On paper and in person, the 2014 Kia Forte looks like a Very Good Car™. Is it really, though? The outgoing Forte pulled the same trick, looking all the world like it was going to keep the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus up at night, an illusion that fell apart upon driving. Oh sure, the Forte has always been very good looking, and Kia is known for offering a lot more equipment for less money, but you can’t just strap styling and stuff to a base-model-1992 driving experience and call it a day. And that is why there’s a 2014 Kia Forte, with great new looks and a price-to-equipment ratio that would please even the crustiest quartermaster. Fine, newly-minted college graduates (at least those with jobs) and equally-new AARP card holders looking to downsize will still be thrilled, but what about the enthusiast?
The styling is, of course, the first thing you notice. The 2014 Forte has a roofline that swoops instead of sucks. It may be swimming in the “needs a car” end of the pool, but the Forte looks expensive. Of course it does, because Peter Schreyer is in charge; a man who spent years plying his trade for style-forward juggernaut Audi. Handsome form underscores everything about your first impressions of the Forte.
There’s still a few gimmicks – a string of LED running lamps in the headlight clusters look like someone glomming on to a trend, because that’s exactly why they’re there. There are, of course, benefits to LED lighting elements: they’re efficient, lightweight and long-lived, but really, they exist here because it’s the latest bit of bedazzling that the automotive industry is pushing.
During my week with the Forte, nobody stopped me to ask about it, but I always enjoyed walking up on it. It’s a great-looking car, especially in EX trim, like the one I had. Of course, the fancy wheels, fog lamps and big engine in the Forte EX will cost you. The 2014 Kia Forte LX starts at $15,900 with a 1.8 liter four cylinder and six-speed you-shift-it transmission. The six-speed automatic bumps the price to $17,400, and if you want more stuff in your LX, you’re looking at the LX (Popular) for $18,300, which also adds a bunch more exterior paint colors.
The EX means a 2.0 liter four cylinder that’s a solid middleweight performer, six-speed auto, and all kinds of other goodies like automatic headlights, adjustable steering assist that Kia calls FlexSteer, the maddening Active Eco system that you immedately make inactive, rear-view camera, and up-rated materials on the door panels, steering wheel and shift knob, the latter two being done in the skin of some cow that probably became a burger for the fast food joints that Forte drivers might manage.
The Forte left a very good impression in terms of interior materials and fit and finish. Kia is smart. They didn’t send me the LX with the less nicey-nice door panels and un-equipped option list. Instead, what I drove was a car that rung up $25K and was equipped like you’d expect a Lexus ES. No lie. This thing even had seats done in leather with memory and power adjustment and a ventilated driver’s seat. Again: ventilated driver’s seat in a Kia.
This is what Kia is good at. There’s climate control, HID headlamps, more LEDs for the taillamps, a power sunroof, voice-recognition navigation, pushbutton start, and auto-dimming mirrors all available optionally, and included on the test car by dint of it carrying the Premium and EX Technology Packages.
Kia got the memo loud and clear that people buying these smaller cars (that have really grown to be as big as midsize cars once were) don’t expect or desire to settle for less. But so far, all that means is that your father the Actuary will find the Kia an eyebrow-raising candidate. It won’t mean bupkus to anyone with an inner ear accustomed to simultaneous elevation and directional changes at high rates of speed. That’s where the Kia Forte has fallen down in the past, with a brittle ride and numb feedback making for a sloppy, underachieving driving experience.
For 2014, it’s a lot better. That’s not to say it’s all fixed, the steering is still a little weird, even if you can switch the electric assist between “Electra 225″ and “busted hose.” The rear suspension is a torsion beam with coil springs, a setup that’s next on the list for the autowriter cool-kids to talk shit about, behind the Mustang’s “ox-cart live axle” ( I swear, if I read that one more time, I’m getting an ox, just so I can gore whatever twit with a keyboard taps it out). You know what, though? Struts ‘N A Beam was delightful enough on a Mk1 GTI, and it doesn’t get in the way here, either. The new Forte isn’t as good a handler as the Ford Focus, for instance, but it’s clear that Kia has been doing its ride and handling homework. The Forte played along just fine when asked to clip an apex or unkink a back road. The structure feels pretty solid, but still not as tight as some others, Focus example included.
Bumps are absorbed by the suspension, instead of your tailbone; evidence that someone at Kia has been hitting the books when it comes to balancing jounce and rebound stiffness. The 2.0 liter engine has a power level that was only possible with forced induction not too long ago. Now, thanks to direct injection, it’s possible to run the compression ratio up to 11.5:1, which yieds 173 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque. It makes for an eager little mill, and the 2.0 is a noticeable upgrade over the still-respectable 148 hp and 131 lb-ft of the 1.8 liter engine (145 hp/130 lb-ft in SULEV configuration). Another annoying thing that’s plagued Kias in the past has been super-jumpy fly-by-wire throttles, like they were programmed to give a strong initial response to make the car feel extra-peppy. Now there’s finally some refinement and subtlety to the Forte’s response to the accelerator pedal.
Kia has growed the Forte all up for 2014. The interior is as nicely styled as the exterior, and in EX trim, the materials that surround you are nice enough to be considered among the top half of the class. The ergonomics are very good, better than the button-tastic Ford Focus, weird-ass Civic, or even the Chevrolet Cruze, which is better than the other two, but not as good as the Forte.
If your idea of a “good” car is value by the pound, you might not think there’s much to recommend at roughly $25,500 for the 2014 Kia Forte EX with all the packages. That would be wrong. It’s a fully-loaded box of new car smell at that price level. There’s a decent trunk, respectable fuel economy (32 mpg observed), build quality that (probably) won’t run out before the considerable warranty does, and a driving experience that’s good enough to have some of the perennial darlings looking over their shoulders, if not fretting just yet.
The Forte is a lot better than it was, to the point where it’s a legitimate player among its peers, rather than just an on-paper par-baked bargain.