Highway running was good at 33 miles per gallon. But we wanted better. We switched off the air conditioner to squeeze more miles from the tank. That was not a good idea. The weather was hot. We lowered the car's front windows to catch a breeze. The resulting wind drag did nothing for fuel economy and did even less to cool us.

That was in the 2005 Kia Spectra SX compact sedan, one of a series of cars I've been driving over recent months on the theory that no one has to spend extra money for an electric/gasoline hybrid vehicle to get a good, fuel-efficient family automobile.

It's not that I'm against hybrids. It's just that I'm allergic to hype, especially the kind that can drain dollars from the pockets of people who might be better off buying something substantially less expensive, such as the sporty Spectra SX, which did a commendable job of transporting a family of four -- plus one friend -- for a week of Washington area commuting.

We traveled a total of 240 miles. We used 7.25 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline -- exactly half of the Spectra SX's tank, which was filled at a Northern Virginia gas station at $2.10 a gallon. Total cost of gasoline used was $15.23.

Because the Spectra SX meets or exceeds all regional, federal and state clean air standards, we can assume we did not harm anyone's lungs, including those of our youngest passenger, a 10-year-old with asthma. Our 10-year-old talked and laughed nonstop. But he coughed only in a local restaurant when he tried to gulp air and root beer at the same time.

"Compact," of course, is just another way of saying the Spectra SX is a small car. But "small," in this case, has nothing to do with shoddy, cheap or poorly made -- although at least three of us in the Spectra SX agreed that its seats could have had more cushion.

But when properly belted, we all felt reasonably safe in the front-wheel-drive Spectra SX, which comes with six air bags -- including front and rear head air bags -- as standard equipment.

Air bags help people survive vehicle crashes, but they can't turn the Spectra SX, or any other vehicle, into an invulnerable fortress. Bigger vehicles still prowl. Get over it. There always will be bigger vehicles -- or someone or something bigger than you. Don't pick fights with giants. Don't play chicken with 18-wheelers; and if you have to run, make sure you have a car with enough power and maneuverability to get out of any Dodge truck's way.

We could scoot in the Spectra SX. Even with five occupants, the car's 138-horsepower, in-line four-cylinder engine had more than ample chutzpah to keep us competitive in high-speed highway traffic. Handling was aided by the test car's standard 16-inch-diameter tires -- pretty big for the compact-car segment, where 14-inch and 15-inch tires are standard fare in the original equipment market.

The SX sits at the top of the Spectra sedan line, which includes the base LX and mid-level EX. There also is a Spectra hatchback, officially called the Spectra5.

Because it is positioned as one of Kia's "sport-tuned" models, the Spectra SX comes with a list of extras, including an upgraded front suspension and items such as a rear spoiler, leather-wrapped steering wheel and a leather-wrapped shifter knob to work the car's standard five-speed manual transmission.

Will it please everyone? No. The Spectra SX will not appeal to people who are determined to spend more on hybrids to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels. This particular review is not meant for those folks. Nor is it meant to change the minds of people who still labor under the misapprehension that Kia Motors is a little South Korean car company that cannot compete with Toyota, Honda, Nissan, General Motors or Ford.

Some things take time.

This, instead, is written for folks with open minds and closed pocketbooks -- for people who want to save money at gas pumps to have more cash to put food on tables, clothes on backs and roofs over heads. We're not talking altruism here. We're talking common dollars and cents. From that perspective, in addition to the Spectra SX's other virtues, the car is a darned good buy.