Cars

Kia holding the Forte to a higher standard

The 2014 Kia Forte EX interior features leather seats and trim, an attractive white-black-red gauge color scheme, and room nearing mid-sized vehicles. (Bill Griffith)
The 2014 Kia Forte EX interior features leather seats and trim, an attractive white-black-red gauge color scheme, and room nearing mid-sized vehicles. (Bill Griffith)

It’s happened fast.

Kia’s redesign of the Forte, a compact vehicle introduced in the United States five years ago, has produced a car that should compete successfully in a segment dominated by the likes of the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Mazda3, and Toyota Corolla.

Industry analysts have been telling us that high gas prices eventually would push Americans towards smaller sedans, coupes, and hatchbacks. However, they warned that successful small vehicles would have to be feature-laden to appeal both to older and younger buyers, people who are downsizing or who want the latest technology.

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Kia’s design and marketing teams seem to be working on just that page.

Where the original Forte was built on a formula that mixed affordability, lots of standard features, and a strong warranty, the completely redesigned 2014 edition adds to the package a better powertrain, increased economy, European-influenced styling, more standard features (including technology), and a more upscale interior.

Our test vehicle was the four-door sedan, which is now arriving in dealer showrooms. Both a five-door hatchback and two-door Koup will be introduced later this year.

The base LX has a starting price of $16,700 (including destination). The EX starts at $20,200. Our EX test car added 17-inch alloy wheels ($300), a $2,600 Premium Package, $2,300 Technology Package, and interior and cargo mats ($210), which pushed the bottom line to $25,610.

Standard features included traction control, stability control, hill assist, fog lights, heated and folding outside mirrors, LED “positioning” lights, an intuitive UVO infotainment system, rear camera, cruise control, keyless entry, leather-wrapped wheel, and Bluetooth wireless technology.

The Premium Package added a power sunroof, leather seat trim, a 10-way power driver’s seat with two memory settings, heated front seats and rear seat bottoms, an air-cooled driver’s seat, heated steering wheel, smart key with push-button start, and illuminated outside door handle indentations.

The Technology Package contains navigation with a seven-inch screen, HD radio, a driver’s information readout, HID headlights, LED taillights, and dual-zone automatic climate system.

In front, the LED running lights give the Forte a contemporary look as does the brand’s grille design, something that looks like a combination between a smile and set of airline wings.

The grille’s pattern of connecting ovals and circles is picked up in the fascia below the front bumper, and its black-and-stainless coloring is picked up in the design of the black and silver 17-inch alloy wheels.

Under the hood, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injection produces 173 horsepower and 154 lb.-ft. of torque and works smoothly with the standard six-speed automatic transmission. A manual is available (in the LX) with that model’s smaller 1.8-liter engine.

Our onboard computer told us we’d achieved 38.3 mpg on a 160-mile round trip from Newburyport to North Dighton. Overall, in a week that featured lots of conservative highway driving, a fill-up gave us 34.8 mpg.

Inside the passenger cabin, the driver’s seat had plenty of adjustments and sufficient support to leave me mobile after several 2.5-hour drives. Kia says the interior qualifies as mid-size, reflecting good use of the new Forte’s longer (1.2-inch) and wider (0.2-inch) dimensions. It’s also lower (0.6-inch), with a 5.5-inch ground clearance.

Instrument panel gauges are white-on-black with red needles, a pattern that’s repeated in the information readout between the speedometer and tachometer. There’s similar lighting in the navigation system, climate control, and auxiliary (time, temperature) readouts. That may be a small detail, but it gives the impression that there’s someone watching over the entire design process. So does the design feature that resulted in the center stack canted slightly toward the driver for easier viewing.

Leather seating, soft-touch dashboard materials, and curved shapes give the vehicle a good-quality look and feel.

On the road, the Forte doesn’t quite have the handling of a European sports sedan or even the new Ford Focus. However, the ride is comfortable with enough firmness to make driving secure and predictable.

A button on the steering wheel allows the driver to select three steering input settings—normal, comfort, and sport—for the electronic power steering. Normal was our choice. Comfort seemed to introduce some vagueness into the steering feedback. Sport was fine on a twisty road but a bit twitchy on the highway.

Perhaps the Forte’s biggest advance is in the area of noise reduction. Past models of Kia and its corporate cousins at Hyundai haven’t kept out road noise as well as their competitors. The Forte is notably quieter, indicating the company is making changes in this area, too.

Trunk space is listed at 14.9 cubic feet, more than enough to accommodate the normal suitcases, camera bags, computer bags, and miscellaneous gifts and groceries that go into our weekend road trips.

Forte slots in between the subcompact Rio and the mid-size Optima in Kia’s model lineup. The company says that ALG, an industry leader in forecasting residual values, predicts the Forte will retain a 64 percent residual value after three years.

Don’t be surprised to see a lot of them on the road.

2014 Kia Forte Sedan EX

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $20,200/$25,610. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: mpg city 24/36 mpg highway. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 34.8. Drivetrain: 2.0-liter I-4, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5 passenger, unibody sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 173. Torque: 154 lb.-ft. Overall length: 179.5 in. Wheelbase: 106.3 in. Height: 56.5 in. Width: 70.1 in. Curb weight: 2,837 pounds.

THE GOOD

Engine, fuel economy, styling, handling, interior space.

THE BAD

Rear defogger slow to clear rear window on a morning with particularly heavy condensation.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The redesigned Forte has completed the journey from start-up model to competitive-with-anyone status. ALSO CONSIDER: Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla.

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