Sunday, June 9, 2013

Kia Forte - Another Advance for Compact Korean Cars

The folks at Kia have done as promised, and updated all their cars over a short period of time. The latest newcomer is the third-generation 2014  Forte, filling the compact role between the smaller Rio and larger Optima.

Competing in the compact sedan market is a real challenge, battling longtime leaders such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but this new Forte seems well equipped for a good fight.

Designed in Kia's Irvine, California design studio (but built in Korea), the new car has an energy and excitement about it -- always welcome in a segment where affordability and practicality are often the main purchase considerations As I've said about other new Kias, the products all benefit from the enlightened design sense of Kia's chief, Peter Schreyer, best known for his beautiful Audi designs. There's no reason not to make every car look good.

To make it simple, there are two choices -- LX and EX -- and each has its own engine. The LX uses a 1.8-liter inline four that puts out a respectable 148 horsepower and `131 lb.-ft. of torque. You can get it with either a manual or automatic six-speed transmission. The EX, like my Abyss Blue test vehicle, comes only with the larger 2.0-liter four with 173 horsepower and 154 lb.-ft. of torque. With only an additional 76 pounds between the two cars, the EX is significantly more sprightly.

Driving on freeways and in town, the Forte is hard to fault. It now uses electric instead of hydraulic power steering, but there's still plenty of feel in turns and the car feels solidly on center. The shifts are easy and smooth, and with the Sportmatic setting you can select your own gears if you'd like to feel racier. I would like to sample the manual-equipped car for comparison. The suspension absorbs normal bumps well and there's little squat or dive during braking or acceleration.

I look forward to sampling the five-door version of the Forte, coming out this fall, that offers a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine with 201 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque -- and a choice of the six speed manual or automatic. With its extra carrying capacity, the five-door could be ideal for many buyers (including me).

The EPA rates the EX sedan (automatic only) at 28 mpg combined (24 City, 36 Highway). Kia ran into some issues over erroneous reporting of fuel economy test scores last year, but these numbers bear out. I averaged 31.8 mpg over a busy week -- beating the EPA. Green scores show a 5 for Smog and a nice 7 on Greenhouse Gas.

As a driver, you spend most of your time inside the car and not outside, so an appealing interior really does matter. This one, considering its market position and price, is a remarkable piece of work. I am coming to the conclusion that Kia, the sibling of Hyundai, is aiming at the Volkswagen/European car buyer while Hyundai is chasing the Japanese car intender. The feel of the design and materials inside the Forte is more subtle and angular than the Hyundai -- less curvy and more sophisticated. The low-gloss plastics don't look cheap, and there is actual padding where you might not expect it.

The dash and doors are scalloped, giving a sense of motion and also of radiating waves. The only thing I've seen like it is the somewhat wacky but amusing interior of the Nissan Cube. The console offers a roll-top compartment perfect for stashing your iPod (and the USB port is right there ready for it). Chrome accents are not overdone and do succeed in moving the feel above utilitarian. Pseudo carbon fiber trim is preferable to fake wood, I guess.

The Forte comes pretty well equipped, with such things as power windows, mirrors and locks and Bluetooth. There are even heated outside mirrors. You can add to it, though. My EX came with the Premium and Technology packages. For an extra $4,900, you get a power sunroof, leather seats (front heated), dual-zone climate control, a navigation system, sharp-looking Supervision gauges, and a whole lot more. The 160-mph speedometer is wildly optimistic, but it seems that all cars are scoping their gauges this way these days.

You can make the Forte a more expensive proposition with the added packages. Mine, with shipping ($800), came to $25,515. Is that a lot for a compact car? Maybe not anymore. The LX starts at  an easier-to-swallow $16,700.

This is a happy story of a nice little car that is helping Kia grow year after year. Their generous warranty and increasingly attractive models have given more buyers a feeling of security about buying the cars and taking them home.

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