Kia Spectra answers a question being asked by more and more people, especially younger drivers: What's out there that is stylish, practical and fun but doesn't cost a fortune?

For most, the answer is: a used car. New-car offerings in the sub-$15,000 range are mainly pathetic compromises, basic transportation and little more.

But for a base price just under $13,000, the Spectra's upgraded GLX model comes with a full load of features, a great warranty and a sporty appearance that should appeal to even the most style-conscious. The performance is hardly stellar, but it's no dog, either.

Now in its second year, the Spectra comes in one body design, a four-door hatchback, which is popular in Europe and Asia, but not in the United States. I think a hatchback works better for a subcompact car than a minuscule trunk.

The youthful appeal is emphasized in the GLX. An unsubtle logo on the rear deck puts the "X" in bigger type and bright yellow. As a bona fide middle-ager, I felt self-conscious driving a bright-red Spectra with a bright-yellow X on its tail.

Still, I could appreciate the level of features and refinement in this little critter, which serves as the Korean automaker's sporty model.

Unfortunately, the Spectra press car was significantly challenged by its automatic transmission. With a small-displacement four-banger, making just 125 horsepower, and modest torque, the automatic just sapped too much of the power. A manual transmission would be beneficial.

The Spectra escapes being just another droning econobox by its responsive steering and well-sorted suspension. Kia touts that British manufacturer and chassis-tuner Lotus helped with the design and execution. That doesn't make Spectra handle like a Lotus Esprit, but it helps.

As it is, I found the ride to be choppy over nearly all road surfaces with an unpleasant tendency to rumble and vibrate. But what the stiffened suspension costs in ride quality, it pays back in handling. For a pint-size, low-cost passenger car, the Spectra displays solid cornering capabilities. The Lotus influence, I'm sure.

The test car was equipped with antilock brakes, an $800 option that includes rear discs instead of drums. Brake response is strong and effective, but really, this kind of safety gear should be standard, just like air bags.

The interior of the GLX is comfortable with supportive seats and decent space front and rear, considering the outside dimensions.

The base model of the Spectra starts at $10,795, but it's a Spartan creature, with air-conditioning as a $900 option. The GLX seems a better deal, including an upgraded interior, full power features, body enhancements, alloy wheels and standard AC.

Our test car was fully loaded with options, pushing the price tag dangerously over $16,000. Aside from the $800 brake package, there was the $995 automatic transmission (skip that); upgraded AM/FM/CD s tereo at $295; a $400 package that includes cruise control, stereo tweeters, variable wipers and power mirrors; $250 for remote entry; $95 for a rear-window wiper; $85 for body-color side moldings; and $70 for carpeted floor mats.

Kia has been sailing some rough waters recently, such as going broke and being purchased by Hyundai. Like Hyundai, the quality of Kia's products is improving, though the jury's still out on the Spectra. But also like Hyundai, the warranty is excellent, including a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a five-year, unlimited-mileage roadside assistance program.