• Oct 30th 2009 at 11:58AM
  • 70
2010 Kia Forte SX – Click above for high-res image gallery

It's not that there was much wrong with the Forte's predecessor. In fact, the last time we drove a Kia Spectra, we walked away wondering if anything more might be overkill. The Spectra was good but tended to blend in with a crowd, and Kia's not into playing the role of wallflower anymore. In contrast, the Forte boldly saunters into the middle of the dance floor, comfortable in the hot glow of the pin spot, with the confidence of Tony Manero after a trip to the tailor.

Clearly, the Kia Forte looks remarkably better than the econobox it replaces and attracts the right kind of attention to the brand. Everywhere it goes, the Forte is a surprising conversation piece, though many aren't sure exactly what it is. With Kia's value pricing, you also get a lot for your dollar. So does it have the hat trick of style, value and performance? When the key to this black Forte SX tester was pressed into the palm of our hand, we were ready to find out.

Photos copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
Despite what some believe after only seeing photos, the Forte doesn't bear much resemblance to the Honda Civic. A thick swage along the top of the flanks gives the windows a chamfered, machined look. The Forte's face is bolder than its supposed Civic doppelganger with deeper shoulders formed by the fenders, and the rest of the sheetmetal is carefully creased to look pleasant and stylish, even a bit upscale. Since it doesn't aim to break new styling ground, the Forte has withstood accusations of being derivative, but its clean, precision-milled looks are more unique than that kind of critique might suggest. The lines will age well, and the bodywork grabs and bends light tastefully.

Our SX tester's dapper Ebony Black was set off by just the right amount of brightwork. Lesser trim levels get 15-inch steel wheels, but the SX gets 17s with creative fluting around the lugs, and, thankfully, no chrome. The Forte sits just right on its wheels, and the SX package dresses up the exterior with foglamps in the lower front fascia. This is not a body that carries extra strakes or adornments – there's not even rub strips along the doors. And while the looks are the better for it, we'd take to parking in the far spots, especially with a dark finish that will prominently display blemishes.

Interior styling is clean and simple, but not without flair. Just like the outside, tasteful is the order of the day, and the Forte's cabin isn't overly swooped-up. Dash-strokers will find that the Forte has its share of hard plastics, some may even find the sheen objectionable. But despite any nattering about materials quality, the Forte is right in there with its class contemporaries. The Focus is chintzier, the Civic is plain weird, and the Forte's interior is on par with the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla. The SX leather package fits perforated leather seats that look upscale and add an air of luxe inside, tacking on $1,000 to the $18,195 MSRP.

The seats could benefit from more support and adjustments, particularly with the lumbar. The seat bottom, too, was impossible to get positioned and tilted how we wanted. Although overall comfort and bolstering was good, without much adjustment, drivers might feel that the Forte was designed for some kind of mutant body type. Rear seat passengers don't have to duck and squeeze to enter and exit, with ample space for four full-sized humans, and the trunk is surprisingly large, too. If three people are comfortable with each other's company and personal grooming habits, they'll find the back seat pleasant enough for short jaunts around town, and if things get stuffy, the $600 power moonroof is worth the extra couple months of payments.

Functionally, the Forte's ergonomics are above complaint. Big, clear knobs operate the climate system, and the radio has genuine knobs for tuning and volume; two areas that can be troublesome for manufacturers to get right. Bluetooth is standard on the Forte, and the steering wheel carries controls for operating the telephone, as well as the audio system and cruise control. During its time with us, the Forte never annoyed us with hidden buttons or incongruous menus – it's a pleasantly simple car to operate – and the gauges follow the same pattern, providing clear, legible information for the driver.

Lesser Fortes get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that puts out an energetic 156 horsepower, but SX models get an uprated 2.4-liter engine. The bigger mill is borrowed from the Optima, much as Toyota Corollas can be had with a Camry powertrain. The 2.4's 173 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque will slake the thirst of the power hungry, but it's overkill here, and the extra 400cc of displacement brings with it an increased appetite for fuel. However, the bigger engine comes mated to an unflappable five-speed automatic that delivers smooth shifts and jumps for higher gears quickly, making the most of the engine's torquey nature. It can be a little reluctant to come out of high gear and extinguish the green "eco" light in the gauge cluster that indicates earth-friendly driving, but the manual gate is helpful – even satisfyingly responsive – when called upon.

The Forte is a stylish, comfortable, frisky automotive companion for surprisingly short dollars.
The biggest annoyance with the powertrain is its overly-aggressive throttle tip in. A very gentle foot is required to avoid blasting away from stops like a teenager with a newly laminated license. Manual transmission Fortes are even worse, with the wonky throttle programming leading to the binary options of peel out or stall that take time to adjust to. The four-speed auto that's paired with the 2.0-liter engine has come under some fire, but either auto trans is acceptable. The five-speed's extra ratio, however, adds more refinement and relaxes the demeanor.

With the big four's beefy torque, the Forte is happy to loaf along, and variable valve timing provides a noticeable dollop of extra urge as RPMs rise. We put the Forte through commuter hell and it coughed up 28 MPG after plenty of traffic-sitting and on ramp pedal flattening, which lands in the middle of its 22 city/32 highway EPA numbers. While the fuel economy is acceptable, regular commuters could make an argument for the smaller engine, which can be had with a special fuel economy package and five-speed auto 'box to deliver 27/36 city/highway.

Enter the freeway aggressively for the first time and you'll be looking to do it again, just to make sure you're not crazy. There are signs of life from underneath. Where other vehicles in this class are merely drone pods, the Forte SX has a sport tuned suspension, and it delivers. The chassis is simple stuff with struts up front, a torsion beam rear axle, some swaybars and gas dampers – nothing fancy. Those specifications may fail to impress in modern times, but there's a long list of impressive performers sporting the same details. Nobody would accuse a first generation Volksagen GTI of being a sloppy-handling little knockwurst. When this type of chassis is sorted, it's very good, and the Forte SX is well fettled.

The steering could use a smidge more feedback and less aggressive boost; it's fast off-center. The Forte feels light on its feet, though, like a boxer that dances around his opponents. This is a spirited, fun car to drive, which bodes well for the upcoming Koup model and its more overt suggestion of sportiness. The downside is a busy ride on the taut side of comfortable. Some might find it objectionably stiff, and there are occasions where the Forte feels like it's ricocheting off expansion gaps instead of just smothering them with a more pliant suspension. But It's a tradeoff we'd make, because it's an entertaining steer that doesn't dive, squat and slobber all over the road.

The drivetrain is well polished, the uprated engine doesn't leave you wanting for acceleration, and the four-wheel disc brakes felt firm, easily modulated and effective. We would've liked a little less cabin noise at speed, but that's akin to dinging Kia because the Forte's interior doesn't have Zebrano wood trim. For its place in the vehicular hierarchy, it delivers an experience that's among the top contenders in its class.

Just like the Spectra we tried back in 2007, the Kia Forte leaves us impressed. It really only has to compete with the Honda Civic and Mazda3 in its peer group as it betters everything else in SX trim. The $20,000 price is certainly attractive, as is the list of features and one of the industry's best warranties. Redact the brand and model names from the window sticker, and this could have easily passed as an Acura or Infiniti not too long ago. While it's not likely to keep pace with any of those brands' current offerings, the Forte is a heck of a value. The fuel economy of the SX could be better and a stiffer body shell might be the key to supple-izing the suspension. Until that happens, the Sport-averse would be advised to try the normal suspension first. But overall, the Forte is a stylish, comfortable, frisky automotive companion for surprisingly short dollars – the automotive equivalent of two buck Chuck.

Photos copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      But unlike the Chinese, they go and make a ripoff look better!
        • 5 Years Ago
        anonymous j, what car is the genesis/genesis coupe copying? These cars seem to have a lot of originality about them. Sure, they follow current design trends, but what car company doesn't?

        The Kia Forte may kind of look like a Civic in terms of the front headlights and grille, but that's where the similarities end. How can you be more of a fan of the Chinese ripoffs which go against international and Chinese law than Kia and Hyundai who have done everything by the book and have become one of the best automakers in the world today?

        South Korea has the support of the U.S, but you can't say that their success is completely dependent on the U.S, in just the same way that you can't put all of Japan's success on its close ties with the U.S.
        • 5 Years Ago
        anonymous j is idiot Japanese troll who pretend to Chinese. please ignore him.

        wake up until they sleep each day is "I must go on the internet and find ways to degrade Korean car's image b/c I am insecure about Japan's image and am afraid that Korean car overtake Japanese car".
        • 5 Years Ago
        At least with the Chinese you know full well what you're getting yourself into. You know it's a cheap knockoff, they don't even try to make it look better, they try to make it look as similar as possible, plain and simple.
        Here you have Hyundai/Kia releasing vehicles like the Genesis coupe/sedan and this, and trying to make it seem as if their vehicles are better than the orignials, which like I said, are NOT, while at the same time trying to make it seem as if their designs are original also, when in actuality, they are NOT.
        • 5 Years Ago
        just stated my valid opinion about your ignorant cry about the design of the KIA which you described as a "blatant copy" without even knowing that it was designed by the father of all previous Audis & VW that came in the decades before. What you said about it

        being a "blatant copy" only makes Peter Schreyer a copy cat because he designed the KIA ... You see that is why what you said is so ignorant & nonsensical..Only arrogant hating losers behave like you are doing here.

      • 5 Years Ago
      I'd get this

      If my family didn't already have a sephia, I didn't know the hoops you have to go through to file a warranty claim, If i didn't know Kia's ultra-low resale value, If there was a Kia dealership less than an hour away, and if it cost 12-14g not 18g's
      • 5 Years Ago
      I live in Winnipeg and even on the worst day I would rather have winter tires than four wheel drive.
      • 5 Years Ago
      That was actually good test on the Kia Forte and I am happy to see that Kia is making an effort to change their lineup and I think this model will sell! Actually I have seen a few of those on the road and it looks great! Great job Kia! keep it up!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Front of a Civic, back of a Lexus IS. I've seen a Forte in person and I admit it does have it's own unique look, but it's not gonna change my car friends' continuous tune of "Koreans steal designs from other automakers", with exception of the Genesis Coupe. IMHO, though, this looks like a great car and it's a heck of a change from Kias only a few years ago (Optima anyone?)/
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ Futurama: Actually I'm a product designer. Not a couch design critic. You can buy some of my designs in Home Depot. So... um... yeah, I actually know what I'm talking about.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I have seen the Forte Live. It does look like a Civic rip-off hands-down. Obviously not exact ( because of copyright laws ) but any idiot can tell that there are styling clues taken from the most popular car in it's class.
        All the korean junk cars have been doing it for years and years.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I've seen them in person and they DO look quite similar, in fact from a slight distance I bet about 95% would mistaken it for a Civic, which is in all likelihood Kia's intention.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @Gruv - "I totally, like, designed that 2-by-4. Isn't it great?"

        I kid I kid, and yes, the two obviously share quite a bit in common. I'm not at all surprised that Kia tried to ape the super successful civic - why wouldn't they? I'm at a loss as to why "derivative-looking" products offend so many people. Is that your design they're stealing? That of someone you know? ...

        I highly doubt that Kia ever had the intention of creating "art" here. Kia/Hyundai seek to make money, right? Think about it, what's a smarter move, design something bold and potentially polarizing in hopes that consumers will flock, or start off from a perennial best-seller? If you're seeking original design from production econoboxes, uh, good luck?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Actually I was referring to a major, high end power tool manufacturer. Some of those are mine, for sale, right now. But hey, don't listen to a designer or anything, listen to Joe Schmoe. . Anyway... if you can't see how the Forte ripped off almost everything from the front of a civic, you're either blind or just trying to fool yourself.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Forte (All-new Cerato) & Forte (All-new Cerato) Koup Design Essay

        • 5 Years Ago

        oh deer... it's Halloween and all the undead couch design critics are hatching out of their tombs again!!!!!!! scary~~~

        Have you seen the Civic and Forte car in person, side by side? Simple comparison of lines in 2D does not make the things the same. Cars, whether you believe or not, exist in 3 dimensional world with lines, volume, and surfaces. Sorry, but you should simply go back to your 2D couch tomb...

        Now.. if I have time today in between Halloween party at work, I will put something up to show how flawed all of these dumb 2D logic is.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Kia has improved so fast in both quality and styling.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I like the looks of this thing, especially in person. It DOES look different than the pictures, somehow.

      However, I have an issue with this line in the review: "Where other vehicles in this class are merely drone pods, the Forte SX has a sport tuned suspension, and it delivers."

      Have you forgotten entirely about the Mazda 3? I drive a 300 hp car with adjustable suspension, and I find my dad's 3 sedan (with the lowest model engine from 2008, and a 5 speed) a hell of a lot of fun to drive.
      • 5 Years Ago
      That throttle thing is normal for post-2006 Hyundai and Kia models with electronic throttle. I can remember leaving smoke in my wake just trying to pull out of my own driveway.

      The ECM is designed to learn how you hit the gas and adapt to it, and at the same time your foot is adapting to the throttle. Eventually it evens out and becomes much more docile.

      The throttle will resume doing these burnout starts if the ECM is ever reset for some reason, or if you force the throttle to reset. It will go through the learning process again and settle back down.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I don't see anything special within this car. Cheap? maybe. However there is still a stereotype about Korean cars.
        • 5 Years Ago
        So your going to base buying a car for YOURSELF based on what OTHER might think of you?

        Insecure much? Be a man and make your own statement. Dont let others dictate your life.
        • 5 Years Ago
        wouldn't call it cheap, it is inexpensive.
        And as far as stereotypes, stereotypes are a favorite of those who are lazy and have more to do with previous generations than current so if you want to be lazy or live in the past, you go right ahead. the rest of us will bask in the knowledge that we weighed something on its own merits and are excited.

        Kia and Hyundai are both a brand on the rise and they will continue to be values but the prices will eventually rise. For recent history, consider the Mazda 3. pricing has gone up considerably since it was first released. every year saw more of a jump as the word got out.

        • 5 Years Ago
        haha..I know what you mean, but don't you think what you like to do isn't what others like to do? I can say I go for Audi, BMW, MB, Nissan/Infiniti, and Toyota/Lexus, while others go for Bently, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Rolls Royce. As you said people don't stick to the past, they move to higher state...
      • 5 Years Ago
      I like it!
      • 3 Years Ago
      Love my Kia Forte. Just cant figure out how to connect my new Samsung Showcase phone to the blue tooth. Ugghhh! But as far as the car goes...Love ...Love....Love it! Comfortable, sporty and smooth to drive.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Steven said:

      "But unlike the Chinese, they go and make a ripoff look better!"

      are you kidding? what qinese make are frankensteins!
        • 5 Years Ago

        When Toyota launched its Lexus luxury car brand a decade ago it made no secret that it had Mercedes in it sights.

        Ten years later, the Japanese are sending in the clones with increasing frequency.

        It's not just the expensive models which European makers accuse Japan of copying. Consider, for example, the headlights on the latest Toyota Tarago. Now picture those of the Peugeot 206. Look familiar? Looks as if they should share the same part number.

        When Audi's TT coupe and convertible were unveiled, diminutive Japanese maker Daihatsu had a car with an amazing likeness displayed at the very next Tokyo Motor Show called the Kopen. The latest Lexus coupe, due here before the end of the year, looks like a larger interpretation of Audi's Bauhaus design.

        Daihatsu has also built a miniature Hummer and, bizzarely, called it the Naked. And in 1999 at the same show, Mitsubishi took the wraps off a car that, if you squinted, you would swear blind was a new Mini.

        What about the "teardrops" on the headlights on latest batch of Hondas, such as the HR-V, Odyssey and the new Integra? A hint of BMW 3 Series perhaps? The tailights on the HR-V have a remarkable resemblance to the Volvo 850 wagon's.

        From a distance, Toyota's square-shaped MR2 looks like a Porsche Boxster.

        The original Toyota Celica was so inspired by the Ford Mustang of the era that today's enthusiasts call it the "Mustang Celica".

        Now, even after 10 years, Lexus still hasn't broken its clone-like mould. The latest Lexus LS430 has the sillouette of the superseded Mercedes S Class and a headlight theme borrowed from the new S Class.

        When the covers came off the fourth generation Lexus at the Detroit Motor Show two years ago, Mercedes-Benz broke its corporate silence over what it called "Japanese copycat cars" but stopped short of calling it plagiarism.

        "People explain to us it is really an honour to have someone copy our cars, but I don't think we see it that way any more," said Harald Leschke, the head of design at Mercedes-Benz. "I think it is quite obvious that they admire the design, then try to do it their way. I'm sure in some industries this sort of thing is not legal.

        "What surprises us most is that [Lexus] are prepared to do it, in public, and that customers are prepared to buy their copycat cars."

        "I think it's fair to say all their cars have been influenced by someone else's models," he said. "They don't have a history so they have to copy someone else's."

        Industry experts argue that a flagship Lexus made sense when it was considerably cheaper than the German benchmarks. But now that it is priced the same, there's less incentive to drive an imitation. Nevertheless, Europe's car maker have now become so concerned about Japan's sincere forms of flattery that they are wary of showing concept cars of future models.

        Porsche, for example, has deliberately not shown "design studies" of its Cayenne off-roader because it fears a Japanese maker will be able to release its interpretation just as Porsche unveils the real thing.

        The lack of history is also an Achilles heel. "Japan had no horse-and-carriage era. True, the nobility were transported in carriages for a time, but these were import!!ed or the designs were copied.

        "So the country skipped a critical phase in its maturation process as a car stylist. Too often, designers took the easy option and borrowed looks from around the world."
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