By on November 3, 2010

If you’re a driving enthusiast with a family and a sub-$20k budget, then a four-door sport compact tends to be the way to go. Unfortunately, you don’t have as many choices lately. Nissan’s, Honda’s, Suzuki’s, and VW’s suitably sporting offerings are priced out of reach. Mitsubishi is barely hanging on with the Lancer GTS. Toyota offers the Corolla XRS, but few enthusiasts take it seriously. Only the Mazda3 sells well in this segment, but the new styling isn’t for everyone. Perhaps the Kia Forte SX? The lone Korean offers the most horsepower for the lowest price, and for 2011 will be available in practical hatchback form. But is it truly a contender?

If the Forte sedan looked nearly as good as the Koup, it would be the most stylish car in the segment. But it doesn’t. With a higher roofline without the Koup’s flared wheel openings, the boxier sedan borders on plain. With athletically-proportioned rear quarters—it’s 7.4 inches shorter than the sedan, all of it taken out of the rear overhang—the new hatch looks much better, if still not as sleek as the Koup.

Inside, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, metal pedals, and red stitching attempt a sporty ambiance, but can’t quite pull it off. The plastics of the center console try too hard to seem upscale when they’re clearly not. Nothing seems dreadfully cheap, though the area around the shifter comes close. Someone inside Kia must have agreed with this assessment, because the area around the shifter has been redesigned for the 2011s—after just a single model year. The high driving position pays dividends in visibility, but similarly suggests economy. Both the Mazda and Mitsubishi seem sportier and more substantial from the driver’s seat.

The driver’s seat itself is too little removed from its econocar roots. Red stitching and “sport fabric” aren’t enough. The more aggressively bolstered buckets from the Koup would be welcome. The back seat is better, with a high cushion providing unusually good thigh support. The trunk, at 14.7 cubes, is spacious. With its bobbed tail, the hatch won’t hold as much without the seat folded.

On the move, the Forte SX feels quick. Credit the 2.4-liter’s 173 horsepower, the short initial gearing of the six-speed manual, and a curb weight about 100 pounds less than the Mazda’s and 200 pounds less than the Mitsubishi’s—Kias aren’t pigs anymore. The 2.4 is louder and less refined than the engines in the Mazda and Mitsubishi, but not by too large a margin. The direct-injected 200-horsepower variant from the Hyundai Sonata would be a sweet upgrade. The new 274-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter would provide competition for the MazdaSpeed3, but would of course bump the price well over $20,000.

Shift feel tends to be a Hyundai-Kia weakness, and the Forte is no exception. Shift throws are long, and you’re clearly manipulating cables. Not awful, but also not a pleasure. The clutch takes up abruptly close the floor, and the engine stalls very easily, suggesting (with the willingness of the engine to rev) a relatively light flywheel.

The steering and handling are the best yet in a Korean compact, but still have a way to go to match the leaders. The steering is quick off center, and heavier than in the Mazda and Mitsubishi, but isn’t the most precise and doesn’t communicate the subtleties of the road surface. The 215/45HR17 Goodyear Eagle LS treads probably don’t help here. Body lean and understeer are restrained, but the suspension design (including a torsion beam in back) and tuning are less sophisticated than the Mazda’s and Mitsubishi’s. The ride can be choppy, especially on expansion joints, and the Forte feels less solid and composed over bumps. Though there are no glaring flaws, and the Forte is considerably more fun to drive than a Corolla or Cruze (which lacks a performance variant), that unspecifiable magic that melds driver and car proves elusive.

And the price? The 2010 Forte SX sedan lists for $18,190, which is about $1,500 less than the equivalent Mazda and Mitsubishi. So while definitely a good value, it’s not a steal. For 2011, the six-speed manual is no longer available in the sedan (if you want this combination, better snatch up the one I drove), but is standard in the new hatch. Compare 2011 model year hatchbacks—the Kia starts at $19,090—and the price difference remains about the same.

Kia hasn’t been in the sport compact game nearly as long as Mazda and Mitsubishi. The latter, after all, is currently working on the eleventh generation of the Evo, from which goodness trickles down to the Lancer. So it’s to be expected that the Forte can’t match the leaders in driving feel, even if it beats them on the spec sheet. There’s magic involved, and this magic requires years of practice. The Koreans have clearly started to put in the effort—the Forte SX might not be the best car, but it’s in the ballpark. If they keep at it, and the second-year tweaking suggests they will, they’ll get there.

The vehicle for this review was provided by Wayne Stempel of Summit Place Kia of Waterford, MI. Wayne can be reached at (866) 770-9552.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of vehicle pricing and reliability data

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42 Comments on “Review: 2010 Kia Forte SX...”

  • avatar

    I’m surprised at the roofline comment.  I found both the sedan and coupe to share headroom problems.

    • 0 avatar

      When you’re 6-9, sometimes even two more inches isn’t going to be enough.

      The higher roofline doesn’t entirely translate into more headroom. For the most part it’s used to provide more room in the rear seat, by repositioning the front seat forward and upward.

    • 0 avatar

      I should have been clearer: I found the coupe (I refuse to countenance Koup) had seats far too high off the ground, and I’m pretty sure the coupe isn’t any shorter.
      Yup, the coupe is a third of an inch shorter than the sedan on the outside.  Headroom is 38.6″ versus 40″ in the sedan’s favour, but I can’t figure out where that’s coming from, unless the moonroof is standard on the coupe.
      All the said, the chairs in this car don’t go down far enough.  I’m all for a tall seating position (for other people) but the option would have been nice.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not sure where you’re getting your specs. has, for exterior height:

      coupe: 55.1

      sedan: 57.5

      So, 2.4 inches. Of this, 1.3 appears to go to headroom, the rest to rear legroom.

      I’m a foot shorter than you, but as noted in the review also found the lowest seating position to be too high, especially in the sedan.

    • 0 avatar

      I see where I went wrong: has the specs posted incorrectly; it looks like they transposed a digit.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Psarhjinian,
      I’ve read your comments from all your post and I like your style. Your socialistic comments and arguments are spot on with the many who post on here and for most of the world. Simply put we (me) Americans want it all and when we finally get it we find a reason to not want it anymore or want it for much cheaper. I myself love a good deal and don’t stop until I feel like I am practically getting something for nothing. However, I think Kia is a serious contender for the future and I hope they prove themselves to be a true.
      Brilliant writing with a greater picture in mind as you describe the masses. Carefully but beautifully done.

  • avatar

    Would I be considered shallow if I say I like that color…a lot? That being said I like how the newer Kia’s are moving towards looking less like an amorphous blob and more like something I would like to drive (I’m thinking specifically of the first gen Rio and Sephia-or whatever their step-up car was). Now no I’m not an expert in design, I just know what I don’t like.

    • 0 avatar

      @tankinbeans: No. A nice colour really ratchets up the visual panache of a vehicle. And it helps you from getting cut off or lost in a sea of “Greige” in a parking lot.

  • avatar

    Hey, if you’re doing a series of sub-20K cars that are fun to drive, I’m not going to stop ragging on you until you mention the Subaru Impreza.
    170HP, AWD, and every non-turbo variant is under 20K. I think my 99 outdrives anything of the same era, but I’d like to see how the next one stacks up.

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry, missed this earlier. I probably should have mentioned the Impreza. I didn’t because:

      1. No sport variant is offered of the 170HP Impreza. The wheels on the 2.5i are “merely” 16s, no sport suspension, no sport trim, etc.

      2. It slipped my mind.

    • 0 avatar

      The wheels on the Mazda Miata are 16s, too, and it’s still considered one of the best sports cars made. Maybe Subaru is the only one who gets the point of a sports compact these days, and they don’t fit their economy cars with huge wheels because it would cost the owner too much to replace the tires. They have bigger wheels, as anything that fits the Legacy or Outback fits the Impreza, so it wouldn’t cost that much to put something bigger on.

      In terms of sports variants, I think the AWD and traditional firm suspension of a Subaru (Ask any owner about that, it’s brutal) would make it a “sports variant” in and of itself.
      Subaru slips a lot of people’s minds, and that has been their greatest strength. Before they all took hits off the crack pipe and ruined the Legacy, Subaru had one of the best lineups around, and excluding that fat blob Legacy, I’d say they still do.

  • avatar

    Agree that the Koup, as well as the upcoming 5-Door, look better than the pedestrian sedan.

    Kia should just forget about having their US-based engineers tune the USDM Forte.

    The Australian market Forte/Cerato 5-Door is getting rave reviews for both its ride and handling – in  no small part due to due to the adjustments made by Kia’s Aussie engineers.

    It seems like Kia’s US engineers should collaborate more w/ their Aussie counterparts.

    • 0 avatar

      I drove this car twice, once after a Scion tC drive and another time when I had the Lancer GTS. Both times the Kia didn’t feel as good to me, for the reasons noted in the review.

      This said, I think I read somewhere that they’ve tweaked the suspension tuning for 2011, but couldn’t find the possible source.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s why I suggested that Kia USA just do the same suspension tweaks as done for the Australian Cerato.

      But I guess we’ll just have to wait since you haven’t driven the 5-Door yet, which is the first to get the reworked suspension, as well as the updated transmissions.

  • avatar

    I do think it’s nice that while Hyundai is getting very swoopy Kia is going to be a bit more conservative and capture a different segment of the market.  It should keep the brands from intruding on one another.

  • avatar

    The problem with this car is that despite costing (well, listing) $19,000 and looking like a sport compact, it’s not a $19,000 sport compact.  It’s a $13,000 bottom feeder with high markup upgrades.

  • avatar

    Reliability of the Forte has been about average so far, based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey.

    To help with the survey, with just about any car:

    • 0 avatar

      Average reliability doesn’t sound all that promising.  Consumer Reports shows both Kia and Hyundai as having less-than-stellar reliability after five or six years, regardless of model.  I’m a part of the rare automotive buyer sub-group who won’t even look at a car to buy until it’s under $10K.  The Korean car makers haven’t yet proven themselves in long-term reliability.

    • 0 avatar


      I’m with you on not buying a car until it is sub-$10k (give or take a couple hundred). I tend to get bored with cars fairly easily and won’t pay full-price just to take it in the pants 3 or 4 years later with depreciation.

    • 0 avatar

      Even “drive it til it dies” people like me who keep cars 7yrs+ shoot for a $10K or less purchase price.

  • avatar

    Note to the Detroit 3 – see how Kia corrected the big interior problem after one model year?  Do that.
    I visited my local Chevy dealer this week to test drive a Chevrolet Cruze.  I waited 20 minutes inside and outside, but I could never get a salesman’s attention.  The two Cruze sedans that they had on the lot listed for > $22,000 and $24,000 respectively.  At this rate, the Koreans will give Chevy all the competition they can handle.  I predict there will be money on the hood of the Cruze very shortly.

  • avatar

    Sounds like you’re advice is to wait for next year.
    So I will.
    And hopefully the fixes along with the help from Hyundai’s 2.0 and new hatch will be enough to add it to my hatches to look at next year.

  • avatar

    That’s a clown shoe sized dead pedal.

  • avatar

    Its great that these cars come with bigger engines, that was not the case with compacts a few years ago.

  • avatar

    The Suzuki SX4 Sportback is available for under $20K. It has six gears, “performance all-season” tires (whatever that means), and Suzuki claims it comes with a sports suspension.
    It is way down on power compared to the Lancer GTS/Mazda3S/Forte SX group, although it is lighter too.
    Might be worth a look?

  • avatar

    Yes, Mike (can I call you Mike?) review a hatchback as soon as you can get one. The Forte you described has the feature set that I seem to like, and is one of the few Asian makes that I would consider.
    Not that I’m looking to buy a car right now, but I would really like something this size with a hatch, outside of Hyundai no one seems to make one (Don’t count PT Cruisers and other pseudo minivans). The Elantra Touring looks too old school wagon, I really liked the previous version (Elantra GT) better. I have a five piece Ludwig that I need to get to gigs, and the Sunfire GT is not a very friendly hauler.
    Chevy could count on a repeat sale from me if they bring the Cruze hatch to the US in a couple of years, but I seriously doubt that will happen.

  • avatar

    Karesh is an idiot and should only test kid’s toys.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark MacInnis

      Et tu, anti-flaming policy?  If you can’t say anything nice, please go somewhere else, mate.  I learn something everytime I read Karesh….

      In 10 words, you have defined the limits of your existence.  But try and have a nice day anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      You have learned something everytime you read karesh. That would make you pretty stupid.

  • avatar

    $20k will also buy you a base Hyundai Sonata with a manual transmission… save for small-ish tires on steel wheels, I found it to be a pleasant car with interesting styling and a terrific powertrain.  It’s certainly not short on headroom, front or rear.  You could probably save enough to add some aftermarket wheels and tires and still be under $20k (plus tax). 

  • avatar

    On this site, you are welcome to your opinion, but please don’t insult the reviewer or fellow posters.  There are plenty of other sites for that, but TTAC isn’t one of them.  Thanks,

  • avatar

    How about a 2010 Cobalt SS? You can find them new for under $20k asking price.
    The interior is well underpar for the class.
    260 hp in a sub 3000 lb well-sorted four door mostly makes up for it, if your emphasis is on sport.
    Reliability is slightly above average, gas mileage is around 25 mpg.

  • avatar

    Michael – I have a request for future test drives. When you review the new 2012 Ford Focus can you try all three suspension configurations (base, Titanium and optional titanium handling). I would be very curious to know if the base US suspension is the same as the Euro base suspension or is upgraded Titanium (or SE with Sports pack) suspension equal to standard Euro suspension.

    Ford have the 2012 Focus build/configuration tool up now. Very interesting all the permutations. Especially since Ford had moved away from offering lots of SKU’s to simplify inventory.

  • avatar

    All I will say this: the “Koup” version of this car is a very nice looking ride. I was down right shocked when I first saw one on the road, it might be the best looking Kia to date.

  • avatar

    @Michael – Does this have the same pain-in-the-ass fuel cutoff on the 1->2 and 2->3 shift that the rest of the Hyundai six-speeds (Genesis) suffer from, that causes power to momentarily die off under hard acceleration?

  • avatar

    I like to think of this car as the Cruze killer. 173 vs 138 HP with similar mileage figures. Fully loaded SX varient with transaction prices around where the Cruze LS automatic starts and that doesn’t even include cruise control because you can’t get that on base LS varients. Both have bland exterior sheetmetal but the Kia somehow looks a little smarter, especially without that stupid black C-pilar blank out on the Cruze. The Cruze interior looks a bit more upscale but the Kia manages to feel a bit roomier with a bit more back seat knee room and front leg stretch out space. Both cars come with ABS/stability control and plenty of safety features and both cars have telescoping wheels. The Kia also gets bluetooth and USB port as std vs extra cost on the Cruze. The Cruze doesn’t come as a coupe or hatch and doesn’t come with the frugal 14K package without A/C and power windows/locks for the college student looking for a new cheap car with a genrous warranty. Worse, the top line Cruze LTZ and loaded 2LT models with a few options can climb up to 24-25K which is where a Sonata turbo strarts out with 274 HP! Yikes I agree that the Cruze will soon see discounts on the hoods of those higher end models.

    • 0 avatar

      You make some valid points but I keep hearing this “buy a Sonata Turbo because it is cheaper than x, y, z”. That argument is valid not just against the cruze, but a top spec new 2012 Focus, a Regal, a BMW328, a Altima, a Camry V6, a Accord V6, etc etc. Essentially any car in the 20-30K range should be cross shopped against that almighty Sonata. But people want choice. Also some people are just stubborn how else do you explain people still buying aged Corolla by the boat load. It is an outclassed car in materials, styling (interior and exterior, fuel economy, driving dynamic, etc etc but people still buy it.

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