By Chris Haak
Korean automaker Kia spent many of the past several years selling questionably-styled knockoffs of “real” cars. If you want evidence of that, I direct you to such gems as the Kia Amanti (which looks like an imitation of an older-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan). But then a funny thing started happening over the past two years. First, the Borrego SUV made its debut and – although not really breaking new ground – is a competent, cleanly-designed vehicle. Then the Kia Soul box-on-wheels hit the market, and not only did it look cool, but it also looked different (and dare I say better) from its closest competitors, the Nissan Cube, Scion xB, and Honda Element. And now, in a Detroit-like move of throwing away the Spectra name in favor of a new one, Kia has rolled out the 2010 Forte as its entry into the crowded compact segment. Aside from the Forte, this segment is occupied by stalwarts such as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Mazda3, and such warts as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Dodge Caliber.
Kia’s previous entry in the segment, the Spectra, was a “nothing special” car. Only a trained eye would be able to tell what kind of car the Spectra was if it didn’t have a brand logo or a nameplate on it. The profile shape that tapered front and rear would have been more at home in a car that went on sale in the early part of this decade rather than the later part of the decade. But now, the Forte has shed the nondescript shape for a wedge profile with squared-off corners and lights, a short decklid, and the new Kia corporate grille. The Forte looks somewhat similar to a Honda Civic, but manages to look better and less controversial. Kia also just launched a two-door version of the Forte, called the Forte Koup, which looks even better, and looks a little more like a Civic, but with a C-pillar shape reminiscent of an Audi A5/S5. All in all, not bad cars to crib styling from, as long as it can maintain a unified theme, which the Forte pulls off. An added plus was the tight, consistent panel gaps throughout the car.
Inside my mid-grade EX tester, I was pleasantly surprised by the equipment that was included with the car. I didn’t expect a $19,290 vehicle to have aluminum wheels, heated leather seats, power moonroof, Bluetooth phone connectivity, SIRIUS satellite radio, iPod integration, auto headlamps, six airbags, and ABS/stability control, and traction control. Also, the interior was finished in something other than the typical charcoal, gray, or tan that most cars are sporting. Instead, it was a nice two-tone burgudy/gray scheme on the dashboard and door panels, with burgundy seats. I am definitely impressed by the level of equipment included in a mid-grade version of what, at its core, is a cheap small car. Controls are easy to use and the audio system (equipped with SIRIUS satellite radio) works well. On the downside, the leather on the seats is decidedly low-grade (what were you expecting in a $19,000 car’s leather seats?) and nearly all surfaces, including the top of the dashboard, are made of hard, shiny polymers.
Acceleration is somewhat leisurely with a 2.0 liter, 156-horsepower four cylinder paired to an old-school four-speed automatic. One hundred fifty six horsepower isn’t a lot to begin with, but when the engine is hamstrung by a transmission that is unable to keep it within its power band, the issue is magnified. Every time the engine is running at full boil and the car shifts to the next gear, power output falls off a cliff because the ratios have to be spaced so far apart. It’s kind of like what I used to experience in the early 1990s in my Pontiac Grand Am with a three-speed automatic, though obviously not thatbad. Experiencing this transmission in the Forte definitely made me long for another ratio or two. (Fortunately, Kia offers a fuel economy package on the Forte EX that includes a five-speed automatic. The five-speed auto is also available with the top-level Forte SX).
Aside from a handsomely derivative exterior shape and lots of standard and optional equipment for the price, the Forte didn’t particularly wow me. The driving experience is decidedly average, with average power, average handling, and average braking. Driven at 8/10ths, the Forte shows the limits of non-performance-oriented Hankook tires, its transmission lacking a gear or two, and its engine lacking a horsepower or thirty. But driven like a normal human being, at say 3/10ths or 4/10ths, the Forte is a perfectly competent, comfortable car. Furthermore, the engine noise that booms when the in its upper range is absent, as is obvious wide ratio spread in the transmission.
Fuel economy is excellent in the Forte, even without the optional fuel economy package. The drivetrain in my tester (2.0 liter four cylinder and four speed automatic) is rated at 25 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Although my test vehicle was not equipped with the optional trip computer (which includes a fuel economy computer) so I can’t comment on real-world fuel economy with any precision, I drove the car about 250 miles and turned it in with about a quarter tank still in the13.7 gallon fuel tank. That’s about 24-25 miles per gallon, but that’s also a really rough measurement of fuel used. Fortes equipped with the fuel economy package are rated at an impressive 27 city/36 highway, and models with the upsized 2.4 liter four cylinder return 22/32 with the six-speed manual and 23/31 with the five-speed automatic. The 2.0 liter’s fuel economy numbers are more or less on par with a Corolla’s 1.8 liter, but the Forte felt slightly more peppy, at least according to my rear end.
Whether I’d recommend the Forte or not depends on what the buyer is looking for. It’s one of the more comfortable, better equipped cars in its segment, and delivers good value for the money with a lot of standard equipment. Who would have thought five years ago that a little Kia for under $20,000 would offer Bluetooth, SIRIUS, leather, a power moonroof, and aluminum wheels? But if you want a car with more performance or better handling, you may want to consider a Mazda3 or Civic. Proving that I’m living up to what I just wrote above, a friend asked me for cheap, fuel efficient, and comfortable car recommendations, and among the models I rattled off, I included the Kia Forte. It’s a good car – perhaps just not a good car for a performance car enthusiast.
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