Ok, so the new Kia Forte blatantly copies the Honda Civic. Not a bad choice considering Honda has been successfully selling compacts since the time when Kia was still building bicycles. Now that Hyundai has managed to reinvent itself as something more than a cheap Korean brand, Kia appears to be poised to do the same with the Forte and Soul. So does the new Forte bring the real deal, or does the compact car come off like a cheap rip-off?
The answer largely depends on your expectations. Just by looking at the Forte you may initially trick yourself into believing you are stepping into a Civic-like experience, which you aren’t. But those are mighty big shoes to fill. And in the end, particularly compared to what Kia used to be like, the Forte is still a decent alternative.
The Kia Forte is available in three trim levels, the base LX, the upgraded EX and the sport-trimmed top-of-the-line SX. The first two are powered by a 2.0-liter four continuously variable valve timing four-cylinder rated at 156 horsepower. Stepping up to the SX for the bigger 2.4-liter nets only a small increase to 173 horsepower, but unlike the LX and EX, which have only five-speed manual transmission and an optional four-speed automatic, the SX gets a six-speed manual and five speed automatic.
For the money, and with Kia all versions are pretty cheap, the differences between the SX and the rest is striking. Not only is it quicker, but shifting is smoother and the sport-tuned suspension is surprisingly upscale. The Forte is fitted with an independent front with MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar, plus a torsion beam rear with struts and coil springs. It very competently absorbs bumps and limits body roll on twisting roads. The SX version also gets bigger diameter front brakes, brake assist and brake-force distribution; technology often limited to more expensive models. Electronic stability as well as six airbags and front active safety headrests, are standard across the Forte range.
If you are going to take on the likes of Honda and Toyota, you have to to get fuel efficiency right, and the Forte does. EPA gas mileage for the 2-liter with 5-speed manual gets 25 and 34 mpg in city and on the highway. The more spirited 2.4-liter produces 22 mpg in city and 32 mpg in highway driving.
Like the Soul, the Kia Forte was designed in California, but unlike the Soul, the Forte was geared to appeal to a very broad swath of Americans; hence the Civic-DNA stealing.
At least it is a high quality copy. The Forte has a high rear deck and subtly creased and raised fenders meant to convey a sense that the car is in motion even when standing still. That description may be a stretch, but it is cleanly styled nonetheless. The Forte features a version of Kia’s new look front fascia with swept-back headlights. Its creased hood flows nicely into the A-pillar and there’s a subtle beltline that runs from the headlights to the attractive trapezoidal taillamps.
The base LX sedan has standard 15-inch steel wheels, while the midlevel EX model gets 16-inch alloy rims. The performance-oriented SX trim, with aforementioned sport suspension, has 17-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler. A sunroof is optional.
If you expect the Forte to be a big let down once you slide into the seats, you will be disappointed…happily so. Fit and finish is leaps and bounds better than the dark days of Korean automaking a decade ago. Interior ergonomics, where Honda and Toyota previously ruled, are at least as good in the Forte if not better.
The most prominent example is the available steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, that is class leading. As in, better than Honda. The base LX trim goes without even basic comforts like air conditioning, cruise control, and power windows and locks. The EX has all those features plus remote keyless entry, map lights and steering-wheel audio controls. The SX adds a telescoping steering wheel and cloth seats with red stitching.
With or without options, the interior is well designed. A large speedometer is centered between a tachometer on the left and the fuel gauge on the right. The front bucket seats are comfortable, with leather available in the model-topping SX trim line, and supportive lumbar support. Although it is marketed as a five-seater, like its competitors, the center rear seat is best left for emergency seating only. Regardless, the backseat is quite spacious for a compact car and can comfortably accommodate taller passengers.
The Forte comes with a full list of optionally available amenities, such as iPod, BlueTooth phone and MP3 player connectivity. The 14.7-cubic-foot trunk is sizable for this class, and it can be expanded by folding the 60/40-split backseat.
The best news is the price. The Forte LX starts at $13,695, pushes up to just under $16,000 for the EX, and starts at $17,195 for our preferred SX model. With the leather package and sunroof added, the SX is in the $20,000 range, making the Forte an excellent value.
If you can get over your preconceived notions of Kia and could care less about driving a Honda, the Forte is probably as much Civic as you need.