushing hard for acceptance worldwide.
The star in its range is the Optima, essentially a re-bodied new-generation Hyundai Sonata, offered with both four cylinder and V6 engines.
That tops the NZ range and has been joined by the Rio entry-level car which, in hatchback form, looks quite attractive, the curiously-named Pregio van (say it Pre-joe, not Pregg-io) and the test car, the Spectra.
The Spectra is said to be at the sporty end of the range, though when its 1800cc motor is coupled with an automatic gearbox you'd be hard-pressed to think so.
Only when you get out into the countryside, ram the gearbox into a ratio manually and start pressing on is there any hint of sporting character.
British sports car maker Lotus' engineering division had a hand in the Spectra's chassis set-up and we had quite an entertaining 200 kilometres in the Spectra one sunny December afternoon.
It was no sports sedan, but its 185/65 R14 Kumho Powermax tyres gripped well, the car turned-in eagerly if at times a little clumsily and, at others, more understeer than we'd have liked.
There's a reasonable amount of body roll and weight transfer which leads to a feeling a rear end movement, in a similar fashion to the feeling evident in Mazda 323s and Ford Lasers fitted with the trapezoidal link rear suspension.
The Spectra is front-wheel drive and Kia offers a choice of five-speed manual gearbox (which would be our choice, though US critics have caned it as "hopelessly vague") or four-speed electronically controlled automatic with overdrive.
The automatic shifts reasonably smoothly, but is very sensitive to throttle pressure. Lift off even a little and it will change up and then change down again when you push on the accelerator. It's not as bad as the dreadful automatic used in Morris 1300s which would make six gear changes before you got to 50km/h, hunting up and down the 'box furiously. But if it weren't for the general smoothness of the Kia's gear shifting it could become intolerable around town. As it is, it's merely a little irritating.
The auto's biggest disadvantage, though, is that it robs too much power and acceleration.
When we picked up the test car and accelerated away from the first set of traffic lights we found ourselves wondering where the engine had gone. And we'd just climbed out of the editorial hack, a Toyota Corona 1800 automatic which is not exactly a fireball off the line.
But till you get used to flooring the gas and ensuring the Kia holds on to a low ratio, the Spectra auto is not a car in which to go for a marginal gap in the traffic.
The DOHC 1.8 litre four cylinder in-line motor has multi-point fuel injection. It produces a reasonable 82kW at 5000rpm and 152Nm of peak torque at 4500rpm. Those aren't bad figures on paper, but on the road and in the automatic gearbox-equipped version they don't feel quite as good as they look on the spec sheet.
That said the car keeps up with city traffic easily, cruises contentedly at 100km/h on the motorway and with a judicious mix of letting the auto do its own thing and shifting manually, will get cross country at a reasonable clip.
Front suspension is by MacPherson struts and at the rear are lower longitudinal trailing arms, dual lower transverse links, integrated strut-type coil spring/gas damper units.
The steering is by rack power-assisted rack and pinion, and the turning circle is 9.8 metres.
Disc front and drum rear brakes are standard. An ABS anti-skid system with rear discs is optional.
They provided good stopping power, though they got a little smelly and smokey after a session of hard use.
The seats are upholstered in a mix of cloth and vinyl and are well-shaped, though the side bolsters are a little soft during hard cornering.
The seat fabric was described by an American reviewer as looking like it'd be hard-wearing. He was right.
The rear seatback folds forward in a 60/40 split to expand the already-good boot space.
GS standard equipment is good, in the current Korean fashion.
The six-speaker Kenwood AM/FM sound system includes a Compact Disc player and produces good sound quality. Our only quibble was the rather fussy controls which we still had difficulty with a week down the track.
Air-conditioning is standard and worked efficiently; the centre console has an armrest, and cloth inserts brighten the somewhat austere door inner trims.
There's a day/night rear-view mirror and digital clock.
Safety equipment includes a driver's airbag, and though the car is a five-seater the central rear seatbelt is lap-only. The doors have side impact protection beams.
There are dual cup-holders and the body-colour exterior mirrors are power-adjustable.
Both sun visors have vanity mirrors with covers.
The steel wheels have attractively-styled full wheel covers.
The central-door locking is key-operated, and the car has power-operated windows with driver's express wind-down.
A theft deterrent immobiliser system is fitted.
The steering wheel is tilt-adjustable as is the driver's seat cushion.
The car is 4525mm long, 1720mm wide and 1415mm high. The wheelbase is 2560mm, front track 1465mm and rear track 1455mm. Kerb weight is 1130kg. The fuel tank holds 50 litres.
Despite its four-door sedan looks the Spectra is, in fact, a hatchback which adds to its versatility.
It's a neatly styled car with adequate performance, good practicality, entertaining if not pin-sharp open road manners (there's too much understeer and the steering is a little vague in feel) and has an air of solidity.
It looks up-to-the minute if rather conservative and is a big improvement on older Kais we've driven.
Unlike, say the Mentor, it doesn't feel like a brand-new used car, a phrase US Car & Driver magazine used to describe the Spectra's stablemate, the Sephia.
At the end of the day, the Spectra still falls a little short of the Japanese opposition and dynamically is no match for European rivals.
On the plus side it comes with an excellent five year/100,000 kilometre warranty.
The price? That may well be a problem. Though it's well-equipped Kia might have difficulty convincing punters to pay $24,995 for a brand that in New Zealand is associated with the budget end of the market. That price, however, is on a par with what the Spectra lists for in the USA.
More modern in feel than previous Kia sedans? Yes. Better to drive? Yes. Will it attract buyers? We'll watch with interest.
Test and photographs by Mike Stock.