2011 Kia Forte SX 5-Door Hatchback

2011 Kia Forte SX 5-Door Hatchback 2011 Kia Forte SX 5-Door Hatchback
Short Take Road Test

It wasn’t so long ago that Kia was selling crummy Sephias and clunky Sportages to the double-coupon set. But the intervening years have proved that Kia and its parent company, Hyundai, are quick studies when it comes to meeting or exceeding industry standards. So when Kia benchmarks a car like the charismatic Mazda 3 five-door, as it seemingly did when designing its Forte hatchback, it’s no surprise when the result hits close to the mark. In this case, really close.

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, we imagine Mazda was blushing the first time it saw the rear end of the 2011 Kia Forte five-door. With its forward-raked backlight, roof spoiler, triangular quarter-windows, and similar C-pillar treatment, the Forte hatch is stylistically reminiscent of the first-generation Mazda 3. Indeed, even as the Kia’s kicky rear end is attached to the straight sides and beveled mug of the Forte sedan, it says “Mazda” to us far louder than “Kia,” and we’re not sure that’s an accident. But the Kia’s proportions seem even tidier than the Mazda’s, partly on account of the paring of more than seven inches of rear overhang from the Forte sedan’s silhouette.

A Little More Space, a Lot Better Access

Although more than a few C/D staffers would choose the Forte hatch over the sedan based on looks alone, increased cargo capacity and easier access to your stuff are in the pros column, too. The Forte five-door’s more capacious shape yields another 4.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats compared with the sedan’s 14.7-cubic-foot trunk, but the greater advantage is the hatchback itself, which of course allows the loading of bulky stuff that wouldn’t fit through a regular trunk opening. The hatch also has 60/40-split rear seatbacks and covered storage space beneath the cargo floor.

Modest Acceleration: A Tale of Two Transmissions?

The uplevel Forte SX sedan and hatchback come only with the larger of the Forte’s two available engines, the smooth but rather vocal 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. (A 156-hp, 2.0-liter four with 144 lb-ft powers Forte EX models, as well as the sedan-only LX base trim.) Unlike the auto-only SX sedan, the hatchback can be had with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, the latter with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters—a frill in this segment.

At the track, the Forte hatch automatic took a lengthy 8.9 seconds to hit 60 mph from rest and 16.9 seconds to run the quarter-mile, tripping the lights at 84 mph. Comparatively, the manual needed 7.5 and 15.9 seconds to accomplish the same tasks, and it bested the auto’s trap speed by 4 mph. No doubt the automatic is slow, but at least it doesn’t feel that slow, owing in part to annoyingly aggressive throttle tip-in. The manual is more fun, though, and its acceleration numbers are just a 10th or two behind those of a manual-equipped Mazda 3 hatch. Regardless of your transmission choice, though, there is little difference in fuel economy. The 2.4-liter is rated at 23 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway with the automatic, 22/32 with the manual. We achieved 25 mpg with the auto and 24 mpg with the stick in mixed driving.

Handling: Capable but Not Quite There

As noted in our prior drives of the SX sedan, the Forte’s chassis isn’t tuned for serenity. The hatchback’s MacPherson-strut-front and torsion-beam-rear suspension, combined with 17-inch wheels and low-profile 215/45-series tires, is set up for friskiness, and body motions are well controlled. The steering offers decent feedback, proving relatively satisfying during spirited runs on back roads, although its off-center quickness requires a lot of course corrections to maintain a straight line on the highway. Overall ride quality is decidedly firm and accompanied by unpleasant resonant booming.

On the skidpad, the Forte hatch’s maximum lateral grip came in at 0.83 g for both test cars, slightly shy of the sedan’s 0.86 g. Braking numbers from 70 mph for the two hatches are also similar, at 184 feet for the auto and 183 for the manual. But the SX sedan stopped in an impressive 169 feet, and that performance combined with the brakes’ early-onset grabbiness had us expecting better from the five-doors. Stir in the brake system’s touchiness, however, with the aggressive throttle and darty steering, and both manual and automatic versions of the Forte are a little tough to drive smoothly. The immediacy does impart a sporty character to the Forte, but it’s ultimately less polished and less satisfying to drive than the Mazda 3 five-door, which only challenges a driver’s smoothness with the numb clutch takeup of the manual models.

Packed Cabin

But what the Forte five-door lacks in dynamic refinement is perhaps made up for with creature comforts. Starting at $19,090 for the manual and $20,090 for the auto, the five-door Forte SX has everything from the $17,590 EX manual—including power windows and locks, keyless entry, a six-speaker stereo, and cruise control—while piling on SX-specific gauges, a telescoping steering wheel, “metal finish” interior accents, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Both test hatches carried the $1000 Leather package, which extends cowhide to the seating surfaces and adds front-seat heaters. The automatic car had the $1800 Tech package, netting a reasonably intuitive, voice-activated touchscreen navigation and infotainment system, as well as automatic headlamps, keyless start, and chrome door handles. Finally, each vehicle was optioned with a $750 sunroof, bringing the grand totals to a semireasonable $20,840 for the manual and $23,640 for the auto. It must be said, though, that one can get into any number of decently equipped mid-size family sedans for the same money as that of our automatic test vehicle.

But against its main competitor, the Kia lives up to its reputation for value. A Mazda 3 hatch equipped comparably to our auto car runs $26,440. Is the Mazda’s masterfully tuned chassis worth almost three grand? Likely not for your everyday compact-hatchback customer, especially if his or her shopping comparisons are limited to equipment rundowns. Factor in Kia’s superstar warranty, and the Forte hatch’s on-paper advantage grows, which should make life for Kia salespeople a little easier. Still, if you’re someone who loves to drive, the 3 is the way to go. In that department, this Kia is close but not quite there.

Update: This article now includes test results for the Forte SX manual, as well as the Forte SX automatic.