Back in the spring of 2009, Kia finally got serious about fielding a competitive compact car when it introduced the Forte.
Fast forward just a handful of years later to today and Kia is flexing its muscles with yet another new Forte. The move is as much symbolic as anything else, since the outgoing Forte wasn't quite ripe for replacement. Enter the thoroughly new 2014 Kia Forte.
Forte part deux
Designed to appeal as much to a consumer's emotional desires as his or her rational instincts, the Forte trades its predecessor's chop-topped coupe and upright sedan style with a longer, lower and wider view more indicative of a playful attitude. Broad shoulders and a hockey stick-style trim line along the window sill are only part of the refined look that finally puts the Forte in line with its siblings like the smaller Rio and the bigger Optima.
More slippery than the model it replaces, the 2014 version has improved aerodynamics that yield a 0.27 drag coefficient versus the 0.29 Cd rating of the old Forte. Beneath that svelte shame is a stiffer and stronger platform than the outgoing car as well.
Three trim levels start at what's estimated to be a class-competitive $16,000. Load up a Forte and you'll gain access to high (for the segment) tech like an air conditioned driver's seat, approach (proximity) lights and LED front accent lighting. Value, it appears, is still part of the equation at Kia.
Department of the interior
The new Forte's new look includes a driver-centric cockpit, with the business side of the dashboard canted 10 degrees towards the driver. Our tester included the optional power heated and ventilated driver's seat, but we think the front passenger deserves some love, too. By the way, the bolstering is none-too-shabby, keeping us in place while testing the twisties in Arizona. Kia claims class-leading front legroom, but we were able to survive in the rear seat as well.
Kia engineers have taken an aggressive approach to NVH countermeasures. We found the Forte extremely quiet for most road-going situations with the exception of periods involving rapid acceleration, where the engine lets you know it's at full roar.
The South Korean automaker has a history of shaking things up, and they are attempting to do so again with the new Google-powered UVO eServices system. Designed to disrupt the industry, it offers in-car entertainment and services, free of charge, for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Using an owner's smartphone, it integrates with existing services and an available navigation system. Downloadable maps and Siri-integration will come at a later date.
It also utilizes a smartphone-based 911 Connect feature to alert the authorities upon airbag deployment.
The power station
For 2014, Forte offers two engine choices. The LX is equipped with a 1.8-liter, 148 horsepower, 131 lb-ft. of torque four-cylinder with multi-port fuel injection and a choice of six-speed manual or automatic gearboxes.
Other models, including the ones we sampled in the mountains outside of Phoenix, include an upsized 2.0-liter four-cylinder with more sophisticated direct injection. Rated at 173 horsepower and 154 lb-ft. of torque, it is only available with a six-speed automatic that does include a manual-style gate.
EPA figures haven't been announced, but they should best the outgoing model's 27/37 mpg rating.
Both engines feature Kia's version of variable valve timing and a new lightweight intake manifold.
The suspension is a tried and true but lightly updated version of the McPherson Strut front end with coupled torsion beam rear geometry at the rear. The steering is now electrically assisted and features an optional FlexSteer mode that allows the driver to change resistance as desired.
Drive time in the Forte had us pleasantly surprised when compared to the outgoing model. No slouch in its own right, its increase in performance was met with noticeably improved engine noise unless the Forte was being asked to really exert itself. However, the tires did tend to transmit a fair amount of road noise up into the cabin.
Power was quite good for a compact vehicle. The Forte's 2.0-liter offered plenty of scoot and was more than sufficient for a vehicle that tips the scales at 2,857 lbs.
When the road turned twisty, we tapped the steering wheel-mounted FlexSteer button to select between normal, comfort (light resistance) and sport (heavy resistance) modes. At best, the differences were subtle, though we preferred the slight increase in heft in sport mode, which worked reasonably well with the nicely-tightened suspension.
That was about the only subtlety that we found on a car from a company not entirely known for being subtle. This, at the end of the day, is a key reason for their success.
Leftlane's bottom line
The competition hasn't rested on its laurels and neither has Kia. A few quick-change tricks and some that go much deeper have resulted in a Forte that is, once again, every bit as relevant as its competitors.
In a field that includes class acts from Ford, Chevrolet, Honda, Mazda and Kia sibling Hyundai, that's praise indeed.
2014 Kia Forte base price, $16,000 (estimated).
Words and photos by Mark Elias.