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2005 Kia Spectra5

2005 Kia Spectra5

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If you haven’t been shopping around recently, you might not have noticed how abruptly the small-car market has blossomed with new models. Where there were only a few dull choices five years ago, suddenly there are plenty of small-car models, each in several bodystyles, including the cargo-friendly hatchback, and all well-equipped. I’ve always had an affinity for hatchbacks. Some of my colleagues would have scoffed, but I recently eagerly jumped at the chance to drive two bargain-priced but sporty little hatchbacks back-to-back.

The two are very similar in layout. They’re both made in Korea (the Suzuki by GM Daewoo); they both have 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines in the vicinity of 120-140 hp and a standard five-speed manual shift; they both have a rich list of standard features and four doors; and they both start at around $15,000. To make it even more enticing, both of them come with impressive 100,000-mile warranties.

That’s about where the similarities end, believe it or not. The two are fundamentally packaged in a similar way, but they each carry their own style and feel, and each model drives quite differently.

How different?

2005 Suzuki Reno

2005 Suzuki Reno

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Looking at them from the outside, the Reno has what might be identified as more of a traditional hatchback shape. It’s very clean and elegant and looks like it would fit in well on European streets beside Peugeots and Fiats. On the other hand, the Spectra5 takes on a taller street-racer hatchback appearance, following lines more similar to those of the Toyota Matrix, Mazda3, and Ford Focus.

That packaging difference seems to offer the Spectra5 just a bit more useable cargo space. In terms of seating, in the Reno you sink a little lower into the front seats, whereas the Spectra5 seems to invite a more upright position where you look more over the hood. The seat cushions feel a little bit longer and more supportive in the Reno, and there are dual height adjustments for getting the right amount of cushion tilt and leg support; for this tall driver, the Spectra5’s seats just seemed a little too skimpy and unsupportive.

Rear seating is very similar in these cars as well; they’re both places where adults should only be for short periods. With the front seats all the way back, they’re considerably restricted, but there’s a lot more room than you’d probably expect for such a small overall package. Headroom in back wasn’t really an issue with the Spectra5, while the Reno ’s more rapidly sloping roofline meant that taller riders would make contact with the back window when they leaned back.

Considering the appearance and feel of the switchgear, the Reno rules. The Suzuki’s interior is very fashionable, with attractive surfaces and silver bezels for the gauges, while the Spectra5 has what most would call a simpler, plainer interior. Materials and design just aren’t quite as nice, although they’re put together perfectly. In many ways, they remind me of last-generation Toyotas. There are a few incongruities though — for instance in the Spectra the material for the center console armrest looks like it's supposed to match the material in the left armrest, but it doesn't quite.

Power for the proles

One of the downfalls of small cars with little four-cylinder engines is that they’re often peaky and need to be revved all the time to access any power, or even to drive them smoothly, and then when you rev them to access that power they’re noisy. The Reno clearly has more low-end flexibility than the Spectra5. If you can deal with accelerating at a glacial rate, the Reno ’s engine will pull slowly but surely from even 1500 rpm in fifth gear, without any shuddering or signs that it’s being taxed.

In comparison, the Spectra5’s clutch engages more abruptly, making it more difficult to have a smooth launch without practice, and if you shift into fourth or fifth on the low side of 2000 rpm while doing anything but steady speed the engine will grumble a bit. Driven in a spirited way keeping the revs up, both cars seem to have similar power. Both will no doubt be more satisfying with the standard five-speed, but if you need the automatic this leads us to believe that the Reno might be more tolerable with it.

From inside, the Reno ’s engine seems much more muted in ordinary driving compared with the Spectra5’s. While the Reno’s was always quiet down low but a bit buzzy above 3500 rpm, the Spectra5’s engine is fairly coarse and vocal down low, graduating to boomy above 3500 rpm. Having experienced this engine in several Elantras and Spectra sedans, it seemed louder in the Spectra5 — perhaps also a product of general body stiffening.

The Reno had an odd throttle delay that affected drivability at times and must have been a measure to pass emissions regulations. If you rev the engine to, say 3000 rpm and release the gas the revs will stay at 3000 rpm for several seconds before very slowly settling back down to idle. This odd behavior also ensured that there was virtually no engine braking. The throttle also seems to not allow quick blips of the throttle. On the other hand, in the Spectra5, the throttle is very responsive but the calibration is very aggressive and non-linear.

Another gripe with the Reno is its shift linkage — it’s vague. Once you get used to it, it’s tolerable if you make all the shifts very deliberate. Spectra's gear linkage is worlds better than the Reno; nice, smooth, precise, with throws that aren't too long.

Winning handling

Handling is one area where the two especially show their differences. The Spectra5 is clearly the sportier-tuned of the two. Both have a MacPherson strut-type front suspension and independent multi-link rear, combined with stabilizer bars front and rear, but the Spectra5 adds a strut tower brace in front for improved torsional rigidity. When driving fast around a neighborhood hairpin turn, they revealed some significant differences in tuning, though. The Reno feels well controlled in ordinary driving, if even a bit cushy, and pushing a little faster around corners shows a disconcerting softness. Hustling through corners just isn’t what it’s tuned for. In comparison, the Spectra5 has sharper reflexes and although it still leans a fair amount in hard cornering it has good body control for a tallish hatchback.

However, that stiffer suspension tuning is also to the Spectra5’s disadvantage. Besides a harder ride, the Kia brings noticeably more road coarseness into the cabin, especially compared with the Reno .

Both the Spectra5 and the Reno come with four-wheel disc brakes as standard, however both of them don’t offer anti-lock brakes as standard. It’s a $400 option on the Spectra5 and a $500 option on the Reno . However, both cars, at least in the trim we tested, came with standard side airbags and the Spectra even came with side curtain bags.

Chunky monkeys

To say it politely, both of these little hatchbacks are a bit portly. The Reno weighs 2739 pounds whereas the Spectra5 weighs 2844 pounds. Probably because of their respective weights, both of these cars were somewhat disappointing in the fuel economy department. In the Reno , we averaged only 23 mpg in a mix of driving — similar to what I recently observed with a larger V-6 Pontiac G6. With the Spectra5, in basically the same daily driving routine, we averaged 27 mpg.

As you might guess, younger buyers are an important portion of the demographics for this model segment, and so they both come with good sound systems for the money. The Reno’s CD system is MP3-compatible, while the Spectra also comes with a good multi-speaker setup. The only complaint we has with the Spectra's stereo was that we couldn’t get enough volume out of it for highway speeds or on coarse surfaces. The volume goes up to 35, which didn’t seem like enough for the speakers for several of the quieter CDs we were listening to, from Elvis Costello and Sigur Rós. The Reno’s stereo is MP3-ready and seemed to sound a bit better.

All in all, either the Reno or the Spectra would make a great commuter vehicle, and one that you could also take out, fold the seats down, and fit a lot of stuff without a sport-utility gas budget.

So which of these cars would we rather have? It’s a close call, but it wasn’t hard to find a preference. To us, the Reno’s the more fashionably dressed of the two and has the subjective advantage for looks, styling, and even comfort, but as those who enjoy driving above all else — with a little practicality, too — we’d rather be behind the wheel of the Spectra5.

 

2005 Kia Spectra5
Base price/as equipped:
$15,150/$17,120
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 138 hp/135 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 170.9 x 68.3 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 102.8 in
Curb weight: 2844 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 25/34 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags, side curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, AM/FM/CD player, alloy wheels
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles basic; ten years/100,000 miles powertrain; five years/unlimited miles roadside assistance

 

2005 Suzuki Reno LX
Base price/as equipped:
$15,349/$16,394
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 126 hp/131 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 169.1 x 67.9 x 56.9 in
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 2739 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 22/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power locks/windows/mirrors, heated mirrors, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, steering wheel audio controls, front fog lamps, cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic; seven years/100,000 miles powertrain (transferable); three years/unlimited miles roadside assistance

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