2005 Kia Spectra SX: One less door, same econocar appeal.

VANCOUVER-When two manufacturers want you to drive two separate vehicles in two different countries, the only logical thing to do is to drive there. Right?

In this case it was. While my colleagues waited for a late evening, 30-minute flight and an even later arrival at the hotel, I drove Kia's Spectra SX sedan from one event in Vancouver to another in Seattle - a short two-hour drive that reminded me how nimble and pleasant the current Spectra is, and how favorably impressed I was with the Spectra5 last summer in Los Angeles.

I say familiar because, save for its four-door body and assorted trim, the Spectra SX is essentially the same as the Spectra5 hatchback. Kia applies the same formula to the four-door - tightening down its handling, beefing up the equipment list - to the basic Spectra profile and in the process, makes for a great econocar experience bound to an extended warranty that's nearly the best in the business.

Urban breeze

For city dwellers and short-distance runners alike, the SX provides a decently roomy, betrunked package with a fuel-efficient four and a choice of transmissions, all for about $16,000, though you'll want to add on the optional anti-lock brakes ($400) to any SX order.

The powertrain's the same as in the Spectra5, and a first drive in that hatchback left me whelmed at its power. With variable valve timing and double overhead cams, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder turns out 138 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. But in the SX, coupled to a manual transmission, the four-cylinder not only seemed to have been broken in more, it sounded far more pleasant. Torquey enough to pull out of a parking space with not much lead time to spare, it burbled along nicely through the short piece of Canada and on through northwest Washington, neatly skipping gas stations proudly advertising three-dollar gas before Katrina landed. The engine note is quiet enough at 80 mph, too.

The five-speed transmission, too, proved sharper than in the pre-production Spectra5 we drove. It's geared well to keep the engine revving where you need it. The clutch effort is light and direct and so are the brakes, for that matter. A four-speed automatic is a $975 option.

Like the Spectra5, the SX gets a suspension tuned for something more adventurous than Hertz duty. The MacPherson strut/multilink rear grabs the ground through better springs and shocks and larger-diameter roll bars, as well as 205/50R-16 wheels and tires. Steering is sprightly, and the power assist never drains much of its well-measured feel, though grooved pavement sends the SX tramlining if you're not firm at the steering wheel.

Nicely equipped

Manual models add a strut tower brace for rigidity, and all SXs get a raft of exterior touches that brighten the Spectra's crisp but anonymous lines, including a large rear spoiler, fog lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and shift knob with perforated leather, sport fabric on the seats and door panels, and metal-finish trim throughout the interior, including metal pedals.

Inside, the Spectra SX wears metallic dash trim on its well laid-out dash. The driver and front passenger seat are a bit low, perhaps to free up more head room, which is already generous. A bit more vertical boost and the SX's ****************pit would be in complete command, since it already has neat gauges, standard A/C, power windows/locks/mirrors, and a decent-sounding AM/FM/CD player.

Pricing for the 2005 Spectra SX starts at $15,250 for the five-speed manual and $16,225 for the four-speed automatic; don't forget the $540 destination charge, either, or the salesman will come running after you.

Did I mention I beat everyone else back to Seattle - by a couple of hours? Even in the era of three-dollar gas, driving can save time and irritation at security, too. And gas sippers like the Spectra SX prove that you don't have to be saddled with a dull machine to do so.

2005 Kia Spectra SX
Base price: $15,250 (plus $540 destination)
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 138 hp/135 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 176.4 x 68.3 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 102.8 in
Curb weight: 2701-2892 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 25/33 mpg (manual); 24/34 mpg (auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags (anti-lock brakes, $400)
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player, power windows/locks/mirrors, air conditioning, alloy wheels
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles basic; ten years/100,000 miles powertrain; five years/unlimited miles roadside assistance