Make no mistake-the Kia Forte represents a new chapter for the Korean automaker, and shatters the notion that an economical, compact sedan has to look as as exciting as a small kitchen appliance. My prior experience in a Forte was restricted to a wet Pocono International Raceway, where I used a manual SX to acquaint myself with the combination oval and road course. After a couple laps I was impressed, but it was time for me to use the Forte in the real world.
Out of the pit lane and into my driveway, I was able to spend some quality time checking out the Forte’s looks. Many critics call out the Forte for being derivative of the current Honda Civic. Those critics are full of it. How do I know this? Easy-I parked my personal car, a Honda Civic Si 4-door back to back with the Forte. There may be a passing resemblance on the front end, but the Forte is more focused and aggressive. Finished in Titanium metallic, our SX tester easily outclassed the Civic.
How is this possible, you ask? The Forte was designed in California by a former design head at none other than Audi, and the attention to detail on the Forte’s exterior is evident everywhere you look. It’s just incredible a car this inexpensive can look so sophisticated, and interesting at so many different angles. This car is tight-no excess anywhere. The creased lines are sharp, and I have the feeling this car will age very well. Other details fascinate-check the integrated turn signals in the side mirrors, which immediately take your eye to the fetching kink right at the base of the driver’s side window. In the absence of side moldings, the crisp indentations at the bottom of the car’s side breaks things up nicely. This is not an econo car, it’s a tailored suit. Finishing things up at the rear, it’s impossible to ignore the the boxed, inset rear tail lights that mimic modern Audis.
Inside, the Forte is clean and simple. The dash is a handsome design, and the fonts on the gauges and digital info screens keep up the upscale theme the exterior promises. Everything is easy to decipher, and the Forte may boast the largest fuel gauge I have ever seen in a car, taking up half a binnacle (but no temperature gauge). While the seats are not uncomfortable, one gets the sensation you are sitting on the seat, not in it. Adjustments are minimal, and for my 6′ 1″ frame, I had nothing in the way of thigh support. Most of the controls had an average quality to them, but the fuel door and trunk release levers felt downright fragile.
Our top-spec SX featured a 2.4L inline four rated at a decent 173hp. On receiving the Forte, I was thrilled to have the six-speed manual, but would eventually come to despise the unit. Most clutches give a hint to where first gear “takes” but not so in the Forte. In twenty years of driving a manual, I’ve never stalled so much as I did in the Forte. Worse, it is nearly impossible to move from a stop smoothly. Once underway, the linkage is good, but the numb clutch takes away from the joy. The big four cylinder is peppy and offers plenty of torque, and I was impressed at how smooth the engine was. Unless under acceleration, the engine in near silent in operation.
The Forte SX has a sport-tuned suspension, and make no joke-the ride is on the firm side. Hustling the Forte on country roads, the car feels planted at speed. The stiffly sprung Forte had no creaks or rattles, but I did wonder how long that would last. Disc brakes all around proved more than adequate. The steering was quick, but did not offer much communication from the road. One cost cutting measure made itself clear during my time with the Forte. It being winter here in Connecticut, we’ve had our share of snow. On heavily salted roads, driving the Forte reminded me of World Rally Championship cars on gravel stages, it was that loud and intrusive. Even on a clear highway, the Forte has more road noise than one would care for.
This is where the handsome Forte becomes a little maddening. The lack of sound insulation. The doors sound tinny compared to a Honda, and the quality of materials are not quite on par. The separate fob for the keyless entry is so ten years ago. But I can’t leave until I mention how our Forte was equipped. Our car had power windows, locks, mirrors, cruise control, gorgeous 17″ alloys, a decent CD stereo with Sirius satellite radio, power moonroof, leather heated seats, Bluetooth, foglights, and electronic stability control with an MSRP of $18,795USD. (NOTE: The Garage’s first test of the Forte was a Canada-spec car. Us Americans lose out on the auto climate control and chromed door handles our Northern neighbors get). To put that into perspective, it will cost you well over $6,000 to put yourself in a similarly equipped Honda Civic EX-L, and you are still without satellite radio. Not to mention you are down a good 33hp in the engine department.
That the Kia Forte merits talk in the same breath as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla or VW Jetta is a triumph for Kia in itself. This is a milestone car for the company, and one that demands attention from any compact car buyer. That said, the Forte, for all its good looks, is far from a perfect car. This not a car without fault, as we’ve discussed, but it poses a unique choice to buyers: Do you prefer the lower key Honda/Toyota style with slightly higher build quality, or the swagger, higher power and greater content the Kia offers? We’ll leave that up to the buyer, but the reason to buy a Kia solely based on price alone has evaporated.