Good but not great. Small sedans like the Kia Forte are finding themselves less popular than ever now that crossovers reign over every segment of the market. That has led to numerous popular compacts being discontinued - most notably, the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.
On one hand, that should be good for cars like the Forte, which now finds itself in a market with less players than ever. But the double-edged sword of less competition is that the remaining few - in this case, stalwarts like the luxury-sporting Mazda 3 and all-star Honda Civic - raise the bar that much higher. When all your rivals exist within the winner's circle, that bar is high indeed.
And that's the predicament of the Kia Forte. Beneath its innocuous design is a strong value that's anchored by its pleasant interior and long list of standard technology. But it falls short in key areas like refinement and roominess. Simply put, the Forte is a good car among great cars.
Cheap but not cheerful. Most Fortes use a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that isn't turbocharged. Total output is a modest 147 horsepower, which amounts to a 0-60 mph time on the wrong side of eight seconds. It moans and groans the entire time. At least it's efficient: it can get up to 41 mpg on the highway in base FE trim, while middle trims return 29 mpg city, 40 highway, and 33 combined.
Its lethargy is exaggerated by the CVT transmission that is standard on all but the base FE trim. We've driven a number of CVTs at this point; though early ones were crude, the latest versions have been massaged into genuinely decent transmissions. The Forte, though, still comes off as undercooked. It hesitates to simulate downshifts, and when it does finally decide to oblige the result is more noise than perceptible acceleration. We'd rather have the six-speed manual, but it's only available with the base FE or the sporty, turbocharged GT (which we'll get to in a minute).
The ride quality is notably better than the powertrain's refinement. Especially on the lower-trim models, bumps are smoothed out nicely. This isn't always the case with cheap compacts.
Compared to the competition, however, a decent ride can't outweigh the other refinement concerns. A base Honda Civic is smoother, the base Mazda 3 is faster, and both don't suffer the sort of torque steer and lateral instability that plagues the Forte during sharp maneuvers.
With a little engine and chassis tweaking, the standard Forte could equal its rivals for refinement - but for now the behind-the-wheel experience leaves us underwhelmed.
Sporty, promising GT. While the base car has us uninspired, that isn't the case with the GT, the special turbocharged trim that boasts 201 horsepower from its 1.6-liter four. The upgrades go beyond slapping a turbo on the base engine: the GT also features a dual-clutch automatic, an independent rear suspension - the other models use a torsion beam setup - a flat-bottomed steering wheel, and an available six-speed manual.
All those upgrades amount to a faster, smoother, more enjoyable Forte, making it our easy favorite of the Forte lineup. 0-60 mph takes a respectable 6.7 seconds, and during any sort of acceleration the engine feels more responsive and willing. It feels like an eager four-door disciple of the hot-hatch icons that's now out for the Jetta GLI and Civic Si.
Still, not all is perfect with the GT; we're talking specifically about the dual-clutch automatic Kia chose to make standard. Driven hard, this gearbox is predictable and enjoyable, snapping off hard, fast shifts like the best dual-clutch units. The problem is in more normal conditions. Crawling around through town, it feels indecisive. More than once it seemed to engage a gear, then backtrack, then revert and reengage the gear it initially chose. Needless to say, we weren't amused.
Driven hard, the GT is a fun little number, and even around town we like the 1.6-liter engine and the dialed-in chassis. It also costs a good $3,000 or so less than a Honda Civic Si and nearly $5,000 less than a Jetta GLI; at that sort of discount, the Forte GT feels like a steal. But please do yourself a favor and buy the manual, as the dual-clutch is not yet ready for prime-time.
Pleasant interior, okay space. The Forte is more than its powertrains, though - a lot more. The value of the Forte lies in its cabin, where lots of technology, some surprising available features, and plenty of safety gear are all accounted for.
Considering the price - which, at $19,000 to $23,000, undercuts its competitors by a substantial margin - the Forte offers a contemporary cabin featuring an attractive design. Yes, there's a fair amount of hard plastics, but that isn't out of scope for the segment. What impresses us more is the eye towards ergonomics and style. And besides, higher trims use lots of high-grade materials that help disguise the Forte's price point.
The base model is certainly spartan - it doesn't even feature a split-folding rear seat - but it does get an 8.0-inch touchscreen with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Most competitors open their lineup with a 7.0-inch touchscreen - with the Subaru Impreza claiming the smallest screen at 6.5 inches - so the bigger screen and its intuitive software get our nod of approval.
Also standard? Automatic emergency braking, active lane control, and a driver attention monitor. All trims aside from the bottom two get blind-spot monitors as well. Adaptive cruise is available, but it isn't standard even on the top-of-the-line EX.
Our biggest quibble with the Forte's interior regards back-seat space - namely, the lack of it. 35 or so inches of legroom shouldn't bother us too much, but we wonder why the Kia got gypped when its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Elantra, features 38 inches of second-row legroom. As for the competition, the Jetta and the Civic each offer 37 inches of legroom.
At least the Forte has 15 cubic feet of trunk, making it relatively massive once you realize a full-size sedan typically has about 16 cubic feet of cargo space.
Final thoughts. The Forte has matured into a decent compact that provides a stellar value when you consider the level of technology and safety for the price. Unfortunately, we're less enamored with the base powertrain and dual-clutch automatic, both of which need to spend a little more time with the engineers. If you can live with the mechanical idiosyncrasies, however, the Forte is worth shopping against the better-known names in the segment.
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