Besides taking a look their specs and photos, I had the chance to go between them all here in Detroit, crawl around their interiors, sit in the backseats and figure out which of these not-especially-compacts, which all grew with their latest redesigns might have a practicality advantage. We also have full specifications on each model, which are laid out in the handy chart below.
Exterior designThere's honestly a little bit of the previous-generation Jetta visible in the 2019 Forte profile — especially around the doors and greenhouse. The Jetta, meanwhile, has the same sort of radically swept-back roofline as the Civic that's become all the rage throughout the automotive industry. The 2019 Jetta is also a little more visually interesting than the car it replaced, though neither the Jetta nor the Forte were as radically transformed as the Civic was two years ago.
Alright, let's go to the slideshows.
Engines and transmissionsThe 2019 Jetta, 2019 Forte and 2019 Civic have considerably different powertrain options, with additional choices possible once the VW and Kia go deeper into their lifespans. Both the Forte and Civic rely on naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines in base specification, with the Civic's 2.0-liter engine making more power and a smidgen more torque than the Kia's. The Jetta goes the turbocharged small-displacement route with its 1.4-liter engine. It makes the same power as the Forte, but smacks down both in the torque department. It makes roughly 50 more pound-feet of twist than both naturally aspirated engines.
The Honda Civic is the only one to offer an optional engine, which follows in the footsteps of the Jetta as a turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder. Its 174 horsepower is ahead of the others by nearly 40 ponies. However, its 162 pound-feet of torque still falls short of the Jetta.
Impressively, all three sedans still offer a manual transmission option, and all of them are six-speed units. The Honda Civic Sedan no longer offers a manual with its optional turbocharged engine, though. Both the Forte and the Civic use CVTs for their automatic options, while the Jetta goes with an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission.
When it comes to fuel economy, the winner depends on how you spec the car. Among the base engines, the Kia Forte is the most efficient, with its FE trim managing an impressive 41 mpg on the highway, 31 in the city and 35 in combined driving. That's just 1 mpg ahead of the Jetta. But if you want a manual transmission, the Jetta is the most efficient, delivering the same fuel economy as the automatic, while the Civic and Forte manual options lose a few mpg. If you're willing to spring for the more powerful engine, though, the Civic is the overall champ managing 1 more mpg than the Forte FE in every category, as long as you don't get the Touring model.
Interior design, space and qualityYou can see for yourself how this trio of compact sedans compares on paper, but during the Detroit Auto Show, we were able to sit in each of the cars back-to-back-to-back, and can report that the Jetta is indeed the roomiest of the three.
Headroom is comparable, with the Forte having almost literally a hair more (it added height for 2019). And, after setting the front passenger seat in the same comfortable position in all three cars, the Jetta had the most resulting rear legroom. At 6-foot-3, contributing editor James Riswick could fit a hand between his knees and the front seat back. In the Forte and Civic they just barely did not touch the front seats, but we're talking compact sedans here, so that's actually very impressive. He noted, however, that the Civic's backseat is mounted rather low to achieve enough headroom under that fastback roofline. As such, despite having comparable room, the Civic backseat isn't as comfortable as those in the 2019 Forte and especially the 2019 Jetta.
In terms of trunk space, both the Civic and Forte have about 15 cubic feet, which challenges midsize sedans. The Civic's doesn't seem as deep, though (maybe it's just an optical illusion), but its opening is definitely smaller. In person, the Jetta's trunk seemed larger than the others, but on paper, it's actually the smallest at 14.1 cubic feet. It's also smaller than the outgoing Jetta's 15.7-cubic-foot trunk.
In terms of quality, the new Jetta has some soft-touch and nicely textured surfaces on the dash- and door tops, but that's really it. Virtually everything else is hard plastic with a downmarket high sheen. The Forte and Civic have only a little more soft touch about, but it's in that hard plastic where they differ. It has a lower sheen in both cars, feels better to touch and looks richer in general. No complaints about the Jetta's VW parts-bin buttons, knobs and switches.
In terms of design, well, decide for yourself. Cue the galleries.
ConclusionsOn paper, the Civic's powerful and efficient powertrains continue to give it an advantage. The Jetta has a passenger space advantage, but a quality disadvantage. The Forte seems be somewhere in the middle. As far as the way they drive, we still give the Civic the advantage for its blend of nimble handling and comfortable ride, along with its strong engine options. The Jetta and Forte have their strong suits, too. The Jetta is quiet and soft with useful torque. The Forte is an able handler with sharp looks. Be sure to check out our first drives of all of these sedans for more details on how they drive
- Kia Forte First Drive Review
- Volkswagen Jetta First Drive Review
- Honda Civic Sedan First Drive Review
For more comparisons, try our car comparison tool.