Most drivers won't be disappointed with the 2009 Kia Spectra's handling and performance, but they’re unlikely to be impressed.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which uses variable valve timing to generate 138 horsepower, can be somewhat loud and thrashy when pushed hard. The same engine is installed in all versions of the 2009 Kia Spectra. The motor feels peppy with the standard five-speed manual but is also one of the more responsive engines in its class with the relatively smooth-shifting four-speed automatic.
Speaking of transmissions, ConsumerGuide states "around-town response is fine with manual transmission, but Spectra lacks highway passing punch." Car and Driver reports that the 2009 Kia Spectra's power "is delivered to the front wheels via a standard five-speed manual or an optional four-speed automatic," then adds that its "standard five-speed manual gets the job done, but it still brings that 'which gear am I in?' negotiation that's reminiscent of stirring a wooden spoon in a bowl of Jell-O." On the other hand, Cars.com opines that the Kia Spectra's "easy-shifting manual gearbox works with little effort and helps extract the most power from the engine."
Edmunds reports that the Kia Spectra's engine "provides spirited performance around town but feels a little winded during highway passing maneuvers," noting that testers' "criticisms included the engine's lack of pep at high speeds." Cars.com remarks "acceleration reaches past adequate with an automatic transmission, but passing yields a lot more blare than response." Car and Driver states that "Kia screwed together a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that serves up 138 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque," a significant improvement over previous models. The 2009 Kia Spectra's engine delivers "new levels of refinement for a Kia four-banger, never becoming too rough or raucous as did the old 1.8."
Fuel economy is unimpressive for a small car, with ratings of 24 mpg city, 32 highway with the automatic and 23/30 mpg for the manual. EPA mileage figures are given as 22-24 mpg in the city and 30-32 mpg on the open road, depending on the transmission. ConsumerGuide test drivers report that "manual-transmission sedans average 28.1-28.5 mpg overall."
Cars.com asserts that the 2009 Kia Spectra is "a generally enjoyable car that exhibits no more body lean than other sedans in its league, but it lacks a feeling of tight control." ConsumerGuide says "testers [were] divided on steering: responsive to some, slow to others," adding that the Kia Spectra "was prone to wander in highway crosswinds and exhibited unwanted nosedive in simulated panic stops." The standard Spectra sedan favors ride comfort over sportiness, and it doesn't handle especially well. There have been several improvements made to the Kia Spectra's handling, nonetheless: Car and Driver reports "the loosey-goosey steering sense is gone, replaced with an effort and feel that, although perhaps too light, clearly relays the front tires' attitude," while "the brakes offer up a firm pedal feel and reassuring performance."
The reviewer from the Detroit News is sufficiently impressed that while "hitting the scales at 2,833 pounds, the [Kia] Spectra feels light on its feet and quite maneuverable in tight parking lots, thanks to an engine-speed-sensitive, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system." The 2009 Kia Spectra5 and the SX sedan have sportier suspension tuning—including wider tires—that makes these versions much more enjoyable to drive if you routinely navigate curvy roads, with only a slight change in ride quality.