Looking back just a few years, America's compact segment was filled with bland, uninteresting cars that traded largely on low prices and high fuel economy. In today's landscape, though, things couldn't be more different – this class now boasts some of the most attractive cars on the market, not to mention features and technologies once reserved for luxury cars.
Filling Kia's role in this important market, the 2014 Forte has helped make the South Korean automaker a contender among compact cars with the sedan launching earlier in the year and the Koup and Forte5 hatchback hitting dealers soon. When the Forte first launched in 2010, it was a much-needed replacement for the Spectra, but it still had lingering drivetrain refinement issues. In the end, the model didn't really move the needle for Kia, let alone the segment. Now the second-generation Forte sedan has arrived in an effort to bolster the company's lineup, a portfolio that includes impressive models like the Optima, Sorento, Soul and even the subcompact Rio.
Compact buyers can range anywhere from first-time drivers to empty nesters, so these cars are required to fill a variety driving needs. To test this out, we strapped into a fully loaded 2014 Kia Forte EX for a long-distance drive that took us from Jacksonville, FL to Atlanta, GA – a 700-mile jaunt that gave us a good mix of interstate and urban driving.
Kia has made a name for itself recently by bringing new levels of vehicle design to the segments in which it competes, which is why it's surprising that if anything, the Forte's design might be its sole stumbling point. Don't get us wrong, the styling is balanced and handsome enough (especially when compared to the first-gen Forte) but it lacks the originality of its sister car, the Hyundai Elantra. Even so, there are plenty of strong points, including the boomerang-shaped crease along the bodyside and the sloped nose with its signature Tiger Nose grille and large headlights. Stepping up to the EX model brings a little more flair by adding features like HID headlights with LED daytime running lamp swooshes, LED taillights, 17-inch wheels, power-folding mirrors and chrome exhaust finisher.
Kia has equipped the 2014 Forte with a stylish cabin with soft-touch materials throughout.
The biggest difference between modern compacts and those from just a handful of years ago tends to center on their interior appointments. For Kia's part, it has equipped the 2014 Forte with a stylish cabin with soft-touch materials throughout, including the instrument panel and padded door armrests. As great as the materials are on this Forte EX, though, the plasticky faux carbon fiber trim around the driver's cockpit is a bit on the cheesy side, and the plastic inserts on lower portion of steering wheel are downright awful – disappointing given that the thickness and feel of the steering wheel is otherwise excellent.
Longer and wider than its predecessor, the 2014 Forte has a slightly roomier interior – something especially noticeable from the rear seats. Front occupants are afforded the most room, of course, and the seats offer a surprising amount of adjustment, while the second row provides enough head, leg and hip room to fit three adults abreast, at least for short rides. If needed, the rear seatbacks fold, but they really don't add as much to the Forte's practicality as one might hope, since they aren't able to fold completely flat – they're mostly useful for long, bulky items. Between the roomy rear seat and abundant trunk space, though, the Forte's cabin proved more than comfortable and roomy enough for our weekend-long family road trip.
The touchscreen navigation system is easy to use and offers outstanding graphics and resolution.
Stepping up the luxury in Forte EX, our tester included Kia's $2,600 Premium Package that adds a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel and perforated leather seats (heated front and rear – the driver's side is also cooled), along with push-button start. Additionally, the $2,300 EX Technology Package bundles navigation, HD radio, dual-zone automatic climate control and a 4.2-inch LCD in the gauge cluster. Kia's touchscreen navigation system, in addition to the EX's standard UVO connectivity, is easy to use and offers outstanding graphics and resolution.
Being the Forte's sportiest trim level, the EX replaces the base 148-horsepower 1.8-liter engine with a 2.0-liter direct-injected inline four-cylinder putting out 173 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque – about the same power figures as the previous Forte SX that used a thirstier 2.4-liter engine. Thanks in part to the smaller powerplant, this 2014 model is actually lighter than the 2013 Forte SX, and its fuel economy has improved, too, with estimates of 24 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. Unlike the outgoing generation, though, the EX is only offered with a six-speed automatic transmission – if you're looking for a manual gearbox, you're stuck with the base LX. For now, it doesn't sound like there are any plans to put the upcoming 2014 Forte5's 201-hp turbo engine in the sedan, which is a shame because it could have the makings of an affordable small sport sedan.
Forte has surprising ride comfort and puts out plenty of power to prevent the car from feeling cheap and underwhelming.
That kind of extra power surely wouldn't go unnoticed, but as we found out during our road trip, the EX might be the perfect blend of what compact buyers want and need. On the practical side, the Forte has surprising ride comfort and puts out plenty of power to prevent the car from feeling cheap and underwhelming. An Active Eco button helps improve fuel economy slightly, albeit at the predictable cost of throttle response.
On the fun side, though, the Forte has a well-tuned front strut, rear torsion-beam suspension that makes the car surprisingly agile without the penalty of a rough ride. It's not a sport sedan as-is, but it isn't meant to be. The Forte's ride and handling isn't without complaint, however – the driver-selectable steering modes (used on numerous Kia and Hyundai models) are gimmicky, adding weight but nothing in the way of feel or quickness. And the amount of road noise that makes its way into the Forte's cabin can be intrusive – a bit disappointing in light of how quiet some compacts' cabins have gotten recently.
A well-tuned front strut, rear torsion-beam suspension makes the car surprisingly agile.
Overall, though, the Forte is engaging to drive and comfortable to ride in. Just as importantly, it's efficient. At the end of our trip (which included a healthy mix of long interstate runs and plenty of city stop-and-go driving) we averaged an impressive 33 mpg, proving that this sporty, fully loaded sedan still delivers when it comes to one of the biggest reasons people buy small cars.
There's no shortage of compact cars to choose from these days – even luxury automakers are redoubling their efforts in this segment – but traditional economy car players like Kia aim to prove that you don't have to spend big money to get a great small car. Avoid checking all of the option boxes, and you can get behind the wheel of a 2014 Forte for just under $16,000 – our heavily optioned EX rang in at an as-tested price of $25,515. Like many other loaded compacts these days, that's a pretty high price to pay, but you're also getting loads of content you'd historically find in cars costing tens of thousands of dollars more.
The difference between mediocrity and greatness can come down to nitpicks.
Thanks to the improving overall quality of small cars in general, the difference between mediocrity and greatness can come down to nitpicks at times, and the gripes we can muster for the 2014 Forte are limited. Only in today's highly competitive market could the 2014 Forte be considered average looking or occasionally noisy, and just about everything else it does, it does exceptionally well. The Forte's name is derived from the musical term for "loud." In that spirit, the 2014 Forte definitely has what it takes to make its presence heard – Kia has successfully turned up the volume among America's compact cars.