Review: 2010 Kia Forte Koup SX
By Chris Haak
Have you ever seen a photo of a person who appears at a glance to be really attractive, only to see the person later in the flesh, and notice flaws like yellow teeth, sun-damaged skin, gray hairs, wrinkles, or that he or she smells bad? Or even worse, the person still looks great, but has a terrible personality, is mean, or a perhaps a little rough around the edges?
I’m not saying the Kia Forte Koup has a terrible personality, but let’s just say that its looks – and this car is, in my opinion, the best-looking car in its class, bar-none – write some checks that its chassis and drivetrain can’t cash. And really, its drivetrain issues, in particular, are nothing that the new four cylinder engine family in the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima wouldn’t cure. I smile at the thought of this car with a 274-horsepower, direct injection turbo four under its attractive hood.
I mean, just look at this thing. It’s almost too good looking for what it is. The design – which, when I first saw it, thought it was a Honda Civic Coupe knockoff – seems to take the Civic coupe, remove the weirdness, and some additional creases and bulges here and there, throws in the Audi A4/S4 C-pillar shape, and calls it a compact car. It boasts fairly trim overhangs considering its front wheel drive underpinnings, and basically builds upon the reasonably-good looks of the Forte sedan, but adds fog lights, larger wheels, and ground effects. While the short decklid looks a little odd in the Forte sedan, in the Koup, it looks to be correctly proportioned with the rest of the car.
The interior, while not exactly the zenith of high style, is mostly on-par with the rest of its class. This means that there is more hard, hollow plastic than you’d care to see, but ergonomics are good. The gauges and controls are backlit in red, and the center-mounted speedometer always – even in the daytime – has a large red halo encircling it. I actually was able to track down some semi-soft plastic on the dash, above the glove compartment and to the right of the audio controls. That’s about it, other than armrests. The steering wheel is fairly thick for this price range, and boasts sporty-looking red stitching, which complements the same on the Koup’s standard cloth seats.
The Koup’s center stack is businesslike, with piano black (ahem, glossy) plastic and an easy-to-read LCD display for the audio system. With a simple three-knob interface, ventilation controls are easy to use, but I’ve become spoiled by automatic climate control systems. On the console, you’ll find an armrest that doubles as the lid to a reasonably-sized storage compartment and another uncovered storage bin in front of the gearshift. There is also ample storage in the door pockets and in the sizable glove compartment.
The audio system features MP3, CD, USB, AM, FM, and Sirius Satellite Radio; I spent most of my time listening to Sirius in the car’s six-speaker audio system. While not exactly a Bowers & Wilkins system found in a luxury car, its six speakers proved surprisingly competent. After all, though six speakers used to be something to brag about, a world where luxury cars have 14, 18, or more speakers, 6 just isn’t what it used to be. One note is that Kia requires a proprietary cable to connect an iPod or iPhone that combines an 1/8 inch headphone jack and a USB port on one end with an Apple dock connector on the other end. The Sorento I reviewed earlier included this cable, but the Forte did not. The Koup SX also includes Bluetooth phone connectivity that is easy to set up using voice commands, as long as the car is not moving.
The seats were reasonably comfortable, but a little flat. Oddly, though, in spite of bolstering that appears to be fairly substantial both on the seatback and bottom cushion, I didn’t feel particularly cossetted by the bolstering as I might in, say, a BMW with sport seats. Still, manufacturers have to be as accommodating as possible to a high-percentile male driver when designing seats; it’s somewhat sales-limiting to build seats that would be uncomfortably tight for more than half of the population. It’s also sales-limiting to put seats with adjustable bolstering into a $19,195 car – so we get a compromise like this.
Seat fabric was not the European-style coarse fabric that has been in favor for the past several years, but I’m not a big fan of that type anyway. Instead, it’s somewhere between that and velour on the edges, with a more grippy, sort of perforated design on the actual seating surfaces. The rear seat was reasonably spacious. Actually, the rear seat of the Koup is larger in most dimensions than that of a larger Hyundai Genesis Coupe. At 6’4″, I wouldn’t want to ride back there for extended periods, especially behind a tall person, but it works in a pinch, or for shorter folks. Trunk space, incidentally, is about as large as would be expected in the class, at 12.6 cubic feet.
When I drove the Forte EX Sedan a few months ago, it was equipped with the base 2.0 liter four cylinder lump engine and an antediluvian four speed automatic. Each member of the powertrain team did its part in making the Forte sedan slower and less-refined than it ought to have been, and I remember wishing that I had been provided with the upgraded 2.4 liter four and five-speed automatic. Well, my wish came true in the Forte Koup SX. Instead of being content, I wished that I had one with a six-speed manual. Don’t get me wrong; five forward ratios are clearly better than four, and the extra horsepower is certainly welcome. But there still seemed to be a bit too much of a dropoff in engine revs during upshifts.
Kia is addressing that criticism with the 2011 Forte, which not only will come in a third (five-door hatchback) bodystyle, but will add six-speed transmissions across the range for improved performance and fuel economy. Meanwhile, the Koup SX with my test car’s drivetrain is rated at 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. I observed about 24 mpg in mixed (sometimes heavy-footed) driving. That’s not really all that impressive, though, considering it’s only producing 173 horsepower, while the 2011 Mustang V6 produces 305 horsepower and matches the Forte Koup SX’s 31 mpg highway figure, but is down a few mpgs in the city (19 against the Koup’s 23).
On the road, perhaps, my biggest disappointment with the Koup’s body writing checks its chassis and powertrain can’t cash comes to the fore. To begin with, throttle modulation is way too sensitive. It’s difficult to accelerate gently from a stop because the accelerator is really jumpy. The brakes seemed to have a fairly short travel before they grabbed hold. The result was that I found myself pitched rearward into my seat upon acceleration, then forward toward the windshield when I tapped the brakes.
The suspension tuning was obviously intended to be sporty, and it may well be, but the overall impression is one of a bit more harshness than might be necessary. The car doesn’t have particularly-aggressive shoes (P215/45R17 Goodyear Eagle LS tires), so they seem unlikely to be the cause of the firm ride. I suppose that it’s also possible that at age 35, I’m getting too old for cars like the Forte Koup. Still, I felt much more confident driving the Koup at 8/10ths than I did driving a Corolla S at, say, 5/10ths, so it’s not all bad. The steering, in particular, is far better than most cars in its class.
In a car that I buy, I want nice interior materials, strong acceleration, and competent handling, with a nice ride/handling balance, wrapped in a good-looking car. The Koup delivers most of those, but in the context of its class – which consists mainly of the Civic coupe and Scion tC, plus the about-to-be-discontinued Chevy Cobalt. The Koup compares favorably to Civic in terms of pricing (according to TrueDelta), with about a $1,500 discount when accounting for equipment differences, while the Scion tC – about to be replaced by a new model – comes in at around $100 cheaper than the Koup.
Overall, the Koup SX that I tested had only the standard SX equipment with the five-speed automatic and no extras installed. The MSRP, including destination, rung up at $19,195. A power sunroof is available for $700 and leather seating surfaces set you back $1,000. It really does have a pretty remarkable level of equipment at its price point, and its design knocks the cover off the ball. If future Kias are all going to look this good (and, having reviewed the 2011 Sorento and sat in the 2011 Optima, that seems to be coming true), just a few tweaks here and there will have the Kia lineup being the envy of the industry.