2010 Kia Forte: First Drive

As the name suggests, it’s Kia’s strongest model yet

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2010 Kia Forte: First Drive
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Every Monday I roll into the office in a new press car and the same group of guys always ask me the same question. “What are you driving this week?” Then, through a democratic process, they pass judgment on the car.

FAST FACTS

1. The Forte has a powerful 2.0L base engine with 156hp and 144 ft-lbs of torque.

2. Pricing for the Forte ranges from $13,695 to $17,195 ($15,695 to 20,995 CDN), but the $16,795 ($19,195 CDN) EX model with the automatic transmission is sure to be the most popular.

3. A $600 fuel-economy package for the mid-level EX model adds a five-speed transmission and a few other items to increase mileage from 25/34 mpg (city/hwy) to 27/36 mpg.

4. The top level SX model gives you a 2.4L four-cylinder engine with 173hp, 17-inch wheels and a six-speed manual (or optional 5 speed auto).

If it’s an Audi R8, they all come take a look. If it’s a new Corolla, they pass. Surprisingly, every one of them wanted to see the new Kia Forte. So did my father in law… and my brother in law.

As all of them knew nothing about the car, I’ll have chalk up their interest to Kia’s brilliantly dorky marketing campaign. And as those TV commercials don’t mention the engine, fuel-economy, safety features or handling, there’s just one thing that’s drawing people in. The look.

A FRESH NEW CAR WITH A FRESH NEW DESIGN

By all accounts the Forte has a clean European design to it, with a side profile that barely has any lines all – just nice smooth sheet metal coated in a surprisingly high quality paint. My tester came with a metallic brown (which Kia calls bronze) coating. I know what you’re thinking. “Brown? Yuck!” But it’s actually very nice – especially in the sun.

I won’t be the first, or the last, to accuse Kia of lifting the design of the Forte’s headlights directly from the Honda/Acura parts bin. In a way it’s a compliment. The rest of the front end looks great too with Kia’s new corporate grille adding just the right amount of chrome around a gaping black grille. Below there’s a three part intake setup that adds to the car’s sporty flare.

Out back, Kia’s designers didn’t neglect any details either. The trunk juts out just a little in a style reminiscent of the original Audi A4.

EX models even come standard with turn-signal indicators built into the side mirrors.

So… it’s got your attention, but can the Forte keep it? You bet!

MOST POWERFUL STANDARD ENGINE IN ITS CLASS

Those TV spots for the Forte do give you one piece of info about the car – the price. Base LX models start at $13,695 ($15,695 CDN), but you’re much more likely to find yourself in an EX for $15,795 ($17,995 CDN). Those who want a little extra performance can also opt for the SX model. But we’ll get to that later.

The price on the base LX model sounds great, but without any power options or even AC it’s not a very attractive package. The EX, however, comes well-equipped and when you add an auto tranny and the optional Premium Package that includes a sunroof as well as 16-inch wheels and tires, the damage is an acceptable $17,595.

So what else do you get for your money?

For starters there’s a powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder under the hood, making 156hp and 144 ft-lbs of torque. That’s 18 more ponies than the Forte’s sister car, the Hyundai Elantra. In fact, it’s more horsepower from a base-trim engine than you’ll find in any other compact car.

Is Kia going after the youth market? You bet!

With all that power, fuel-economy would normally suffer. But it doesn’t. LX and EX models get 25/34 mpg (city/highway), edging out the Elantra and coming close to the Civic and Corolla.

The transmission is a four-speed unit and while we’d like to complain that a five-speed should be standard… that wouldn’t be fair. Five-speed autos are still a rarity in the compact car segment.

Besides, with all that power the four-speed doesn’t feel like it’s holding the car back and fuel-economy certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting.

OPTIONAL FUEL-ECONOMY PACKAGE DELIVERS 27/36 MPG

Those who do want a few extra miles per gallon (and who doesn’t?) can opt for a five-speed auto as a part of Kia’s $600 fuel-economy package. Also included are improved aerodynamics, low rolling resistance tires, electric (versus hydraulic) power steering and a low-drag alternator. These features combine to up fuel-economy from the 25/34 mpg rating to a best-in-class 27/36 mpg.

CABIN DOESN’T LIVE UP TO THE EXTERIOR

When getting into the car the door handles do feel a little cheap and the interior is a bit of a let down compared to the Forte’s sleek exterior design. And yes, there is an over-abundance of hard plastic. Still, it’s far from bad and we’d rate it mid-pack in terms of materials and design.

There’s only one interior color, black, which is probably a good thing, as black always tends to look a little more up-scale, even when the materials aren’t.

The design of the dash and materials used are definitely a nice step up from the last Kia I drove – a significantly more expensive Optima. Still, I strongly suggest opting for the metal finish for the center stack and door trim, which breaks up the monotone monotony. Our tester didn’t have it, but when examining other cars in the Kia press fleet, the difference was noticeable.

We don’t want to get carried away with add-ons, but the optional leather shift knob and steering wheel would also be ideal. Having some leather to hold on to, instead of that hard plastic, would enhance the feel behind the wheel. Kia also offers a full leather seat package if that’s what you’re after.

As for the gauges, they look sporty and are more premium than you’d expect. They also include Kia’s Eco Minder light. It illuminates green when you’re driving efficiently, playing off the idea that a significant part of fuel-efficient driving is driving style.

Standard equipment on the mid-level EX includes power windows and locks with remote keyless entry, AC, a tilt wheel with redundant audio controls and cruise control, Bluetooth, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD player with MP3 capability, USB and auxiliary jacks and even floor mats (which is nice because a dealer charging you extra for floor mats is just annoying).

Unfortunately telescopic steering is only offered on the more powerful and more expensive SX model.

SX MODEL GETS BIGGER ENGINE WITH 173 HORSEPOWER

The base 2.0-liter is more than sufficient, but if you demand a little more from your car then the 2.4-liter found in the $17,195 ($19,195 CDN) SX model will serve you well with 173hp and 168 ft-lbs of torque. SX models also get two more speakers, a standard six-speed manual (yummy), a sports suspension, larger front brake rotors and 17-inch wheels with 215/45/17 tires.

In the safety department the Kia boasts the same list as most any other compact car, with the usual six airbags (driver and passenger front and side, as well as side curtain for all outboard seats). Also included are four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Both traction and stability control are standard, as is a tire pressure monitoring system.

Rear passenger room is surprisingly roomy for a compact. Even with the front seats a good way back there’s still ample legroom for most passengers (not just children). Cargo room is also excellent with a 14.7 cubic foot trunk and 60/40 split folding rear seats will increase cargo space significantly when needed.

THE DRIVE

From the driver’s seat, the Forte acts much like it looks. The steering is tight and the both the gas and brake pedals provide plenty of feedback. This dynamic will certainly appeal to younger buyers, although the touchiness of the controls might be a turn-off to more mature ones.

As for handling, it’s just ok, and the Forte tends to feel a bit vague in the corners at speed.

I hate to rag on the car’s torsion-beam semi-independent rear suspension setup too much, as generally most driver’s, under most driving conditions, aren’t likely to feel the difference between it and the fully-independent kind. Still, it has issues; and not in terms of handling, but in regards to comfort.

On stretches of uneven asphalt, the rear of the car has a discernable inability to soak up bumps. As a result the undulations are translated up through the chassis to the front of the car. The good news is that Kia can likely make some adjustments (and hopefully will do so with future models) to correct this.

THE VERDICT

The Forte is the car that will finally give Kia a presence in the ultra-competitive compact car class. And while the competition is tough, the Forte has a lot going for it.

Younger buyers will love the powerful engine choices as well as the tight steering and immediate throttle response. More sophisticated buyers might find those last two a bit much, but are sure to like the safety features, spacious rear seating area and the large trunk. And everyone will appreciate the fuel-economy.

The name says it all; Kia’s new Forte will be a strong competitor for years to come.

PLUS
  • Most powerful engine offered in a base-trim compact car
  • Impressive design, especially for a Kia
  • Accessible price-point
MINUS
  • Inadequacies of rear suspension mean bumps are translated up through the chassis
  • More mature buyers might find the steering and throttle response too immediate
  • The base model is really base

RELATED READING:

2009 Toyota Corolla - Basic Transportation Done Right
2009 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL - Classy... for a compact
2009 Hyundai Elantra Review - Reworked Elantra a Genuine Honda Civic Competitor
2009 Ford Focus - More and Less
2009 Honda Civic Sedan - Civic sensibilities - Honda’s people’s car gets massaged for ‘09

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