Review: 2010 Kia Forte SX

review 2010 kia forte sx

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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3 of 42 comments
  • PeregrineFalcon PeregrineFalcon on Nov 05, 2010

    @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?

  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Nov 05, 2010

    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.

    • Mike978 Mike978 on Nov 05, 2010

      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.

  • Luke42 I like the Metris quite a bit, but I never bought one.Two problems kept me from pulling the trigger:[list=1][*]It was expensive for what it was.[/*][*]For the price they were asking, it needed to have a plug for me to buy it.[/*][/list=1]I wanted a minivan that could tow, and I test drove one and liked it. The Mercedes dealer stocked both cargo versions and conversion vans. It was a nice vehicle, and I really wanted one for a while.This is the inevitable fate of cars that I like, but don't actually buy.
  • Garrett I would have gone for one of these if it had AWD. If they had offered it, it could have done far better.
  • Michael500 Sorry, EV's are no good. How am I supposed to rev the motor to impress girls? (the sophisticated ones I like).
  • Michael500 Oh my dog- this is one of my favorite cars in human history! A neighbor had a '71 when I was a child and I stopped and gazed at that car every time it was parked outside its garage. Turquoise with a black vinyl. That high beltline looks awesome today!
  • ScarecrowRepair I'd love an electric car -- quiet, torque, drive train simplicity -- but only if the cost was less, if recharging was as fast as gas (5 minutes) and as ubiquitous. I can take a road trip and know that with a few posted exceptions (US 50 from Reno to Utah), I don't have to wonder where the next fuel station is, and if I do run out, I can lug a gallon of gas back.Sure I'd miss the engine sounds and the joys of shifting. But life is all about tradeoffs.