SEATTLE, Wash. -- Kia Motors is on a roll. It's going faster than a hamster in a running wheel. And that's not a bad thing.
Earlier this year, the South Korean carmaker introduced the Kia Soul -- an urban compact van that has grabbed the imagination of younger buyers. It's sharp, stylish and affordable.
Now it's rolling out something for these young buyers' parents: The 2010 Kia Forte.
Smartly outfitted and well-priced, the Forte may create a conundrum for typical compact consumers. The Forte LX starts at a mere $13,695, not including shipping. The mid-range model, the Forte EX, stays under the $16,000 and a nicely loaded SX model starts at $17,195. Crazy Eddie should do the commercials for Kia because these prices are "Innnnn-Saannnnee!"
Seriously, they're super low. Just look at what you get standard on the middle trim model EX for $15,795:
First, the technical side: There's the 156-horsepower 2-liter engine with multiport fuel injection mated to a five-speed manual transmission that will get you 25 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Then there's the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering, anti-lock brakes, traction control and tire pressure monitoring. All of this will give you a well-mannered car that feels a little underpowered and struggles on big hills but is otherwise a good ride. Personally, I prefer the manual transmission over the automatic, especially when driving small four-bangers, but most of America disagrees and will opt for the auto.
Driving the Forte around Seattle, I found it comfortable and agreeable on all types of roads. On the highway, it was quiet and handled the road well. On back twisty roads through Washington's steep mountains, it felt sure-footed and balanced. A well-tuned suspension provides taut handling on the top-of-the-line SX model, and the EX and LX still have responsive handling. Few commuter compacts have the word fun associated with them, but the Forte was fun. It's no Mazda 3 when it comes to performance, but it never was designed for that kind of driving. This is the car that can carry you through the daily grind, the working man's commuter.
Now I mentioned it feeling underpowered. This seemed to happen for two reasons. First, the automatic transmission is tuned to make the Forte as fuel frugal as possible. This may be good for your pocketbook, but it can sap the car's torque quicker than kimchi through a goose. Additionally, one of the vehicles I tested included Kia's optional fuel economy package. This will make the 2-liter engine stingier and includes a few other features such as motor drive power steering, silica tires and additional aerodynamic improvements. The end result is a combined 30 mpg or 27 mpg city and 36 mpg on the highway. Remarkably quiet
Some other notables for the Forte include a remarkably quiet ride for a compact and a lot of gizmos inside.
The same EX will come with air conditioning (something many smaller cars offer as options), satellite radio, USB and auxiliary jack to connect your personal music device, Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel controls (this is even standard on the LX), cruise control, dual 12 volt outlets and a host of other creature comfort features. Take on Kia's 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty and you've got quite a package.
This has to be one of the most loaded small cars on the planet.
Maybe Kia is trying a little too hard to impress customers. There's good reason for this: The Kia Spectra, the car that the Forte will replace. While I typically think it's better to keep the name of a vehicle and just make it better, I can see why the Spectra name was shelved next to so many left-over Spectra parts. It wasn't a good car.
So the Forte becomes the newest and most welcome member to the Kia family.
Like many popular compacts, the Forte tries to look stylish in a way that doesn't offend. It's well-defined but lacks any risk-taking in its overall look. The front end is simple and the sides have the most pronounced lines. There's more definition on the Forte than the Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra, but don't expect any of them to enter America's Next Top Model. Spacious and functional
Where the Forte breaks loose from the pack is inside the cabin, which is well-executed, functional and spacious. The steering wheel controls for the phone and stereo work flawlessly and it's very easy to get accustomed to all of these features. The front row is spacious with 40 inches of head room and 43.3 inches of legroom. The second row offers 37.8 inches of head room and 35 inches of legroom. It can easily carry five adults, though I wonder how the engine might respond to a 50 percent weight increase.
The trunk provides 14.7 cubic feet of space, which is enough room to put more than four golf bags back there. On one stop, I climbed into the trunk and estimated that I could fit at least two more of me -- I'm 6 feet tall -- back there.
Lots of compact cars have the excitement of a washing machine. They need to work every time the driver turns the key. They need to provide good gas mileage and stay on the road year after year. Some drivers don't have a passion for their ride; they simply need it to get on with more interesting parts of their lives. The Kia Forte could change some of their minds.
This compact is more than just a piece of transportation. It will take you from point A to B in comfort and style. When you arrive, you'll even have a little money left over to spend on something fun.
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2010 Kia Forte
Type: Five-passenger compact car
Engines: 2-liter or 2.4-liter four-cylinder
Power: 2-liter: 156 horsepower, 144 pound-feet torque; 2.4-liter: 173 horsepower, 168 pound-feet torque
Transmissions: Five- or six-speed manual; four-, five- or six-speed automatic
EPA gas mileage: 2-liter (w/ 5-speed manual): 25 mpg city / 34 mpg highway; 2.4-liter (w/ 5-speed auto): 27 mpg city / 36 mpg highway
Overall: *** 1/2
Exterior: Good. Sharper look than its replacement with stylish front end.
Interior: Excellent. Good grade of materials and well laid out cabin. Excellent amenities available.
Performance: Good. Engine feels slightly underpowered on the highway but has good road manners and excellent fuel economy.
Safety: Excellent. Full set of air bags and standard safety equipment.
Pros: Well priced and nicely loaded compact car.
Cons: Underpowered on hills.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor
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