For car brands on the rise, a measure of a vehicle's real value usually comes down to one simple question:
"So, is that just a good car for a Kia or is it just a good car in general?"
That was the question my colleague Patrick posed to me when he saw the orange Kia Forte lurking in the AOL Autos garage. Without question, I answered.
"No, it's just a good car. No qualifiers required."
And with that I think Kia might have just built the first vehicle that I can honestly recommend to friends and family. Sure, they've built some interesting products over the last few years (I enjoyed the full-size Borrego SUV, even if it was out of tune with where the market was headed), but they were always good for a Kia. Regardless of how far they'd come, their progress versus their old products wasn't much more than a measuring stick against themselves. The real challenge was against the rest of the industry -- one that's so competitive and so quick to evolve and includes stalwart champions like Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevy.
It appears that day has finally arrived. Note that Kia's only been in the U.S. since the early 1990s (their first car sold here, the Sephia sedan, went out to consumers in 1994), so their pace is unbelievably fast. Since Hyundai became Kia's parent company in 1998 we've seen the two mature together. Over the last three years Hyundai has been on an absolute tear and now Kia is coming into its own, too.
A Small Car
It's amazing how much perceptions of a vehicle can change when people find one thing they like or dislike about it. Sometimes that one little nugget can be the thing that flips their entire view of a product. This very thing happened during our week with the Forte.
I picked my buddy up one night and when he saw what I was driving he shook his head. "Well, it sure is orange!" he said as he flopped into the passenger seat. "What is this thing, a clown car?"
"It's called 'copperhead,' actually," I said. "And no, it's not a clown car. Get over the color and give it a chance."
I was quiet for the first ten minutes, hoping he'd notice what I did about the quality of the interior. Not only did Kia show a good amount of restraint in its layout of the dashboard and center stack, but the finishes are of a much higher quality than what we've seen from them in the past. While the bright red backing color and fake piano-black plastic covers around the shifter and venting controls don't please the eye, the rest of it is on par with what you'd hope for in a sedan that starts in the high teens.
"Actually, now that I look at it, it's better than I thought in here," said my passenger as we got out of the car in a parking lot. "And, actually it's pretty neat from behind. Okay...I like the exterior. Just not the color."
It took him a few minutes, but he warmed up pretty fast. I told him that Kia sells the car in different colors, too (nine in total). The high quality interior was his inflection point: it made him give the exterior a second look.
On the outside one thing you might notice is that Kia is putting more aggressive design characteristics into this car. While the Forte is a brand-new car, it is in reality the successor to the brand's Spectra model. While successful (it was the top-selling Kia in America), the Spectra's exterior design had cues (round, human-like headlights and bulbous hiplines) that seemed to reinforce the fact that Kia was a fun and inexpensive car. In other words: cheap. There are plenty of Spectra owners who love their cars, but those alien to the brand couldn't look past that car's design language.
Kia hopes that will change with the Forte, a sedan (and coupe, which they call the Koup) awash in the kind of aggressive design that that you'd typically find in cars that, simply put, aren't usually Kias.
Driving the Forte
Beyond its improved looks and interior quality, though, the thing that makes the car actually recommendable is the way it drives.
This is bar-none the best steering on any Kia we've ever driven. The wheel itself is a solid, three-spoke (it could be considered a four-spoke with the way the lower section splits, but we'll call it a three) setup that's in a comfortable spot. At low speeds and high, we found it to be an ample till from which to point the Forte. Our test model was the uprated SX line, which has a firmer suspension calibration that added to our appreciation of the steering, but when we drove the less-expensive LX and EX models we noticed that steering was similar.
Kia offers two different engines in the Forte: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing in the LX and EX, while the SX gets a 2.4-liter four-cylinder (also with VVT) that pumps out 173 horsepower. That's serious grunt for the little Forte (by comparison, recall that late 80's V-8 Camaros had less power than that). Overall there are four transmissions: the LX and EX get a choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed auto, while the SX gets a six-speed manual or a five-speed auto with Kia's Sportmatic shifters.
The Forte isn't as exciting from a driver's perspective as the Mazda3 -- probably the class of the compact hatch/sedan class in my mind -- but it would be a strong competitor to the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and outgoing Ford Focus. For the kinds of lateral movements you find in mid-speed cornering, the Forte felt stable but could probably benefit from a wider tire patch. I liked the way the steering managed the car's road handling; it did not feel disconnected in the way you'd find a Corolla behaving in similar situations. Overall it felt, well, just plain fun.
Kia's move to shed the shiny, happy design language resulted in a very serious, very aggressive exterior. But under that firm stare, there's a really fun little car inside.
And it's not just a fun car for a Kia.
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