By on September 7, 2018

Kia’s message to media assembled in Pittsburgh to sample the 2019 Kia Forte was simple – “Play It Loud.” The Korean brand’s been on a rock n’ roll kick for a while now, trying to play the feisty little sibling to Hyundai. Kia’s the one still on campus, partying it up, while Hyundai plays the part of the elder with the real job and the business-casual wardrobe.

Unfortunately for Kia, loud can be both good and bad. Zeppelin cranked to 11? Good loud. A four-cylinder thrashing under heavy throttle? Bad loud.

Refinement is often a little harder to come by in the compact class, and the new Forte serves as a reminder.

(Full disclosure: Kia flew me to Pittsburgh, put me in a nice hotel, and fed me several great meals. They offered headphones and electronic chargers I didn’t take. They also had journalists participate in a mini-games contest. Our team won, and I left the Bluetooth speaker we won behind.)

The new Forte is sleek looking, although some of the style elements appear borrowed – it is probably no coincidence that with Peter Schreyer holding high office at Kia, the Forte’s rump has some Audi A4 influence. Also, the front end reminds of Ford Fusion/Focus, at least to my eye – the grille being the main difference. Derivative or not, it’s a good looking little thing.

2019 Kia Forte

Inside, the Forte borrows A/C vents from the Stinger, but it also borrows the loathed-by-me tacked-on infotainment screen (pet peeve alert). Fortunately, the HVAC controls look clean and are easy to use. I also liked the rest of the control layout. I was a little more befuddled by the interior plastics, which sort of straddle the line between hard plastic and soft-touch.

That infotainment system includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard, which is a nice selling point. Kia claims that the Forte, not the cheaper Rio, is the entry point to the brand for many of its customers, so it makes sense that the company wants to give price-sensitive buyers an alternative to springing extra for factory nav and infotainment.

Underhood on all trims is the second-generation of the “Nu” 2.0-liter four-cylinder, now an Atkinson cycle unit with a cooled EGR system. You can still get a six-speed stick in the base model (#savethemanuals, eh?) but otherwise you’re getting a continuously variable automatic transmission that Kia calls an intelligent-variable transmission, or IVT. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to cut through the marketing speak and call it a CVT.

No sticks were on hand for testing, so I spent my day in and around Pittsburgh in a CVT-equipped car. Our route took us through West Virginia and Ohio, where the four-cylinder’s 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque, unchanged from last year, was challenged by hills.

At commuting speeds, the engine is nice and quiet, and the CVT well behaved. Jump on it to get around a semi on the freeway or get to the next corner quickly, and the underhood noises get a bit thrashy and loud. Acceleration under pressure is merely adequate. You want alacrity in a compact? Take a look at Honda’s Civic Si. Even in the livelier Sport mode, which changes throttle response, a little more get up and go would be appreciated.

2019 Kia Forte

Kia, like big sibling Hyundai, finally learned how to create steering that doesn’t suck. Sport mode livens things up a bit, and there’s a nice heft to the wheel when cornering. It’s no sports sedan, but it corners well, and it’s easy to drive quickly in a smooth manner. I never approached anything resembling “the limit” – who the hell would, on public roads, in a Forte? – but the car exhibits a bit of plow under more aggressive cornering.

Ride is on the stiff side. I credit Kia for exposing us to some of Midwestappallachia’s (I just made that up, since I can never figure out if Pittsburgh is Midwest, Appalachian, or East Coast) rougher roads instead of hiding any flaws by keeping us on only the best-paved roads in the region, but that exposure showed that Forte leans towards stiff over soft.

There’s three drive modes available – Comfort, Sport, and Smart, which blends the other two based on conditions and driving style.

2019 Kia Forte

I rarely beef about seats, but I encountered a little bit of discomfort towards the end of each leg, though headroom and legroom were plentiful. That said, the rear seat proved a bit more than adequate for my tall frame.

Pricing works as follows: $17,690 for the base FE trim with a stick, $18,590 for an automatic-equipped FE, $19,090 for a LXS trim, $20,190 for a Forte S, and $21,990 for an EX. All have an $895 destination fee, and EX buyers can pop another $3K and change for a Launch Edition package.

Standard features include 15-inch wheels, automatic headlights, daytime running lights, tilt and telescope steering wheel, cloth seats, dual-zone climate control, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, rearview camera, USB, Bluetooth, remote keyless entry, forward-collision avoidance, forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist.

Available features, depending on trim, include 16-inch wheels, 17-inch wheels, fog lamps, puddle lamps, dual USB, 10-way power driver’s seat, split-fold rear seats, heated front seats, cooled front seats, soft-touch dash, navigation, UVO infotainment, wireless phone charger, premium audio, push-button start, power sunroof, forward-collision avoidance (pedestrian), blind-spot collision warning, rear cross-traffic collision warning, smart cruise control, and reverse park-distance warning.

My time was spent in an EX that had just one option: $125 carpeted floor mats. Otherwise, it was pretty much full zoot, being the top trim and all. It was priced at $23,010 out the door. That’s less than a loaded Civic, and comparable to a top-trim Elantra.

2019 Kia Forte

The Forte struck me as both a bit sporty and a bit rough around the edges, and it’s true the latter sometimes accompanies the former. That doesn’t make it a bad car – in around-town driving, it defaults to the better behavior. Only when pushed does the roughness surface. Just like the party person – quiet and polite until he or she gets a few beers in them.

For the commuter, the Forte will work just fine – it’s not as refined as the Hyundai Elantra or well-rounded as the Honda Civic, but it fits the bill just fine otherwise.

Value pricing and good looks go a long way, and a bit of flair never hurt anyone, except maybe servers at Tchotchkes. All Kia needs to do is polish the powertrain, find some more ponies, and slide in some more sound-deadening material. The Forte will turn heads, so the key for Kia is to keep it interesting while sanding off some rougher edges.

After all, even the polished post-graduate can still party. Just in a more sophisticated manner.

[Images © 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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31 Comments on “2019 Kia Forte First Drive – Sleek, but Seeking Sophistication...”

  • avatar

    It’s pleasant enough looking, but so anonymous it could be almost any brand.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    Sounds fully competent but about as interesting to drive as a bowl of porridge with that 2.0 CVT combination.

    Looks really good, though. The VW/Audi influences give it a nice profile and midsize sedan proportions. It’s a very dignified way of motoring on a budget. No reason to even look at a Corolla, Cruze, or Jetta in my opinion, but I may still choose a Golf, Civic or Mazda3.

    Forte Sport w/ 1.6T and manual on the way?

    • 0 avatar
      Middle-Aged (Ex-Miata) Man

      RE: VW/Audi influences, the Forte’s side profile is what the 2019 Jetta should have been.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      That engine and tranny would work wonders. Kia is tight-lipped about future Fortes, as OEMs usually are regarding future product.

    • 0 avatar

      The Forte SX/GT will get the 1.6T w/ the DCT (probably won’t see the MT) and an IRS.

      Disagree w/ Healey (as have most reviewers) in that the new Forte is more refined (and more fun to drive) than the (non-Sport) Elantra overall.

      The major drawback is the old and under-powered 2.0 “Nu” engine.

      In due time, should be replaced by the new Theta III 2.5L – which should improved the NVH (other reviews have noted the thicker glass and added insulation along the transmission tunnel).

      As for the tablet style screen, it’s fine (and one of the better integrated ones). The reason why the tablet-style is so popular among smaller vehicles is that in-dash screens makes for a claustrophobic interiors due to the high dash.

  • avatar

    Unlike Ford at least Kia will still be producing cars five years from now. While Kia continues to score well in reliability surveys their cars will also improve. You can’t say the same about Ford.

    Ford and FCA will let just about every car maker in the world surpass them in car development. Even this average Kia will someday be beyond Ford and FCA’s design and engineering capabilities.

    Keep fighting GM you are all the America has now.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, when reading this review, all I could think about was “Ford SUUUCKKSSS and wind buffeting from a Fusion with its windows down proves it”. I assume everyone else was thinking the same.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        John T, take a deep breath; it’ll be OK. His sentence, “Even this average Kia will someday be beyond Ford and FCA’s design and engineering capabilities” displays his deep ignorance of an industry that manufactures small cars on a world-wide basis. Not sold in the US of A does not mean a company doesn’t know how to make one. Witness the Ford Mondeo in Europe and about a buh-zillion Fiat’s world-wide. Dearborn and Auburn Hills know EXACTLY how those small cars are made. I usually just ignore his blatant Anti-Ford bias because everyone is entitled to their own opinion; but this misstatement and his one about Consumer Reports saying Kia is the best car brand was just a bridge too far. Sorry about that ugly sentence. My EA has a master’s in English and heavily edits most of my work writing. A few of our commenters just say the same thing again and again. This site sorely needs approve/disapprove buttons.

  • avatar

    Still think the best thing in this class (assuming your budget doesn’t allow something like a GTI) is the Elantra Sport with the manual. It’s a solid driver, and you can pick one up around here for well under twenty grand.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “…instead of hiding any flaws by keeping us on only the best-paved roads in the region”

    As a local, I can assure you there aren’t any. Nice pics by PNC Park, but too bad you weren’t here for one of our 3 sunny days of the year.

    I’ve been a Kia partisan, but I didn’t know two things – that they adopted hideous tacked-on screens, and they’re now doing CVTs – yuk.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen reviews/comments about Kia thrashy engine noises before and I can attest to that. My 2014 Soul + with the 2.0 (Non-Atkinson cycle) has been getting louder and more clatter-ly as it ages (66k miles). It’s one of the reasons I’m looking to part with the car soon.

    Oh – and you’re right about the seemingly tacked on touchscreen placement. I too, get tired of the “Well, we gotta put the touchscreen somewhere” design approach

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Indeed. My grandmother has a 2014 Soul + with Navigation and some other addons. I drove it on the interstate once and it was noisy under cruise control, but when I accelerated, it had to downshift two or sometimes three times. The boxy profile doesn’t help either. Since I drive a lot on the highway/interstate, this would be a no-go for me.

    • 0 avatar

      Again, the tablet-style allows for a more “airy” cabin and for the screen to be more at eye-level.

  • avatar

    Amazing how much nicer that looks than the trying-way-to-hard Civic. But that touch screen is a total deal-breaker. Awful.

  • avatar

    Consumer Repots rates Kia as the most reliable brand. I still have not got over that shock. It did not take long for the Koreans to surpass Detroit.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      Reading comprehension is a wonderful thing: “Reliability has been on the rise, with Kia ranked third among brands.” It’s crazy when people have sources for what they say.

  • avatar

    Why can’t they design a decent screen integration. Once I got to this point there was no use reading any further:

    “Inside, the Forte borrows A/C vents from the Stinger, but it also borrows the loathed-by-me tacked-on infotainment screen (pet peeve alert).”

    The G80 has a nice dash, so I know they CAN do it.

    • 0 avatar

      The G80’s dash is kinda bland (while similar in style, the Cadenza’s dash is more modern looking).

      And there’s a reason why automakers tend to reserve in-dash screens for their larger vehicles.

      Note – Mercedes, Audi, etc . all use the tablet style format on their smaller models.

  • avatar

    Are those turn signals down there at bottom corners of the bumper? I noticed newer Sportages have been doing that. It’s really odd, but on a CUV at least the turn signals are more at eye level. These things are practically on the ground.

  • avatar

    (I just made that up, since I can never figure out if Pittsburgh is Midwest, Appalachian, or East Coast)“

  • avatar

    One of the cloudiest places in the country, apparently. Lots of overcast days. River and lake effects plus pollution? At least the shade helps cool things off slightly.

  • avatar

    It must be really frustrating to be a young car designer these days. I know that that school is long, tough and competitive. If I had just graduated from car design school, and cars like this Forte is what my boss wanted me to design, I’d be pissed! It’s a perfectly nice looking car, but there is not a single line on it that is original or new. We’ve been looking at this same basic profile for a SEVERAL years now.

    So not only is the styling bland, but the color of the car in the pictures is yet another variant of gray – just like a bazillion others on the road. And the interior is black – just like 99% of cars built these days. What ever happened to choice and personalization? I really do think that auto makers WANT us to NOT feel passionate about our cars like we once did; why else would they keep producing gray, bland, generic snoozemobiles like this?

  • avatar

    Still can’t comprehend how hideous this is. The old Forte was one of the best looking cars in its class, and this is just everything wrong with sedan design. It looks about 2 feet wide and 30 feet long, with awful cheap looking details all over it. It almost makes the Jetta and Civic look good by comparison. I don’t understand why anyone buys sedans, it just makes you look sad.

    The new hatchback won’t be terrible looking if it looks like the new Ceed, but the Elantra GT still looks better surprisingly.

  • avatar

    You know, if you are going to let the automakers spend several thousand dollars transporting, housing, and feeding you, you might as well take the swag home. I at least will not think any less of you, since I have no doubt a Bluetooth speaker is not going to sway your opinion of the car.

    As for the car, I am sure it will make a perfectly adequate rental.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    “it’s not as refined as the Hyundai Elantra”

    What does this mean? Aren’t the two cars platform mates—sharing all basic engineering and components? How can one be more refined than the other when they are the same machine?

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