2014 Kia Forte Koup SX

The Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra have long followed similar paths, with each available in a four-door sedan, a five-door hatch and (most recently) a two-door coupe bodystyle. The recent death of the Hyundai Elantra Coupe in the US may be threatening to change the narrative on these two affordable compact lines, of course, but the Korean two-doors have a lot in common under their distinct skins. Their most recent iterations came to market under the power of the same 2.0-liter, 173-horsepower four-cylinder paired with six-speed automatic transmissions and riding atop MacPherson strut front suspensions and torsion-beam setups out back. Each arrived weighing between 2,800 and 3,000 pounds and could be had in base form for less than $20,000. Considering this, the empirical performance stats figured to be similar.

There's an important distinction to be made, however. Rather than offer a simple two-door version of a four-door car, like Hyundai did with its Elantra Coupe, Kia has gone to lengths to craft a vehicle with its own unique attitude and attributes. Kia has embraced a sportier stance with its two-door Forte Koup, offering up a standard six-speed manual and going further in an effort to craft a more unique, aggressive coupe design.

That drive to be different was further accentuated last year, when Kia raided Hyundai's parts bin and plucked out the 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder from the Veloster Turbo. The resulting car is decidedly different than any other Forte we've tested, while also feeling like a better all-around product than the smaller hot hatch it stole its engine from. To see just how much better, we drove the Forte Koup SX for a week and set about seeing how this enhanced model stacks up as a performance offering.

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This car's best angle is its rear three-quarter view, which is a real aesthetic highlight in this increasingly style-conscious segment.

Let's start by noting that I'm a big fan of the Forte Koup's appearance. I think that insect-like front end can be a bit ungainly from some angles, but it grows on you, and the overall look has evolved nicely from the Honda Civic clone of the last-gen model. This car's best angle, though, is its rear three-quarter view, which shows off its dramatic rear end, complete with sloping roofline, subtle rear lip spoiler, wraparound taillights and contrasting rear bumper trim. It's a real aesthetic highlight in this increasingly style-conscious segment.

18-inch alloys come standard on the SX, while 16-inch hoops are the sole wheel set offered on the EX. Out back, the EX's single, chrome-tipped exhaust has been replaced with a pair of oval outlets that flank a sporty diffuser designed to look like it's constructed of matte carbon-fiber weave (the front fascia wears a similar strip). Above that is a gloss-black surround for the license plate, which works well with other gloss-black accents (mirror caps and door handles), complementing the Racing Red paint of my tester. Overall, Kia has successfully built a car that balances the Forte Koup's already attractive exterior with a spirit that's clearly meant to appeal to those with sportier aspirations.

In the cabin, Kia has been even more restrained with the sporting touches. The SX boasts standard upgraded seats with optional leather upholstery, while the dash wears the same faux carbon-fiber material found sparingly on the exterior. While automatic-equipped SX models benefit from standard wheel-mounted shift paddles, the third pedal on my tester meant the center console was home to a stout, stylish, round shift knob connected to a six-speed manual gearbox.

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Not a single car at this size and price point can match the Forte Koup for its sheer volume of available equipment.

Familiarizing myself with the cabin, I came to find that the Forte's driving position leaves something to be desired. Despite the inclusion of six-way adjustability, it can be difficult to find a comfortable seating position. Headroom on my sunroof-equipped tester was a primary limiting factor, although a greater range of vertical adjustment (maybe an inch or two) would be all that's needed to make the interior feel more spacious. The seats were flat and lacked significant bolstering, both in the backrest and the bottom cushion, a subtle and unfortunate reminder that this car doesn't have terribly sporting ambitions.

Disappointing chairs notwithstanding, aside from the much smaller Mini Cooper S, there's not a single car at this price point that can match the Forte Koup for its sheer volume of available equipment. Sure, it ticks the necessary boxes, offering up Kia's UVO infotainment system, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, push-button start, a rear-view camera and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. But it offers these as standard items. Spend a bit more, and you can get navigation (which includes HD radio and Sirius Traffic), bi-xenon headlights with LED accents, a 4.2-inch TFT display in the instrument cluster, dual-zone climate control, and heated seats with driver's side ventilation. That's an impressive list of extras, and my tester was fitted with all of them. Total price? A reasonable-sounding $25,285.

This is more than a collection of noteworthy tech, though. Kia has also done its homework with the Forte Koup SX's mechanicals. As mentioned previously, underhood sits the same 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that I've lived with in the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. 201 horsepower is available, while all 195 pound-feet of torque can be accessed between 1,750 rpm and 4,500 rpm. The 1.6T builds on the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter, four-cylinder from the Forte EX, besting its 173 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque without breaking a sweat.

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The turbocharger delivers the amusing whooshing and swooshing sounds so typical of a biggish turbo on a smaller engine.

That improved performance is apparent on the road thanks to the big, broad band of torque offered up by the 1.6. Off the line, there's a hint of turbo lag, but it quickly evolves into an accessible wave of torque that makes getting up to speed a relatively simple matter. Keep it below 6,000 rpm and this remains a fun, easy-to-live-with engine. As for performance metrics, I'd wager the Forte's 1.6 can help it hit 60 miles per hour in just under seven seconds. That's not Volkswagen GTI or Ford Fiesta ST quick, but it feels roughly equal to the lighter, less powerful Fiat 500 Abarth, and it feels significantly quicker than the unloved Veloster Turbo, even if that's just a seat-of-the-pants impression not reinforced by the stopwatch.

It also helps that the 1.6 doesn't sound half bad. Its four-cylinder exhaust note isn't particularly sporting (it can't hold a candle to the aforementioned products from VW or Ford, let alone the 500 Abarth, which qualifies as the Barry White of hot hatchbacks), but the exhaust avoids being loud simply as a means of giving off a sporty vibe. Its one bit of real aural entertainment comes from the turbocharger, which delivers the amusing whooshing and swooshing sounds so typical of a biggish turbo on a smaller engine. Drive with the windows down and accelerate accordingly. The noise won't fail to make you smile.

My tester's standard six-speed manual was both a good and a bad partner during my week with the car. In the "good" column, we have the lever itself. That ball shifter, despite feeling rather cheap, comes with a satisfying sensation when working through the longish throws and slotting into one of the gates. It's an easy gearbox to shift quickly – much better than the notchy Veloster Turbo – and perhaps more importantly, it's smooth. The downside to all this is a clutch that is rather lacking in manners. It's not particularly progressive, and feels disconnected and vague from just above full depression to its catchpoint. Still, the pros outweigh the cons here, so we'll call the Forte Koup's six-speed stick a net win.

2014 Kia Forte Koup SX

Kia claims the suspension has been "sport tuned." Like a packaged food item that touts "real cheese," if you have to say it, it's probably not true.

The Forte Koup gets by with a MacPherson strut in front and a torsion-beam rear, both of which have been "sport tuned," although with such a basic suspension, that moniker is often like a packaged food item that touts "real cheese" – if you have to say it, it's probably not true.

The handling character of the Forte Koup is thus uninspired. It rolls too freely in the bends, although that sensation does develop progressively, and this car feels too substantial to ever boast the degree of agility expected of a true pocket rocket. It feels almost nose heavy, which contributes to its lack of grace when pushed hard. I'll place a lot of the blame for that on its 3,000-pound curb weight. Hatchback format or no, this sort of car is meant to feel darty, sharp and almost – but not quite – nervous, like an overexcited terrier. The Forte, though, is more middle-aged basset hound.

Despite these issues, the Forte does feel pointier and is generally a better driving instrument than the Accent-based Veloster Turbo, a vehicle whose handling and refinement woes we struggled with during our year behind the wheel. The Kia feels more surefooted, particularly when presented with a mid-corner imperfection, or really any imperfection at all.

The suspension isn't the sole limiting factor in the Forte's lack of verve through the bends. No, plenty of blame should be reserved for the steering. Like the Elantra sedan I tested back in June, the Forte has been fitted with an electric power-assisted steering system, complete with Kia's version of the Driver Selectable Steering Mode, called FlexSteer.

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The steering is wholly unsuited to a car that aims to be fun and entertaining – wooden and uninspiring, lacking in any substantial degree of feedback.

It's wholly unsuited to a car that aims to be fun and entertaining. The steering is wooden and uninspiring, lacking in any substantial degree of feedback. Like the Elantra, there are three modes – Sport, Normal and Comfort – that adjust the weighting of the rack. None of them are particularly inspiring, though. Sport, which touts itself as the heaviest setting, still feels overly light for a sporty car. I could get over this were there some degree of feedback, but you're simply left guessing as to what the front tires are doing in corners.

The Forte Koup does eke out some points for a decent ride – when the road gets bumpier, this Kia responds reasonably well. It is pretty nicely damped, handling undulating sections of road without much trouble, while bigger bumps and potholes are shrugged off without bothering cabin occupants unduly.

That smoother ride is also reasonably quiet. Road noise and tire roar are certainly noticeable, although neither is disruptive. Kia could stand to do better in the area of wind noise, and, as I said above, the exhaust note isn't particularly sporty, but the turbocharger noises are enough to overshadow this minor shortcoming.

Thanks to the boost in output when moving from the naturally aspirated EX to the turbocharged SX, Kia has seen fit to upgrade the brakes slightly. The front of my tester sports 11.8-inch rotors in place of the EX's 11-inch pans. Out back, 10.3-inchers are carryovers from the slower model. Braking ability is decent but not exceptional. The stoppers allowed me to halt confidently with a brake pedal that was reasonably easy to modulate. Feedback being what it is in this car, the sensations delivered through the middle pedal proved pretty darn satisfying. I was able to effectively interpret how much braking power I had at my disposal by working the pedal.

2014 Kia Forte Koup SX

Until Kia can get around to sorting out its suspension and steering, the Forte Koup SX is going to remain a car I can't recommend to enthusiasts.

I'd love to tell you that I strove to match the turbocharged Forte's EPA estimates of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway, but that's simply not true. That turbocharged coupe makes fun whooshing noises, and that alone was enough to guarantee that I'd forget about maximizing fuel economy. Add a manual transmission to the equation and the results shouldn't be surprising... except that they are. Over my week, I managed to very nearly match the Forte Koup's 25-mpg combined rating despite my exuberance with the gas pedal.

The as-tested price for this Forte Koup, as mentioned earlier, was $25,285. For that sum, you'll get a Forte Koup SX, which starts at $20,590, a six-speed manual, the $1,900 SX Premium Pack (sunroof, heated leather seats, power lumbar adjustment and ventilation on the driver's seat, an auto-dimming mirror and a heated steering wheel) and the $1,900 SX Tech Package (nav, HD radio, HID headlights, dual-zone climate control and a 4.2-inch TFT display in the instrument cluster). The clutch-averse can also spend an extra $1,000 for a paddle-shifted automatic. My tester also added a trio of items from Kia's accessory catalog – a rear-bumper applique, a cargo mat and carpeted floor mats – to come to its as-tested sum.

The issue facing the Forte Koup SX is one of expectations, much like it is with the Veloster. You look at it on paper, see its 200 turbocharged horsepower in a sleek, stylish form factor and think you've got a real challenger. The reality, however, is that it lacks the verve and handling panache promised by its engine and bodywork. It's a more leisurely approach to a sporty front-drive coupe, a better foil for something like the Scion tC than a Honda Civic Si, let alone a proper hot hatch like a Focus ST.

That's no doubt a willful choice on the part of the automaker and a less-hardcore approach that some consumers will find attractive, but until Kia can get around to sorting out this car's suspension and steering, it's going to remain a car I can't recommend to enthusiasts.