2014 Kia Forte

Since arriving on U.S. shores back in 1991, Kia has rapidly evolved from a purveyor of bargain-basement econoboxes into a stylish and fully modern brand that can compete with the best the mainstream market has to offer. Perhaps no model is as emblematic of Kia's progress as the latest Forte, a compact sedan that combines the value for which the automaker has become known with an attention-grabbing exterior design and a high-quality cabin.

Buyers looking for more practicality can also purchase the Forte in hatchback form, while aesthetes will want to check out the shapely two-door Forte Koup.

Completely redesigned for the latest model year, the new Forte sports some of the most expressive sheetmetal in the compact segment thanks to a rising beltline, a steeply-raked windshield and dynamic cab-forward proportions. Checkmark-shaped character lines and a shapely rendition of Kia's "Tiger Nose" corporate grille add a bit of tasteful garnish to the sedan's form, and swept-back headlights with optional LED strips complete the look.

Things are slightly more polarizing inside, with an asymmetrical design highlighted by "ripple effect" dashboard detailing that Kia says is intended to evoke wavelets radiating from a pebble dropped into a pond. Quirky details aside, material quality is more than respectable and the control layout is largely intuitive. There's class-leading legroom up front, and the outboard rear seats are roomy enough to hold average-sized adults.

The list of standard equipment is comprehensive, including power everything, Bluetooth and more, and upscale options like a ventilated driver's seat and a heated steering wheel add a premium feel.

The Forte offers Kia's new-generation UVO eServices infotainment system, which provides Bluetooth-based smartphone integration, streaming audio and voice command functionality for everything from placing calls to changing radio stations. It also includes vehicle diagnostics info and maintenance reminders, and lets users send Point of Interest info from Google Maps searches on their smartphone to the Forte's nav system, which itself offers access to Google Maps and Google Places.

For more information on UVO eServices, visit our Spotlight On: Kia UVO eServices in-depth article.

Powertrains and Handling
The Forte offers buyers a choice of two engines and two different gearboxes.

The entry-level motor is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder that produces 148 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 131 lb.-ft at 4,700 rpm. It sends power to the front wheels through either a standard six-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic gearbox. Fuel economy is rated at 25 city/37 highway mpg, while the auto fares a single mpg worse in the highway cycle.

Up-level Forte models feature a direct-injection 2.0-liter four with 173-horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 154 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,700 rpm. This mill shifts exclusively through a six-speed automatic and returns 24 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.

The sedan's suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts up front, a torsion-beam at the rear and coil springs all around - essentially the norm for the segment. An optional "Flex Steer" system allows the driver to vary steering effort between three different settings at the touch of a steering wheel-mounted button. Handling is safe and predictable, but not exactly sporty or engaging - those seeking a fun drive should probably look elsewhere.

Standard and Optional Features
The Forte sedan is offered in LX and EX trim levels.

The LX comes standard with power doors and locks, A/C, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo system with AUX and USB inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a trip computer, an outside temperature display, power-adjustable heated mirrors and 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps.

Optional on the LX is a Popular Equipment package adds 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless entry and a sliding front armrest.

The EX includes two extra speakers for the sound system, a backup camera, cruise control, fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, remote keyless entry, UVO, a sliding center armrest, a cooling glove box and 16-inch alloy wheels.

An available Premium Package for the EX brings heated front and rear seats, a 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat with air-cooled ventilation, leather upholstery, a power sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, push button start with a proximity key and a heated steering wheel.

Also optional on the EX is the Technology Package, which adds HID headlights, LED taillights, a 4.2-inch color LCD cluster screen and dual-zone automatic climate control with rear seat ventilation.

A navigation system is available as a stand-alone option on EX models.

Occupant Safety
All Forte models come standard with dual front, front side and full-length side curtain airbags in addition to stability and traction control systems and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Key Competitors
The Forte competes in a segment full of highly accomplished rides. If Kia's subcompact sedan isn't quite to your tastes, or if cross-shopping is task at hand, consider the Ford Focus and its European-flavored handling and interior, the sporty and fuel-efficient Mazda3 and the refined Chevrolet Cruze.