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 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.