The 2010 Forte is an all-new compact sedan from Kia, but if you've experienced Honda's Civic, the car will seem very familiar, both in the way it looks and — in some respects — the way it drives. Taking aim at the Civic isn't a bad move at all, since it's one of the leaders in its segment in terms of sales, refinement and execution.
Having said that, there remains room for the Forte to improve, particularly where its optional four-speed automatic transmission is concerned. When you take everything into account, though — gas mileage, refinement, standard safety features and starting price — the Forte is a credible value-oriented alternative to familiar names like Civic, Corolla and Focus.
Going & Stopping
I tested a midlevel EX trim with the base engine, a 156-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and found it to have plenty of power for around-town and highway driving — even with four adults onboard. This engine offers good gas mileage with either the standard five-speed manual or available four-speed automatic — 25/34 mpg city/highway, regardless of the transmission — but Kia also offers a $600 Fuel Economy Package for automatic EX models that boosts gas mileage to 27/36 mpg, thanks to enhancements like a five-speed automatic instead of a four-speed, plus low-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic improvements. Assuming gas is $2.50 a gallon and that you drive 12,000 miles a year, it would take about 8.5 years to recoup that cost based on the EPA's combined mileage ratings.
|Compact Sedan Gas Mileage|
|Base engines and transmissions (city/highway, mpg)|
|2009 Honda Civic||26/34||25/36|
|2010 Toyota Corolla||26/35||26/34|
|2009 Nissan Sentra||24/31||26/34|
|2010 Kia Forte||25/34||25/34|
|2010 Chevrolet Cobalt||25/37||24/33|
|2009 Ford Focus||24/35||24/33|
The Forte's base engine is spirited, offering good power even at higher vehicle speeds, where some engines start to fade, but the optional four-speed automatic it teams with is a downer. Its problem is not one of shift quality, which is smooth and refined, but rather its eagerness to upshift to 4th gear. This keeps engine rpm low — for lower noise and higher mileage — but also robs the four-cylinder of power. Even when cruising at just 30 mph, the transmission would be in 4th gear. It wasn't always easy to make the transmission kick down into a lower gear. Doing so requires a deep prod of the gas pedal. Buyers looking for more power can step up to the SX trim, which has a 173-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
The four-speed automatic's gated gear selector includes a clutchless-manual mode, which gives you the option of controlling gear changes yourself. It was useful for keeping the engine out of 4th and instead cruising along in 3rd to improve engine response, even if it hurt gas mileage.
Ride & Handling
The Forte offers taut ride quality that's similar to the Civic's. You know when you're driving over rough patches because you can feel the car reacting to it, but the suspension provides enough damping. With three other people along for the ride, the car rides notably smoother, and even with the additional passenger weight the suspension didn't bottom out on bigger bumps. Take the car up to interstate speeds, and it still feels poised.
One of the benefits of the Forte's firmer suspension is that body motions are well controlled when cornering, which makes you feel confident when driving it hard. When you are cornering, however, the steering system isn't very inspiring, as it doesn't offer adequate feedback. If you're looking for an engaging compact car in this class, the Mazda3 is a better choice, but its starting price is higher.
Considering that the Forte costs less than most of its competitors, you might cut it some slack if its cabin weren't quite up to snuff, but you don't have to — its interior quality rivals the better examples in this segment.
The dashboard makes use of mostly hard rather than soft-touch surfaces, but the plastic has nice graining and isn't excessively shiny, and the trim pieces meet snugly together. There's really nothing to remind you that the Forte is a value choice in its class.
Like the Civic, the Forte can be optioned with upscale features like heated leather seats. Seat comfort is decent, but the tilt-only steering wheel forced me to reach forward too far once I'd adjusted the seat where I wanted it. (A tilt/telescoping steering wheel comes only in the top, SX trim level.) Also, the heated seats have only one level — on — as opposed to a range, or the typical low and high settings.
For a compact sedan, the Forte's backseat is accommodating for adult passengers. You wouldn't call it roomy, but it provides enough space to carry your friends or go on a double date without making those riding in back ornery. There's tolerable legroom thanks partly to the flexible backsides of the front seats, which give a little when your knees touch.
The Forte comes standard with six airbags, including side curtain airbags. It also has an electronic stability system, an important safety feature designed to prevent the driver from losing control of the car on slippery roads. For a full list of safety features, visit the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
The Forte's trunk measures 14.7 cubic feet, which makes it one of the largest in its class. Lifting the trunklid reveals a good-sized opening. A 60/40-split folding backseat is part of a $1,500 Convenience Package available for the base LX model, but there's no separate charge for it on EX and SX trims. It incorporates a folding center armrest. With the seat folded, there's a slight ledge of about 3 or 4 inches between the trunk floor and the backs of the folded seats.
Forte in the Market
Compact cars are appealing to budget-conscious shoppers for lots of reasons. Their sticker prices are among the lowest on the market, and their smaller engines tend to get better mileage, which saves money down the road. There was a time, however, when choosing an economy car meant forgoing some of the comfort and refinement offered by larger models.
Those times are mostly gone, as evidenced by models like the Civic and Mazda3. Higher prices, however, come with these cars' premium outlook. That leaves an opening for a refined car like the Forte, which costs less to start and likely will remain affordable thanks to its generous warranty, which includes 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage. In the end, the Forte should help you keep more money in your pocket, and isn't that what we're all trying to do?
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