Thumbs Up: Exceptional value, remarkable build quality
Thumbs Down: Automatic transmission has pointless manual function
Buy This Car If: You’re looking for the best bang for the buck in a five door hatch
Let’s say you’re in the market for a five door, compact hatchback. Chances are good that you’ll shop the new Ford Focus, and you’ll certainly look at the VW Golf. If you like driving and want sharp handling, you’ll add the Mazda 3 to the list; live somewhere where winter is a factor and you may add the AWD Toyota Matrix or Subaru Legacy as well. Chances are good that your shopping list won’t include the Kia Forte Hatchback, and that‘s a shame since you’d be missing a valid contender for compact hatchback supremacy.
First, let’s be clear about what the Kia Forte isn’t. It doesn’t compete in the hot hatchback segment, because it really can’t come close to matching the performance of cars like VW’s GTI, Subaru’s Impreza WRX or Mazda’s Mazdaspeed3. If you’re looking for a car with lots of aftermarket support, and dozens of vendors selling aftermarket parts, the Forte isn’t for you. It probably won’t bring home any autocross trophies, although it would be amusing enough for the occasional track day.
Instead, the Kia’s strength lies in its content and value for the money. My SX tester came equipped with a surprising amount of content, including a leather interior, a navigation system, a sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, solar glass, Bluetooth integration, automatic climate control and keyless entry. I could go on, but you get the point: the car is fully optioned out, yet the sticker price was under $24,000. Opt for a little less luxury (like cloth seats, no nav system and no sunroof) and the Kia Forte SX just tops the $20k mark when you add the $695 destination charge.
The Kia’s styling is conservative and tasteful. The car doesn’t scream “fast and furious,” but it doesn’t say “early dinner at the Old Country Buffet,” either. Like the Honda Civic and the VW Golf, the Kia Forte’s exterior styling is likely to appeal to drivers in any demographic. Up front the Forte wears Kia’s trademark wing-shaped grille, trimmed in chrome. Front fenders carry a subtle bulge that blends into the doors, which are given definition by sculpted bottoms that blend into the rocker panels. Blacked-out B-pillars and window trim add a sporty feel to the car, as does the black lower fascia in the rear. You may not be passionate about the Forte’s lines, but chances are that you won’t dislike them, either.
Inside, the Forte SX nudges over to the sporty side, but that’s not a bad thing. Front seats have a reasonable amount of side and hip bolstering, and the red stitching on dark gray seats gives a sharp contrast. Don’t expect complicated powered seats or adjustable lumbar support in this price range, but the Forte’s seats are plenty comfortable as is. If you live where it gets cold, you’ll be glad to know the front seats are heated.
Rear seats give a surprising amount of headroom and a decent amount of legroom. You’ll have no problem fitting two average-sized adults back there, and they aren’t likely to complain about comfort on even moderately long trips. There’s not much in the way of bolstering for the rear seats, but we’ve already warned you – the Forte isn’t a sports car. Unlike other cars in this price point (the Hyundai Elantra sedan, for example), the Kia Forte’s rear seats are not heated.
The rear seats do fold flat for maximum cargo versatility. Seatbacks fold down in a traditional 60 / 40 split, but the rear seat bottom also swivels up to create a flat loading surface (which makes the Forte a good choice for dog owners). Like most compact hatchbacks, the Forte gives you a surprising amount of room with the seats folded flat. No, you won’t be hauling full sheets of drywall or plywood in the car, but a trip to your local warehouse club or home center shouldn’t pose much drama.
The Forte’s dash isn’t as flashy as some other models in Kia’s lineup (like the Optima), but it’s attractive and functional nonetheless. Hard plastic is kept to a minimum, and most of the dash is a nicely textured soft-touch vinyl. The center stack is defined by dark aluminum trim, and the integrated navigation system also serves as the interface for the audio system. The separate displays for the time, temperature and climate control settings are a nice touch.
Instruments are minimal and limited to a tachometer, a speedometer and a fuel gauge. The speedometer gets trimmed with a glowing red ring, which is meant to make the dash appeal to a younger demographic, I suppose. It’s an odd styling cue, since glowing red on an instrument panel is rarely a good thing from my perspective. Rounding out the display is a trip computer screen, located at the bottom of the speedometer.
Kia Forte SX models benefit from a larger and more powerful engine than base models. In SX trim, buyers get a 2.4-liter, four cylinder engine good for 173 horsepower and 168 foot pounds of torque. The only option is a six speed automatic transmission (for Forte hatchbacks, at least), and it suffers from the same malady as all Hyundai and Kia transmissions. Select a manual shift mode, and the transmission won’t allow you to carry a gear to redline; in essence, there is no “manual” feature for the transmission, even though the car comes equipped with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. Zero to sixty comes up in just under nine seconds, proving again that the Forte’s strength isn’t in running from stoplight to stoplight at maximum velocity. The EPA rates the SX model at 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, and I saw an estimated 24.3 mpg in mostly city driving.
Behind the wheel, the Kia provides a higher entertainment value than you might expect, helped by the sport suspension. Despite the nine second zero to sixty time, the car feels quicker and more nimble than the numbers indicate, and changing direction is done with little drama. Push hard in a corner and there’s surprisingly little body roll; the car tracks flat until the front tires announce that they’ve lost traction. Even heavy braking failed to make the car nervous, and I’ll admit to being impressed by the Forte’s feedback behind the wheel. It may not be a hot hatch, but it isn’t a boring hatch, either.
My loaner 2011 Kia Forte SX had a base price of $20,090, including a destination charge of $695. Options on my tester included the $1,000 Leather Package (leather seats, heated seats, auto dimming rearview mirror), the $750 Power Sunroof and the $1,800 SX Technology Package (navigation system, push button start with smart key, auto climate control, chrome door handles), for a total sticker price of $23,640. For comparison, a comparably equipped Ford Focus Titanium would sticker at $25,850 and a similar VW Golf 2.5L would sell for $22,235, but isn’t available with navigation unless you step up to a TDI version. If you’re in the market for a five door hatchback, don’t overlook the Kia Forte; it’s a solid contender in the segment.