Pros: Sharper styling and plusher interior; lengthy list of standard features; options include higher-end items such as heated rear seats and backup camera
Cons: Road noise is prominent at highway speeds; steering feels vague, despite optional variable effort FlexSteer system; stark black interior offers soft touch surfaces but lacks visual excitement
What's New: The 2014 Kia Forte reveals its more upmarket ambitions by moving to a longer, wider, and lower chassis which pushes it closer towards its midsized stablemate, the Optima. In addition to the reworked exterior styling, the interior has also been facelifted. Hydraulic steering has been replaced by a new electric setup with three driver adjustable levels of effort, and suspension tweaks offer sportier handling and road feel. Added amenities include the standard Google-powered Uvo infotainment system, and options like a ventilated driver's seat, which is not available in any of this car's competitors.
When it debuted in 2009, the Kia Forte sedan didn't exactly fly out of showrooms, due to the recently collapsed global economy and stiff competition from Honda and Toyota. In an effort to imbue the compact sedan with more personality, the 2014 Kia Forte sedan has been widened, lowered and lengthened, with zippier exterior styling and a more luxurious interior. The 2014 Kia Forte sedan boasts refreshed design which was penned by a former Audi designer, incorporating a more modern look to the exterior and a new water droplet theme to the otherwise stark interior. At least surface materials feel more upscale than the price point might suggest. The Kia Forte EX model's top engine has been downsized from 2.4 liters to 2.0 liters in the interest of better fuel economy, and while horsepower remains the same (at 173 horsepower) in the new mill, torque drops slightly. Also available on the LX model is a 1.8 liter engine producing 148 hp.
Comfort & Utility
The Forte's spacious interior makes it feel like it belongs in a more upscale segment, and its soft touch surfaces lend this Kia a compelling argument against its competitors. A surprisingly robust list of items come standard: The base LX trim includes steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, SiriusXM Satellite radio, Bluetooth, power windows and air conditioning. The EX trim level adds the Google-powered UVO infotainment system, remote keyless entry with trunk opener, a backup camera and a sliding center arm rest with a cooling glove box. The optional Premium Package adds heated front and rear seats, a 10-way adjustable driver's seat with ventilation, leather seating, a power sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, push-button start and a heated steering wheel.
The Forte's most prominent technological feature is Microsoft's UVO system with eServices, which uses Apple iPhone or Android-based apps to communicate with the car's infotainment system in much the same way that Ford's Sync system works. Everything from Twitter and Pandora to Google Maps integrates with the interface, enabling streamlined operation through your smartphone.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Forte's performance could be described as more sensible than stirring, with the top-rung 2.0-liter engine providing adequate acceleration and decent passing power thanks to the 6-speed automatic transmission. Official fuel economy figures have yet to be released (the car goes on sale the first quarter of 2013), but we can expect the 2014 model to exceed the 26 miles per gallon city/36 mpg highway numbers produced by the outgoing EX. A 6-speed manual gearbox is available on the LX model, while the EX is only available with an automatic.
The 2014 Forte sedan comes equipped with six airbags, 4-wheel anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control and a tire pressure monitoring system.
Our tester was equipped with the direct-injected 2.0-liter engine that produces 173 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque and the downsized 4-cylinder offered sufficient grunt to get us moving through the wide open spaces outside of Scottsdale, Ariz. Though we would have liked some extra power when passing slower traffic, at least the 6-speed transmission offered appropriately spaced ratios for the task at hand -- incidentally, this Kia produces more power than its Honda and Toyota competitors. However, the transmission occasionally hunted and upshifted early, suggesting the car is tuned for favorable fuel economy, not outright performance. We also found that the new electric steering system's FlexSteer setup offered varying levels of numbness; the comfort setting was too light, the sport setting too tight and the medium setting passable in terms of effort, but lacking feel overall, which sometimes led the car to wander in its lane at highway speeds.
Some road noise becomes apparent at highway speeds, but at least the Forte's amenities make it a pleasant place to spend a few hours at a time -- even if we sometimes felt a bit lost in the all-black cabin. At least there's no shortage of soft-touch surfaces throughout, offering a considerably improved cabin over its predecessor.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Civic: Though last year's widely panned model was quickly replaced with a better design, the Honda Civic still remains one of the safest choices in the segment. But you'll also pay a premium for the name; whereas the Kia Forte will likely start at under $16,000, the Civic commands an $18,165 premium.
Toyota Corolla: Another crowd-pleasing choice, the Corolla starts at $16,230 and offers a total of three trim levels. However, the Toyota lacks many of the standard items found on the Kia.
Ford Focus: The Ford Focus sedan features a wider price range for its three trim levels: The S model starts at $16,200, while the SE jumps to $18,200 and the Titanium comes with a $23,200 premium, which can creep this much-improved domestic sedan into midsize car price territory.
For 2014, Kia's Forte sedan takes big steps toward being taken more seriously by compact sedan buyers. It's bigger, more attractive and its 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine should exceed the already impressive fuel economy figures of its predecessor, which achieved 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway. With a healthy amount of standard features and a generous list of available options, the Forte sedan becomes especially attractive considering Kia promises it will start under $16,000. While Honda and Toyota die-hards will probably remain unswayed by this updated sedan from Korea, we think the Forte will attract more adventurous buyers willing to trade some brand cachet for a solid car and a great value.