Pros: Wide choice of trims and models; low price; high feature content; great fuel economy; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick
Cons: Poor resale; slow performance with 2.0-liter engine; somewhat soft suspension
What's New: Changes to the 2013 Kia Forte are relatively minor. A new 16-inch wheel design for the Koup and hatchback join power folding mirrors on the EX and SX trims. A low washer fluid warning lamp is added and LED daytime running lights are now standard on the SX and available on EX sedan and hatchback.
If your next car must be economy minded, there are plenty of choices out there. But if you refuse to drive a striped-down model just because your budget is tight, the 2013 Kia Forte may be the solution you seek. Available in coupe (Kia spells it "Koup"), sedan or 5-door hatchback, the Forte competes head on with such well-established names as the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla and Chevy Cruze. Kia's trump card has always been the ability to offer a lot of content at a low price, and the Forte trio has it in spades. In addition to its numerous standard and available features, the Forte also offers a choice of two fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engines, one of which can get up to 37 mpg with the optional Eco Package.
While we find much to like about the Kia Forte, it does not dominate in every category. The interior is handsomely designed, but the materials used fall short of the marks set by the Focus and Mazda3. The Forte's ride and handling also fall about midway between sporty and soft, which seems similar to the Civic and Sentra but not as much fun as the Focus or Golf. Finally, one must take into account the Forte's resale value, which lags far behind all the aforementioned competitors.
To add some extra enticement, Kia backs the Forte with a 5-year/60,000-mile vehicle warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, that is among the best available.
Comfort & Utility
The Forte may be a compact car on the outside, but inside there's plenty of room for four grown adults; it's interior is almost as large as in some midsize sedans. The Forte's rear seat, not usually a welcome spot in such a small car, is surprisingly accommodating. The 5-door wagon provides even more room, plus the added benefit of an expandable 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 also a step away from the rental-car that can be 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, a 4-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 6-speaker stereo, power folding 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-in wheels, a sport suspension and sport seat fabric.
Only the Forte LX and Forte Koup have a standard 6-speed manual transmission. All other models come standard with a 6-speed automatic, and the SX has steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The Forte bundles impressive technology into its option packages, beginning with the EX Eco package that 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, fog lamps, automatic headlights and push-button start with a Smart Key remote key fob, which means you keep the key in your pocket or purse when opening and starting the car. A similar package exists for the SX, which includes a backup camera and offers a Leather package with 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 6-speed manual, while the EX and SX sedans come with a 6-speed automatic that's an option on the LX. The sedan's fuel economy figures are 25 mpg city/34 mpg hwy with the manual transmission and 26/36 mpg with the automatic. Cars equipped with EX Eco 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 6-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 in 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 IIHS.
The Forte sedan and 5-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 6-speed manual transmission.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Cruze: The Cruze costs considerably more than a similarly equipped Forte, yet its standard engine has less hp. On the flip side, the Cruze is a much quieter car inside and feels much more substantial on the road.
Ford Focus: The Focus costs a bit more than the Forte and is not quite as roomy, but its styling is much more dramatic, its electronic gadgets more sophisticated and its handling is far better.
Honda Civic: The Civic 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. Although the Civic costs more and doesn't offer as many cool features, it does hold its resale value better than the Forte.
The driver in us loves the Forte SX Koup. But our practical side says the best of the bunch is the Forte 5-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.