2019 Kia Forte First Drive - Sleek, but Seeking Sophistication

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
2019 kia forte first drive sleek but seeking sophistication

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.

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 ( 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.

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.

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.

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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2 of 31 comments
  • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Sep 10, 2018

    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.

  • R Henry R Henry on Sep 11, 2018

    "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?

  • Michael Eck With those mods, I wonder if it's tuned...
  • Mike-NB2 I'm not a Jeep guy, but I really, really like the 1978 Jeep Cherokee 4xe concept.
  • William I'm a big fan of 70s Lincolns. I really liked the 1980s Mark Vl. I thought it was very classy, and I never thought of it as a restyled Town Car. I did own a 1990 LSC, it was black over black leather interior. I loved the LSC as soon as they were introduced. I loved the sound of the duel exhaust, I thought it fit the car perfectly. I never had any problems with it. The 5.0 is a great engine, and never had any issues with the air suspension system. It had the the analog dash and I made good use of the message center. I highly recommend this Mark. The black paint and interior fit the car and me perfectly.
  • ChristianWimmer 1974 Dodge Monaco. I’m a nostalgic guy and want one of these so badly.
  • Zipper69 I got the form letter from Kia a few weeks ago and booked a time for the software update.Took around 1 hr 15 mn and you get free nifty stickers on the front door windows telling the thieves you are protected.