When Kia started selling the ’94 Sephia in America, nobody was worried. Not the American car companies still adjusting to the market share lost to the Japanese competition, and not the Japanese who used cheap and reliable cars to take the market share in the first place. The laissez-faire attitude to the Korean upstart was understandable, the Sephia was a truly horrible car. In 1997 Kia filed for bankruptcy protection and the big boys patted themselves on their back for not worrying about the Asian upstart. When another unremarkable Korean company purchased 51% of Kia, nobody cared. They should have.
Through a convoluted set of financial arrangements, Hyundai and Kia are 32.8% joined at the hip and the result is greater than the sum of its parts. The reason seems to be “internal” competition with rumors of Kia/Hyundai in-fighting constantly swirling. Apparently each believes that they should be king of the hill. This means we can’t talk about the 2014 Forte without talking about the Hyundai Elantra. This is not a case of Chevy/Buick/Oldsmobile badge engineering. Kia and Hyundai have access to the same platform, engine and other parts bins but they operate on their own development cycles. What that means to you is: these brothers from a different mother exist in different generations. The 2006-2010 Elantra was the cousin to the 2009-2013 Forte meaning the Kia was a “generation behind”. That’s changed for 2014 with the Forte being the new kid on the block and while the related Elantra won’t land until the 2015 model year at the soonest.
The old Forte was very “grown up” with lines that were clean, straight and unemotional. For the Forte’s first redesign, Kia injected styling from Kia’s successful mid-sized Optima. Up front we see a larger and better integrated corporate grille. The shape is supposed to be modeled after the nose on a tiger, but I fail to see the resemblance. The larger and more aggressive maw is flanked by stylish headlamps with available LED day-time running lamps and bi-xenon main beams. Yes, this is a Forte we’re talking about.
From the side profile, it’s obvious this Forte is bigger than last year’s compact Kia. The wheelbase has been stretched by 2 inches, the belt-line has been raised and raked, and attractive new wheels have been fitted. Despite the growth, weight is down 280lbs vs the 2013 model and chassis stiffness has increased. Moving around the back you’ll find something unusual: a rump that doesn’t offend. It seems rear ends are difficult to design these days with cars like the Jaguar XJ and Ford Fusion having incredible noses and disappointing butts. Our EX tester came with the optional LED tail lamps further bumping the Kia’s booty. Taken as a whole, I rank the new Forte and the new Mazda 3 the most attractive in the segment.
While I spent most of my time in the Forte EX (that’s the model two of our readers requested), I snagged a base Forte from a local dealer for comparison. The reason I sampled both the EX and LX is because the top-line trim (and the base with the “popular package” swap hard plastic door panels for soft injection molded bits. I’m also not a fan of black-on-black interiors (as this was equipped) so I needed to check out the lighter options. Most LX models on the lot were equipped with medium grey fabric and two-tone dash and door plastics (black upper, fabric matching lower). Most EX models on the other hand were dressed in black like out tester. I found the darkness not only slightly oppressive, but also cheaper looking than the grey leather alternative. Either way you roll, you’ll find more soft touch plastics than the Honda Civic and more hard polymers than a Ford Focus. Is that a problem?
In the US, compact cars are all about value. Value means compromise and cutting the corners you can get away with. The trick to creating a winner is knowing which corners to cut and where to bling. (The rapid refresh of the 9th generation Civic shows that even the big boys can clip the wrong corners.) For 2014, Kia uses plenty of hard plastic but it is now located away from frequent touch points like airbag covers, front door panels, etc. The faux-carbon-fiber surround on the radio is a bit cheesy and the style is a bit boring, but our fully-loaded $25,400 model had a gadget list that could easily have been an option list on a BMW. Out tester had heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel, HID headlamps, a cooled driver’s seat, 2 position seat memory, power folding side mirrors with puddle lamps, sunroof, keyless entry and keyless go, lighted exterior door handles and dual zone climate control. The extensive gadget list forgives the visible body-painted window frames in my book.
Front seat comfort is greatly improved over the outgoing model with thicker foam in the seat bottoms and backs, and a wider range of adjustibility. Kia claims best in segment front legroom and I’m inclined to believe them as passengers with long legs had no troubles finding a comfortable position. The rear seats benefit the most from the platform stretch with 36 inches of legroom and a seating position that didn’t offend my back after an hour. If rear seat room is what you’re after, that new Sentra still trumps with an insanely large back seat and seat cushions positioned higher off the floor than most.
It’s obvious the Forte is a half generation ahead of the Elantra when you look at infotainment. LX models make do with four or six speakers and an attractive (but basic) AM/FM/XM/CD head unit with USB/iDevice integration and a Bluetooth speakerphone. The base system is competitive with base and mid-range systems from the competition, although Kia doesn’t include smartphone app integration, Pandora or other streaming radio options. Jumping up to the EX model ($19,400) gets you the latest “UVO 2 with eServices” system. The Microsoft powered 8-inch touchscreen system is bright and easily readable, and has improved USB/iDevice integration allowing you to select songs and playlists with voice commands ala Ford’s SYNC. Also included is an array of OnStar-like services including vehicle diagnostics, car locator and automatic 911 dialing when your airbags deploy. Unlike OnStar or Chrysler’s latest uConnectm, your phone must be paired and present for these services to work.
Adding navigation to the 8-inch system is only possible by selecting the $2,300 “Technology package” which also nets HD Radio, a 4.2″ LCD in the instrument cluster, HID headlamps, dual zone climate control, rear HVAC vents and LED tail lamps. The package is a good deal but $2,300 is a big pill to swallow. Making matters more expensive, you can’t check that option box without checking the $2,600 “Premium Package” as well. The premium pack adds a power sunroof, 10-way memory driver’s seat, leather, ventilated driver’s seat, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, auto dimming mirrors, keyless go, car alarm, and puddle lamps.
While most subcompacts make do with one engine, the Forte has two. LX models get a 1.8L four cylinder engine with variable valve timing cranking out 148 HP and 131 lb-ft. Not very exciting. Jumping to the EX swaps in a 2.0L mill with direct-injection. The larger engine bumps power to 173 ponies and 154 lb-ft. While this isn’t hot hatch territory, it is more oomph than you find in the Civic, Focus, Mazda 3, or Elantra.
Cog counts are higher than some of the competitors (I’m looking at you Civic) with the 1.8L starting off with a standard 6-speed manual and optional 6-speed automatic. That same 6-speed slushbox is the only transmission for the 2.0L EX. (Pay no attention to the EPA’s 2.0L/MT scores, we’re told that combo remains on the cutting room floor.) Raining on the Forte’s parade is mediocre fuel economy. The LX scored 25/37/29 MPG (City/Highway/Combined) with the manual, 25/36/29 with the automatic and the EX slots in at 24/36/28. Over 657 miles we averaged 32MPG which is slightly lower than the 2013 Honda Accord 4-cylinder.
The last gen Forte was a great deal but it wasn’t exactly king of the track. As a result my dynamic expectations were fairly low as I got behind the wheel. I was pleasantly surprised. The new Forte’s chassis is noticeably more rigid on the road, a distinct improvement over the Elantra which can feel like a damp noodle on uneven pavement. Kia’s engineers have also worked most of the kinks out of the Forte’s suspension giving the 2014 model a well tuned ride that’s on the stiffer/sportier side of the spectrum. Electric power steering is here to stay, but at least the Forte allows you to adjust the level of assist via s button on the steering wheel. In the firmest steering mode, there *might be* the faintest whisper of steering feedback. Maybe. Either way, the Forte is a surprisingly agile companion on winding roads. The Forte’s new-found abilities made me wonder for the first time what a turbo Forte would be like.
I’m not saying the Forte is as engaging or exciting as a VW GLI, but this chassis finally shows some potential. The 2014 model is certainly the dynamic equal of the Focus and Cruze. I would be one of the first customers in line if Kia went out on a limb and jammed the 274HP 2.0L turbo from the optima under the hood. Such a move wouldn’t just blow the Civic Si and Jetta GLI out of the water, it would give the Focus ST a run for its money.
The feel of the Forte EX is down to the suspension, but the road holding is thanks to optional 215/45R17 rubber. Base Forte models get fairly high-profile 195/65R15s while mid-range models get 205/55R16 tires. The flip side of this tire choice is that mediocre fuel economy. 32 MPG is 1.5MPG below the Civic and 4.5 MPG less than the Nissan Sentra. Despite the wide tires the Forte ranks among the quietest in the class easily tying with the Focus and Cruze.
I prefer to think of myself as “financially frugal” but at home that’s spelled c h e a p. It’s not that I want the cheapest car or the most economical car, I want the best deal. I can’t help it, the word “bargain” ignites a fire in my loins. The new 2014 Forte is that kind of bargain. Sure, it’s not as roomy as the Sentra, not as quiet as a Cruze, not as dynamic as a Focus and lacks the Civic’s reputation, but this new Forte is well priced, packed with features you won’t find on the competition, and I was unable to find a single thing to dislike. Kia’s compact car transformation from the Sephia, a car I wouldn’t make my worst enemy live with, to a car that I would recommend to friends (and have) has taken only 20 years. To copy a line, that makes Kia the fastest social climber since Cinderella. Since I care more about the driving experience and gadget list than fuel economy, this shoe fits.
Kia provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Specifications as tested
1/4 Mile: 16.47 @ 85.2
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 32.0 MPG over 657 miles