Meet the all-new 2010 Kia Forte, which replaces the Spectra as Kia's entry in the crowded compact sedan segment. Kia claims the Forte represents the New Age of Kia -- top-quality cars that can hold their own against Toyota, Honda and Nissan while retaining Kia's traditional value equation (translation: cheap prices). That's a pretty tall order -- can the Kia Forte really deliver, or is this just more marketing hype? Read on. Price range $14,390 - $20,535, EPA fuel economy estimates 22-27 MPG city, 31-36 MPG highway.
First glance: Promises, promises
When a second-tier automaker says they're going to build a first-rate car, I get all giddy inside, because I know that much hilarity is about to ensue. I've seen it before: Public-relations proclamations that this is the car that will launch them to the top of Consumer Reports' best-buy list and make Soichiro Honda roll over in his grave. The car turns out to be a noisy, tinny, plasticky piece of crap, and I get to write a knee-slapping review telling you not to buy it.
So when Kia said that the all-new Forte was going to give cars like the Corolla, Civic and Sentra a run for their money, I figured I could just sit back and let the jokes write themselves. Don't get me wrong -- I like Kia cars, but they aren't exactly keeping Toyota executives awake at night. A Kia that's as good as a Corolla? Comedy gold, my friends.
And then I drove the Forte...and it was a major disappointment. Not because it's bad, but because it's every bit as good as Kia promised it would be. Damn, I thought as I turned my first mile in the Forte, there goes my review.
Truth is, you could slap any one of a number of Japanese badges on the Forte -- Mazda, Nissan, maybe even Toyota if the light wasn't great -- and most people would believe it. It really is that good. The Forte is handsome, but not divisive; its feature list is long, but not excessive; its road manners are athletic, but not punishing. Like the best cars in this class, the Forte is solidly middle-of-the-road -- a major accomplishment from an automaker that has spent most of its time, metaphorically speaking, in the breakdown lane.
In the Driver's Seat: As good as anything else
Inside the Forte, the plastics, fabrics and carpets are as good as or better than those found in competing cars. The controls (link goes to photo) are simple, the instruments clearly labeled, and visibility is great. All Fortes get a height-adjustable driver's seat and steering column; only the top-of-the-line SX model get a telescope (in-and-out) adjustment for the steering wheel, but even without it I found the driving position comfortable enough. Ditto for the back seat -- I had plenty of room back there, and even with the front seat adjusted all the way back there was adequate space for my feet. The trunk is huge -- 14.5 cubic feet -- but the opening is small.
Being a Kia, the Forte is heavy on value. The base model costs $14,390 -- $1,825 less than the cheapest Honda Civic sedan -- and comes with stuff the Civic doesn't get, like a Bluetooth speakerphone, CD stereo with USB input jack, and electronic stability control. You can add air conditioning for $1,500, but a better deal is to spring for the $16,490 Forte EX, which comes with A/C, power windows, mirrors and locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control, a split/fold rear seat, and other goodies. (For those keeping score, that's $1,675 less than a mid-level Honda Civic LX, and the Forte EX is better equipped). Top of the range is the $17,890 Forte SX, which, like the $19,610 Toyota Corolla XRS, gets a bigger engine and a sportier suspension. Tick all the option boxes -- heated leather seats, moonroof, automatic -- and the Forte SX tops out at a reasonable $20,535.
On the Road: A tale of two engines
LX and EX models are powered by a 2-liter engine. Its output of 156 horsepower sounds promising, but its old-tech automatic has only four speeds -- which means frequent flooring of the pedal to get at the engine's power. There are two fixes: First, save a thousand bucks and get the five-speed manual; second, spend an extra $600 on the Fuel Economy Package, which includes a 5-speed automatic that provides more flexibility (and better gas mileage, to boot).
The Forte SX is a different story. Under its hood is an overachieving 2.4 liter 173 hp engine with either a 6-speed stick or a 5-speed automatic. The automatic leaps off the line with a neck-snapping jerk and jets ahead like a wannabe muscle car, but it was the 6-speed manual that really put a smile on my face, although I found the SX's stiffer suspension a bit jarring on bumpy city streets. LX and EX models ride a bit more comfortably, and all Fortes are decent handlers, offering lots of grip and good control of body roll.
What I like best about the Forte is that all versions come standard with a full load of safety features, including six airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control (ESC), a life-saving technology that reduces the chance of the driver losing control in a swerve or a skid. Honda only offers ESC on the priciest Civics, but it comes free on the Forte. Bravo, Kia! Another good deed: Both engines are available in Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) versions for California-compliant states, with only a slight drop in power output.
Journey's End: Good news for you, bad news for me
The 2010 Kia Forte is an impressive car that does the job just as well as mainstreamers like the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and Ford Focus. The Honda Civic's innovative interior and the Mazda3's long list of creature comforts put them ahead of the Forte, but both are significantly pricier. The Forte SX does even better against big-engine compacts like the Toyota Corolla XRS and Mitsubishi Lancer GTS -- it's more fun to drive than the Toyota and has a better interior than the Lancer.
The Forte's best rival is the Hyundai Elantra. (Hyundai is Kia's parent company.) Like the Forte, the Elantra has a roomy interior and long warranty, plus it's good to drive and a great value. But base models don't come with ESC, and the Elantra is as bland-looking as the Forte is attractive. Advantage: Kia.
Resale values are a Kia weak point, but the Automotive Leasing Guide (ALG) has set the Forte EX's 3-year residual value at 50% -- 15% better than the outgoing Spectra and only 3% and 11% behind the Toyota Corolla LE and the class-leading Honda Civic EX-L respectively. (Other Fortes range from 46 to 54%.) And Kia backs their cars with a great warranty -- 5 years/60,000 miles on the whole car and 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain.
Bottom line: The Forte is exactly what Kia promised -- a first-rate car that can run with its mainstream rivals. It may not be best in class, but it's far, far, far from the worst. That's great news for car buyers, even if it's bad news for us writers. -- Aaron Gold