Review: 2010 Kia Forte Koup SX a beauty queen that can't hide its roots

2010 Kia Forte Koup - Click above for high-res image gallery

It's time to stop being surprised that Koreans can make good cars. Kia and its sister-brand Hyundai have been doing it for years now, with each successive model being better than the last. Hyundai has been selling vehicles in the U.S. for 24 years, Kia for 16, and they don't deserve bonus points anymore for exceeding expectations. Want proof? Along with Subaru, they were the only three brands to increase sales last year during the Great Recession. The bar has been raised and it's time we take off the kid gloves.

With that in mind, we turn our attention to the 2010 Kia Forte Koup. A brand new model, the Koup joins the Forte sedan in displacing the Spectra, Kia's former best-selling model in the U.S. So the stakes are high for this four-door and accompanying Koup (blech, we mean coupe). We've already sampled the Forte sedan and called it "a stylish, comfortable, frisky automotive companion for surprisingly short dollars." Along with losing two doors, the Koup also gains more aggressive bodywork that suggests the potential for higher performance than the sedan. Does it fulfill that promise or come across as a parts–bin twin with two fewer doors? Let's follow the jump to find out.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

With the Forte Koup, Kia has followed a well-worn strategy originally employed by Honda when it dropped the Civic hatchback in favor of a two-door coupe for 2006. Ford then nixed its three- and five-door hatchback versions of the Focus for 2008 and replaced them with a two-door notchback. Likewise, the Spectra five-door wasn't repeated in the Forte range, instead being replaced by the Forte Koup. We like hatchbacks, but these companies have sales data that proves Americans, on the whole, don't. For better or worse, the utility of a hatchback is fast being replaced in this segment by the style of a coupe, and fortunately for the Forte Koup, it has enough style to fill a few hatchbacks.

Think of the Forte Koup's competition and aesthetic beauty probably isn't what comes to mind. Even after a few years on the market, the Honda Civic Coupe still looks a bit odd, the Ford Focus Coupe is just plain ugly, the Chevy Cobalt Coupe old and the Scion tC anonymous. The Forte Koup is easily the most attractive, and at least some of that has to do with the sedan. Both the sedan and coupe come with Kia's new corporate grille and headlights, which come off as clean and expressive. Other trademark design cues on both the four- and two-door include a complex meeting of sheetmetal above the front fenders and a character line along the side that creates a chamfered look around the windows.

The Forte Koup, however, gets its own front bumper treatment that adds a dose of attitude. A pair of fog lights are deeply set in the corners of black surrounds, which in turn flank a lower air intake in gloss black trim that spills over the chin spoiler and under the car. Whereas the sedan's lower air intake tucks under the front bumper like an overbite, the Koup pushes its intake outward and avoids the orthodontia issue. The Forte Koup also gets a unique rear end with its own taillights, a dual exhaust outlet on the passenger side and new wheels – a nice set of 17-inchers with a two-tone black and silver finish fitted to our top-spec SX tester. All in, the Forte Koup is a near dead ringer for the Koup concept that impressed us at the 2008 New York Auto Show.

Unfortunately, you won't find the concept's interior when you open the production Forte Koup's doors. It's standard Forte fare inside, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is a sub-$20k economy car, so hard plastics, textured and not, are on display everywhere with leather trim adorning the multi-function steering wheel, shifter and doors. Leather-coated heated seats are available as a $1,000 option on the SX, but whether you choose cowhide or cloth, the chairs are too flat with not enough bolstering to hold your booty in place. Back seat passengers, however, will find space surprisingly accommodating confines thanks to a roofline that extends far enough back for decent headroom.

Ergonomics are solid, with a straightforward arrangement of large buttons for the stereo and big rotary knobs for the HVAC system, though the multi-function steering wheel is teeming with switchgear for the standard cruise control, hands-free calling and six-speaker stereo. Aside from a Ford Focus Coupe with SYNC, not many vehicles in this class come with as much infotainment gadgetry standard as the Forte Koup. Along with three free months of Sirius satellite radio, you get standard Bluetooth, two 12V outlets and ports for an auxiliary audio cable and USB. A separate cable that plugs into both ports at once for iPod and iPhone hookup is also available, though the Koup deserves a ding for not just including Bluetooth audio to reduce the cord clutter. All that should be corrected later this year when the also-Microsoft-sourced UVO system debuts across the Kia lineup.

Like the interior, the production Forte Koup also loses out on the concept's turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder that, according to Kia, produced 290 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque. That would've been nice. Instead, the Forte Koup SX gets Kia's 2.4-liter four-cylinder producing 173 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque. Though down in power compared to the concept, it does produce more horsepower than all of its competition save Honda's Civic Si.

That power comes at a price: Fuel economy. The EPA rates the Forte Koup SX at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway – below the Civic, Focus and Cobalt coupe (only the tC's 2.4-liter inline-four is greedier). Opting for the six-speed manual transmission instead of our tester's five-speed automatic will get you 22 city/32 highway, but if you really want an mpg bump, the less powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the EX model with 25 city/34 highway is for you.

Unsurprisingly, the Koup SX and its powerful four-pot suffer from the same over-sensitivity to throttle inputs as the Forte sedan. There's just no easy way to apply power, as the go pedal is more like a light switch – it's either on or off. Hopefully Kia will correct this in future models, as the illusion of quickness gets tiring after four or five stop lights. To the contrary, the brakes on our tester weren't sensitive enough, with a long-travel pedal that doesn't grab until your foot nears the floor. The SX model does, however, have larger 11.8-inch front rotors than the EX and disc brakes are standard in the back for both. Meanwhile, the rack-and-pinion power steering is heavier at low speeds than expected and lacks precision at higher speeds. All this is to say that the Forte Koup does drive like a two-door version of the sedan despite what the flashy bodywork suggests.

We shouldn't fault Kia's two-door too much for this, as its competition is no better. As far as high-performance economy coupes go, the excellent 2009 Cobalt SS is gone and the two-door Civic Si remains the lone scalpel in a drawer of butter knives. Otherwise, this segment is full of cars like the Forte Koup with performance that only goes skin deep.

Time to pull out the Korean's ace in the hole, then: Price. The only trouble is the Forte Koup doesn't necessarily beat the competition in this department. A Kia Forte EX carries a base price of $16,595 plus $695 in destination charges. Our top-level SX tester, though, starts at $18,695 with D&H. Leather seats add $1,000 and a $700 sunroof will get you over the $20k mark. That's right in line with the competition, so why then choose the Korean car if not for value's sake?

The answer comes down to style and features. The Forte Koup would wipe the floor with its competition in a runway show, and standard features like satellite radio, Bluetooth, cruise control and disc brakes all around mean you're not paying extra for items that are optional or unavailable on other cars. That powerful four-cylinder could be a plus to some, though back-of-the-pack fuel economy may neutralize its positive sales effect.

What we were hoping for from the Kia Forte Koup, what we thought the concept promised, was a budget sports car. What we got is the same sedan-turned-coupe treatment that remains this segment's calling card. And like most offerings in its class, all the Forte Koup needs to be a standout performer is someone to pick the right parts instead of settling for pieces of the sedan.

To that end, there are two things going for the Forte Koup. One is Hyundai's first application of direct injection on a four-cylinder engine for the 2011 Sonata. Its Theta II 2.4-liter makes 198 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque and returns 23 city/35 highway mpg in a much larger, heavier sedan. The other is a pair of Forte Koups competing in the Grand-Am Continental Sports Car Challenge this year – Kia's first foray into motorsports. Thus, pieces may be falling into place for a more capable Forte Koup in the future. Until then, it remains another competitive new model from Kia. Unfortunately, we expect more than merely competitive from them now.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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