Small Japanese hatchbacks had their first fling in America back in the ’70s, but their appeal quickly died out. Now, the sporty compact five-doors from Asia appear to be staging a comeback, especially with younger buyers, although so far they seem to have elicited little response from Detroit automakers.

One of the best new hatchbacks we’ve tested is the 2005 Kia Spectra5, a companion to the redesigned Spectra sedan that was introduced last year.

Our test car was a nicely equipped version with optional antilock brakes ($400), cruise control ($250) and sunroof ($700). The bottom line: $16,885, including a $540 destination charge.

SHE: We tested the Spectra5 when we were in the middle of moving, so I had the chance to see just how practical a hatchback can be. I was impressed with the little Kia. I was able to get eight bigger boxes of books, old G.I. Joe toys from the kids and kitchenware in the cargo hold with the rear seats folded. I put the miniature schnauzer in the front seat and still had space to go shopping and buy a Tiffany lamp, bedding and groceries and still see out the rear window just enough not to get stopped by the cops. In other words, the Spectra5 passed the practicality test with high marks. And here’s the best news, it’s not a dog in the looks department, either.

HE: Wait a minute. Go back to the Tiffany lamp and bedding. Did I miss some hidden moving expenses somewhere in the course of testing this car?

SHE: Honey, just consider it part of the cost of doing business as an auto writer.

HE: Well, if you want to talk about bargains and value, consider the Spectra5 that we tested cost less than $17,000. That price included a roomy and comfortable vehicle with a nimble ride, a peppy twin-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a smooth-shifting five-speed gearbox. The engine makes an ample 138 horsepower and is rated by the EPA at 33 miles per gallon on the highway, so it’s pretty frugal, too. But I’m impressed by all the extras, including some world-class safety equipment, one of the best warranties in the industry and assembly quality that appears to rival that of the best Japanese compacts.

SHE: I said it’s not a dog in the looks department, but the Spectra5 isn’t a purebred either. That’s why I hesitated to give it our top five-star rating. I thought the exterior was fresh and contemporary, but that the Koreans went overboard in throwing just about everything they could think of on it, including a front spoiler, a rear spoiler, side sills and other embellishments. In side profile, the Kia hatchback looks a little too busy for my tastes. And it seemed to me like the rear spoiler had too big a gap away from the body. Anyway, I stood in the driveway just puzzling about the Spectra5’s looks and decided to give it four stars. It reminds me of the old fashion advice that you should get dressed and then remove one item. Kia should have done that.

HE: I would have removed the Tiffany lamp. But I happen to disagree with you – imagine that – about the exterior design. I think it looks sporty without being ostentatious. Next to a Toyota Matrix, it’s pretty clean. And I imagine the drifters and boy racers who covet this car will come up with plenty of cosmetic add-ons.

SHE: You have to give Kia credit for not skimping on the cabin. The materials they use on the Spectra5 are an attractive mix of textures and neutral colors. There are nice large buttons on the instrument panel that are sensible and easy to use, although I would like to have seen one or two more power outlets, especially if this is aimed at a younger audience. Rear-seat passengers get a decent amount of amenities, including net-style map pockets and cupholders. And the driver gets spoiled with some nice little touches like metal pedals and a standard leather-wrapped steering wheel. My point is that Kia went the extra mile in making you feel like you are getting a real deal with the affordable Spectra5. After all, that’s what buyers want – that value-added sense – whether they are buying a little hatchback or a bargain-basement Tiffany lamp.

Anita and Paul Lienert are partners in Lienert & Lienert, a Detroit-based automotive information services company.