Pros: Wide choice of trims and models; low price; high feature content; great gas mileage; IIHS Top Safety Pick
Cons: Poor resale; slow performance with 2.0-liter engine; somewhat soft suspension
If you're shopping the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla or Ford Focus but feel you're just not getting enough car for your money, we think there's another candidate worthy of a test drive: the Kia Forte. In typical Kia fashion, the Forte packs a lot of content into a small car with a small price and a big warranty. Better still, the Forte isn't just affordable, it's frugal, with an EPA-estimated 36 mpg on the highway. Unlike so many cars these days, the Forte is available in a complete lineup of sedan, wagon and sporty coupe (Kia actually spells it "Koup"). The Forte also offers a choice between two fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engines, manual or automatic transmissions and trim levels from basic transportation to sporty and sophisticated.
But take note. In the small-car world, the Forte is not king of all categories. Its interior parts don't feel as substantial as those found in the Mazda3 or the Volkswagen Jetta. Its ride and handling fall in the middle of the pack, on par with the Honda Civic and the Nissan Stanza but nowhere near as athletic as the Ford Focus or the VW Golf. The Forte's resale value also lags far behind all the abovementioned competitors, something to keep in mind when you're bragging to your friends about how little you paid up front.
Comfort & Utility
The Forte may be a compact car on the outside, but inside there is plenty of room for four grown adults; it's almost as large as some mid-size sedan interiors. The Forte's rear seat, not usually a welcome spot in such a small car, is surprisingly accommodating. The five-door wagon provides even more room, plus the added benefit of an expandable open cargo bay. In fact, the Forte offers more front-seat headroom, legroom and overall passenger volume than the Focus, the Civic or the Corolla.
The Forte's interior design is another step away from the rental-car look so common in entry-level cars. Crisp lines and creative curves distinguish the dash and door panels, with plenty of soft-touch materials on key surfaces. We also commend Kia for the use of colorful instrumentation and the standard audio system's big LCD screen.
Available in LX, EX and SX versions, the Forte comes well equipped with comfortable and supportive seats covered in handsome fabric. Standard equipment includes manual windows and locks, power mirrors, four-speaker CD stereo, a USB port for iPod, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and air conditioning. The EX adds power windows and locks as well as a six-speaker stereo, side mirrors with integrated turn signals, cruise control, tilt and telescopic steering column, a trip computer and visor vanity mirrors. The SX ups the ante to include 17-inch wheels, a sport suspension andsport seat fabric.
Only the Forte LX and Forte Koup have a standard six-speed manual transmission. All other models come standard with a six-speed automatic, and the SX has steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The Forte bundles impressive technology into its option packages, beginning with the EX Fuel Economy package, which includes electric power steering, a high-efficiency alternator and low-rolling-resistance tires. Combined, these features put less strain on the engine and add up to better fuel economy. The EX Technology package includes touchscreen navigation with traffic updates, automatic climate control, foglamps, automatic headlights and push-button start with a Smart Key remote key fob, which requires only that you have the fob on your person to access and start the car. A similar package exists for the SX, which includes a backup camera and exclusively offers the Leather package with its leather seats, heated front seats and auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Forte offers a choice of two engines and two transmissions, depending on model and trim. The LX and EX sedan and Koup models are powered by a 2.0-liter engine producing 156 horsepower and 144 lb-ft of torque. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, while the EX and SX sedans come with a six-speed automatic that's an option on the LX. The sedan's fuel economy figures are 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the manual transmission and 26/36 mpg with the automatic. Cars equipped with Fuel Economy package are rated at 27/37 mpg.
The larger and more powerful 2.4-liter engine is available on the SX trim, and only the Koup offers it with the thrill of a six-speed manual transmission. With 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque, the 2.4 is the engine for those who enjoy pushing their cars beyond everyday commuting tasks. Because the 2.4-liter is rated at 23/32 mpg with the automatic transmission and 22/32 mpg with the manual, those who choose more power don't have to give up much fuel economy.
Every Forte model comes standard with front, front side-impact and front and rear side curtain airbags. The Forte also includes anti-lock brakes, electronic traction control (to help keep the front wheels from spinning wildly on ice or wet surfaces), and electronic stability control that helps drivers regain control in the event the car looses traction and begins to plow ahead or fishtail from behind.
The Forte performs very well in the Government's crash tests and earned a Top Safety Pick from the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
The Forte sedan and five-door hatchback share the same suspension and engines, while the SX sedan and the Koup have slightly better handling characteristics and more power under the hood. In sedan form, the LX and EX are fine for everyday driving, but they are not as adept at cornering and accelerating as the Mazda3, Ford Focus or VW Golf. The 2.0-liter engine isn't very powerful, and it has to work hard to pull the car up steep hills or overtake slower-moving traffic. There's also more engine and transmission noise inside the Forte's cabin than in other small cars we've tested. The steering is a bit light, but there is still enough feedback to allow for precise maneuvers at speeds over 45 mph. If you're looking for a sportier feel, we'd go with the SX with its 17-inch wheels, stiffer suspension and, on the Koup, the slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission.
Other Cars to Consider
Ford Focus - The Focus costs a bit more than the Forte and is not quite as roomy, but its styling is much more dramatic, and it's a better-handling car by far.
Honda Civic - The Civic is also offers less interior room than the Forte, and the newest version isn't as quiet or solid as the Civics that came before it. Still, the Civic holds its resale value better than the Forte, although it costs more and doesn't offer as many cool features.
Chevrolet Cruze - The Cruze costs considerably more than a similarly equipped Forte, yet its standard engine has less horsepower. On the flip side, the Cruze is a much quieter car inside and feels much more substantial on the road.
The driver in us loves the Forte SX Koup. But our practical side says the best of the bunch is the Forte five-door, which delivers the best combination of price, comfort, utility and fuel economy. Pricing starts just under $20,000, but for a few grand more you can drive off with a loaded Forte that includes leather, navigation and push-button start.