2010 Kia Forte

2010 Kia Forte 2010 Kia Forte
First Drive Review

If the world of compact cars were a baseball lineup, the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic would be the meat of the order, the third and fourth batsmen. They boast home-run sales numbers, long lists of features, and nearly peerless reliability. In short, they are the compact superstars. How does the all-new 2010 Kia Forte stack up? Will it join them at the top of the order or will it be relegated to hitting ninth like its predecessor, the Spectra?

It doesn’t hurt that Kia has endowed the Forte with style, power, and technology, items all conspicuous by their absence in the afterthought-ish Spectra. Designed in the company’s California studio, the Forte is now the best-looking car in its class; it especially stands out when viewed in person. The styling doesn’t make you want to tear your clothes off or anything, but subtle details like the upswept side-window line (that’s also good for front-side visibility) and the tasteful new corporate grille help the Forte stand out against competition that looks weird (Civic, Nissan Sentra) or coma inducing (Ford Focus, Corolla).

A Good Assortment of Powertrain Options, Standard Equipment

There are two four-cylinder engines available in the Forte. LX and EX models are powered by a 156-hp 2.0-liter; the top-spec SX uses a 2.4-liter that makes 173 hp. Four transmissions are on offer, depending on trim and option package. Standard across the board are five- (LX and EX) or six-speed manuals (SX). The LX and EX automatic has four forward ratios, unless you opt for the EX Fuel-Economy package, which nets the same five-speed automatic offered on the SX. Kia claims the 2.0-liter will be good for 0-to-60 jaunts in the eights and the 2.4-liter in the sevens, but it will leave the final measurements up to us. We’ll let you know how accurate Kia’s broad-stroke estimates are as soon as we get a chance to strap test gear onto the Forte.

The 2.0-liter returns 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway with the five-speed auto in the Fuel-Economy package and 25/34 when paired with either of the two other transmissions. The larger, 2.4-liter four achieves 22/32 with the six-speed manual and 23/31 with the five-speed auto. These numbers basically fall in line with those of the Corolla and Civic, although the Forte achieves its fuel-economy figures while using more powerful engines. For example, the 22/30-mpg Corolla XRS uses a 2.4-liter four like the Kia, but it has only two more hp than the base Kia engine. Workaday (nonhybrid, non-Si) Civics use a 140-hp, 1.8-liter four.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Kia if it didn’t offer value. A Forte LX starts at just $14,390, whereas the base Civic and Corolla both ring it at just over 16 grand. Besides $1700 or $1800 in their pockets, those who opt for the Kia will find Bluetooth phone connectivity with steering-wheel controls, Sirius satellite radio, USB and auxiliary input jacks, four-wheel disc brakes, and stability control among the standard features. These items are extra-cost options or require jumping to a higher trim on most competitors, if they’re available at all. For example, stability control is standard only on the top-spec Corolla, and the Civic requires you to get navigation if you want satellite radio.

The Forte EX begins at $16,490 and the SX at $17,890. Kia sees the EX as the volume model, and its standard features list includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; steering-wheel audio controls; two tweeters for the stereo; more stylish exterior mirrors; and the world’s largest fuel gauge. The SX gets larger front brakes, 17-inch wheels, and fog lamps and adds telescoping to the standard tilting steering wheel. The roughly $600 EX Fuel-Economy package adds electric steering (all others use hydraulic assist), a “smart” alternator, low-rolling-resistance tires, the five-speed auto, and aero enhancements. Other optional packages for the various models include things like bigger wheels, a sunroof, and leather seat trim.

Equipment Is Nice, but How Does It Drive?

In terms of numbers and equipment, the Kia is very strong, but for enthusiastic driving it’s . . . not. Our first experience was in an SX equipped with the six-speed manual. Beyond the larger engine and the equipment mentioned above, the SX adds firmer springs, bigger front brakes, retuned shocks, and a larger front anti-roll bar. It felt somewhat tighter than an EX we drove later, but the sum of all that equipment wasn’t something we’d really call sporty. Turn-in was fairly aggressive, which was nice, but the tires and the suspension seemed to give up by midcorner, where the car would begin to plow like it was the start of planting season. The numb steering required too much correction to maintain a line in corners and to stay in a lane on the freeway. The six-speed manual wasn’t particularly fun, either, with a vague clutch and notchy shifter.

Believe it or not, we actually were more satisfied with an EX with a four-speed automatic. This segment isn’t about barn burning; it’s about inexpensive, comfortable, roomy, inoffensive, and—increasingly—stylish cars, and those are precisely the Forte’s strengths. With the smaller engine and the automatic gearbox, the Forte didn’t invite aggressive driving, but that’s all the better to enjoy the spacious and well-appointed interior and airy greenhouse. The ride is relatively supple, and the car welcomes simply sliding it into drive and cruising.

The sedan is the only body style for now, but Kia will soon introduce the poorly spelled Forte Koup two-door. The company also hinted that a five-door Forte hatchback could happen, which we would welcome for the increased utility, but we have to say that the sedan’s 14.7-cubic-foot trunk is plenty big. It’s roomier, in fact, than that of the BMW 750Li.

The Forte won’t be displacing the Honda and Toyota sluggers from the heart of the batting lineup, but we’d be happy to have it hit second, the place for solid and trustworthy—if not spectacular—players. (The Mazda 3, we think, would hit leadoff, where speedy agility and consistency are most prized.) This new Forte is a worthy contender and offers tremendous value; it should help Kia snag market share in this crucial segment. It’s too bad the Forte isn’t more fun to drive; a car that’s a solid triple could have been a home run.