The Kia Forte is a new entry into the compact car field with contenders like Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Ford Focus, and Chevrolet Cobalt. By comparison, including exterior, interior, performance, and price, the Forte looks awfully good.
The Forte boasts class-leading interior space, and, in our opinion, class-leading looks. The interior is classy and intelligently designed, which is to say everything is there where you need it. The seats are comfortable and supportive.
The Forte uses modern four-cylinder engines, notably a 2.4-liter in the upscale SX, which also has an available five-speed automatic transmission with Sportmatic manual shifting.
Least expensive is the Forte EX, which comes with a 2.0-liter engine that gets an EPA-estimated 25/34 mpg City/Highway with either the manual transmission or four-speed automatic. Most fuel-efficient, however, is the EX with the Fuel Economy Package, which yields an EPA-estimated 27/36 mpg.
Most fun to drive is the Forte SX equipped with a larger 2.4-liter engine and five-speed automatic. We found the handling in the SX with its sport-tuned suspension taut. The ride is firm but never harsh. It gets 23/31 mpg.
A five-door hatchback version is going on sale for the 2011 model year.
Kia Forte LX ($13,695), EX ($15,795), SX ($17,195)
The new Kia Forte is a looker. It's an excellent example of clean styling, nothing really fancy but with all the right lines. It's not a big car, and it doesn't look big.
It's shaped like a wedge, or appears to be, from the swept-back grille and headlamps carrying through climbing shoulders on the sides of the car, back to the short rear deck. From some angles it looks aggressive, from others subtle. Even the rear door seams carry this wedge line. The Coefficient of Drag is a low 0.29, reflecting the clean wind-cutting shape.
Refreshingly, there are no squared flares over the rear wheelwells. The large taillights have nice angles, and wrap horizontally around the corners of the car and into the trunk lid. The roofline is coupe-like. The 10-spoke alloy wheels on our SX were especially terrific looking. Body-colored mirrors and door handles, hooray.
The front fenders are subtly boxed, but there are no trendy flares there, either. The front valance between the grille and low air intakes is not bulky, as with too many cars, and the three black screened intakes that run the full width of the chin are tidy and businesslike.
The hood, too, is short, accenting the wedge. The short hood and deck mean efficient construction with no excess in overhangs, because the overall length is correct for the compact sedan class. It's got a long wheelbase and wide track for its size, which is the key to all the good proportioning.
Our Forte was parked next to a $100,000 BMW 750Li we were also testing, and frankly, from the rear, the Forte was cleaner and displayed more distinction.
The short hood and rear deck pay off in interior space. The Kia Forte has one of the roomiest interiors in the compact sedan class, with a total of 96.8 cubic feet of passenger volume. That's 3.3 cubic feet more than the 2009 Subaru Legacy. And the Forte's trunk space of 14.7 cubic feet is best in class, matching the redesigned and enlarged midsize 2010 Legacy.
Headroom is good front and rear, while front legroom is ample and rear legroom is 35.0 inches, good for a compact sedan.
The thing that Kia does exceptionally well is execute. The Korean manufacturer copies carefully, and perfects. There's no pretension about being original or unique with the Forte interior, no attempt to re-invent anything. This is excellent, the intelligent antithesis of so many others especially German namely BMW and Audi. The result here is no flaws, no quirks, nothing of debatable taste, just satisfaction, simplicity and convenience.
Here's the list of stuff that's right: brushed aluminum-look trim, good armrests and grab handles, deep door pockets with bottle holder, standard sporty black cloth seats with red stitching, or sharp optional perforated leather upholstery especially handsome in dark gray, nice shift knob in leather and aluminum, deep center console, two easy-to-reach cupholders, good cubby with nearby USB port, lovely center stack, big climate control knobs that are easy to read and operate, eave over the instruments making them easy to read in the sun, sporty aluminum pedals with a great dead pedal, pleasant and efficient cabin lighting.
The front bucket seats are excellent, in classy leather out of its league for a compact sedan. Great firm but not tight bolstering. Nice 60/40 split rear seat with fold-down armrest with two cupholders.
Only criticisms are that we found the air conditioning fan a bit loud, and the roofline's C pillar created a small blind spot when looking over your shoulder.
We drove the 173-horsepower 2.4-liter Forte SX with five-speed automatic and the 156-horsepower 2.0-liter Forte EX with five-speed manual.
The Forte EX gets an EPA-estimated 25/34 mpg City/Highway with either the manual transmission or four-speed automatic, compared to the 23/31 mpg of the 2.4-liter Forte SX with the five-speed automatic. Given the performance difference, fuel mileage and lower base price by $1400 would be the only reason to choose the EX. And, considering there are many other worthwhile SX features, the loss of meat is not worth the savings. In other words, we'd spring for the SX.
However there might be an exception. There is a Fuel Economy Package with the EX, including five-speed automatic, electric power steering, a smart alternator, silica tires for low rolling resistance, and an aerodynamic kit that costs $1600, making an Eco EX about the same price as a sporty SX, but it raises the fuel mileage to 27/36 mpg. So if fuel economy is your priority, this is the best choice.
Kia's 2.4-liter engine can't match the reputation of the Mitsubishi 2.4-liter that powers not only the Lancer, but also many Chrysler products, from Jeep Patriot to PT Cruiser. The SX makes a fine 173 horsepower, and its 168 pound-feet peaks at 4000 rpm. It's fun to work the transmission to use the power; the Sportmatic manual mode in the five-speed automatic makes shifting easy.
Forte is a brand-new car and it uses a new ground-up chassis, caging 63 percent of the cabin with high-strength steel, plus ultra high-strength steel in the side sills. This increases rigidity and improves handling. The Forte replaces the Kia Spectra and there's like no comparison in the chassis feel, if not overall quality.
Front suspension is your basic MacPherson strut with coil springs, while in the rear there's nothing fancy, a torsion beam axle again with coil springs. The SX front brakes use 11.8-inch vented discs, and the rears 10.3-inch solid discs, employing an anti-lock brake system with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Plenty big and responsive for a car of this weight, we can say after using them hard through a twisty section. EX brakes are the same, but with 11.0-inch front discs.
The Forte is quite nimble and fun to drive, with power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and a very tight turning circle. It displays no bad habits as long as you don't ask it to do outlandish cornering things. Among the compact sedans we named in the opening Overview, we'd say the Forte feels most like the Mitsubishi Lancer. The long wheelbase and wide stance are felt in the ride and cornering. Maybe especially the ride, satisfactory on every surface we drove the SX. Firm but not harsh. The SX comes with firmer springs and shocks and a larger front anti-roll bar, which is another reason it's a great value for just $1400 more than the EX.
For real sport-driving excitement, watch for the Forte Koup (as in coupe), coming soon.
We tested the Forte right after the all-new Subaru Legacy, and it might not be fair to compare the two because they're in a different class, but we can say that the Forte did not feel as solid as the Legacy. It felt lighter, if not tinnier. And it is lighter, by about 500 pounds, tipping the scales at a lithe 2868 pounds. And that's our SX; the EX is 150 pounds lighter than that.
The Kia Forte is a new model, and Kia has nailed it, in the compact sedan class. It's a stylish, pretty car, with no flaws in the execution. Plenty of safety, class-leading cabin space, intelligent and handsome interior, and good handling on a wide stance. There's a choice of engines and transmissions yielding comparable performance, and finally the price of a strong contender.
Sam Moses filed his report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of Kia Forte models near Seattle.