Hatchbacks try to meld everyone’s favorite things. They’re small and spacious, practical and nimble, value-packed and affordable. Kia’s latest entry in the world of hatchbacks is all of that and maybe a bit more.
|Engine: Turbocharged 1.6L four-cylinder makes 201 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual and six-speed automatic.
Fuel Economy: 21 MPG City, 29 MPG highway and 24 MPG combined.
Price: The Forte5 starts at $20,500, while our fully optioned out model costs about $26,700.
For 2014, the Forte5 aggressively attacks the market with tons of options and features. At the top of the list is the turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine equipped on SX models. Used for the first time in a Kia product, we’re more accustomed to seeing the mill under the hood of the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. Making 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, the engine helps the Forte5 keep up (at least on paper) against sportier rivals in the segment. The base EX model uses 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that’s shared with the Hyundai Elantra GT and makes an acceptable 173-hp.
Either engine can be paired to a six-speed automatic transmission, but Kia also offers the turbocharged motor with a six-speed manual. Automatic SX models can come with paddle-shifters to help liven up the driving experience.
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Sleek and clean looking with a squat stance, there are only a two aspects of the exterior style that are puzzling. First, the 18-inch wheels feature a rather un-masculine flower-petal-shape spoke design. Second, Kia decorates the grille and read bumper with faux carbon fiber pieces made of plastic that it would look better without. Despite the turbocharged engine, this isn’t a hot hatch and the trim looks out of place with that in mind.
Similarly cheap plastic carbon fiber trims the top of the dashboard. Elsewhere you’ll find slick, black plastic that doesn’t feel cheap or rough. The optional leather seats have a patterned weave that spices up the interior. Soft and comfy, the seats are also quite adjustable, including lumbar support.
Equipment List on Steroids
Overall, the cabin is a nice place to sit, but that’s not due to the appointments. The Forte5 SX is brimming with features that are generally associated with more expensive vehicles. There are heated seats for every passenger, with a cooled seat and a heated steering wheel for the driver. The optional sunroof is pleasant in how it lets light into the cabin and dual-zone automatic climate control makes it easy to control the interior temperature.
It’s also spacious; the Forte5 offers more headroom and rear seat legroom than the Mazda3, Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf. Even the cargo room is solid with 23.2 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats.
The Forte5 is generously equipped to the point of encroaching on entry-level luxury territory. Take the new Mercedes CLA and Audi A3 compact luxury cars as examples. Both feature similar power, less passenger space and a less practical sedan style body. In their base models, they’re more expensive than the Forte5 and come with significantly fewer features. Even the most clinical of car shoppers looks beyond an equipment list and the second that handling and material quality come into play, any illusions of Kia grandeur vanish. But more on that later.
Price and Packaging
With an options list that rivals luxury cars and a power plant that is sneaking up on hot-hatch territory, it isn’t surprising to learn that the Forte5 is starting to press against the upper end of expensive in its segment. Starting at $20,500, the base EX model uses the 2.0-liter engine and comes standard with fog lights, air-conditioning, power locks and windows with auto up/down for the front windows. The $21,700 SX model is available exclusively with the 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and comes with push button start, rear-view camera, paddle-shifters, dual chrome exhaust tips and 18-inch wheels.
To get all the bells and whistles, the $2,200 SX Premium package includes a power sunroof, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, sport leather seats, a power driver’s Seat with lumbar support, heated seats in the front and rear, ventilated driver’s seat and a heated steering wheel. The technology package can be added on top of the premium package and adds $1,800 in equipment including a navigation system, dual-zone automatic climate control and HID headlights. Add the automatic transmission and this model rings in with a $26,700 price tag.
Beefed Up Engine, Limp Handling
The Forte5 lacks the sharp, planted handling that makes the Mazda3 and Focus fun to drive. For everyday commutes, the suspension feels average. While the semi-independent rear suspension setup is well behaved over smooth pavement, it gets a bit overwhelmed on patchier asphalt and will bounce around uncomfortably. As long as you’re not expecting a sports-car-like ride the Forte5 will deliver a driving experience that is solid, if not unremarkable.
Further hindering any sporty aspirations, the Forte5’s steering doesn’t provide enough feedback despite having three settings that can change the steering effort. Those looking for a bit more engagement will find the Sport setting hefty, while the comfort setting is light and loose. The Normal setting bridges these two extremes and we ended up using it for daily driving. Revisiting the comparison with Audi, the German automaker features a well sorted out variable steering setup that Kia would smart to imitate.
While the steering and suspension are lacking, the engine certainly isn’t. On the highway, the 1.6-liter turbocharged motor can pass slower traffic easily. In the city, the engine is responsive enough to ensure you’re the first through the intersection when the light goes green. If you equate “fun-to-drive” with being quick off the line, you’ll probably enjoy the turbocharged Forte5.
But the relatively potent power plant comes at a price: fuel economy. With EPA estimates of 21 MPG City, 29 MPG highway and 24 MPG combined; fuel economy isn’t this car’s strong suit. Take the MINI Cooper S or Volkswagen GTI as examples. They both use bigger engines that produce similar power and are rated for better fuel economy than the Kia. Even the Kia’s base 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine averages 28 MPG, while competitors like the Mazda3 can easily reach the 30 MPG mark.
It might seem steep for a compact car that isn’t especially fuel friendly or fun to drive, but very few compacts offer the combination of premium features, gorgeous styling and a strong 200 horsepower engine. Add in the Forte5’s everyday live-ability and practicality and it’s hard to argue with what Kia is offering in this segment.