Kia's compact Forte gains a four-door hatchback version for 2011. Along with a sedan and a coupe, buyers have three body styles to choose from, which is more than most competitors offer.
It's true that cars have gotten a lot better lately, but that doesn't mean they're all equal — and the compact-car segment illustrates this perfectly. There's a clear gap between the impressive redesigned Hyundai Elantra and the Toyota Corolla, a car that's fallen considerably behind the competition.
The 2011 Kia Forte is an acceptable, midpack small car, but as the compact class improves, it doesn't distinguish itself.
I tested two versions of the 2011 Forte: an EX sedan with an as-tested price of $19,040, and an SX hatchback that stickered at $23,685. To see how the Forte stacks up against some of its main competitors, click here. Or you can see how it fared in our compact sedan shootout.
I've liked the Forte's design since its 2010 debut. The car's crisp, clean lines give it an upscale appearance that belies its low starting price. A number of stylish competitors have entered the mix since then, including redesigned versions of the Ford Focus and Elantra, but the Forte's lines still hold up well.
Those same good looks carry over to the hatchback, which retains the creased design theme of the sedan and coupe. Finishing touches on our SX trim level included a small liftgate spoiler and 17-inch alloy wheels.
With the standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder, the Forte EX sedan is as quick as an Elantra, but the engine is noticeably coarser. For 2011, Kia replaced the previous year's optional four-speed automatic transmission with a six-speed automatic. The four-speed automatic was one of my chief problems with the car when I first reviewed it, but the new six-speed automatic just trades one problem for another.
Unlike the four-speed automatic, which was eager to shift into 4th gear, thereby sapping engine power, the new automatic stays in 1st and 2nd gears longer than a six-speed should need to — and longer than others in the segment do. As a result, you hear the raspy engine more.
The optional 2.4-liter four-cylinder quickly accelerated the SX hatchback. Like the sedan, the hatchback has a touchy gas pedal, which can sometimes overstate an engine's power, but kickdowns nonetheless produced a burst of speed. Most compact-car shoppers won't want for power with this engine, though it's just as coarse as the 2.0-liter four-cylinder I tested in the sedan.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder and the 2.4-liter four-cylinder get an EPA-estimated 26/36 mpg city/highway and 23/32 mpg, respectively, when paired with the automatic. Those are respectable numbers, but they've been surpassed by automatic-transmission versions of the 2011 Elantra (29/40 mpg) and the 2012 Honda Civic (28/39 mpg).
Ride & Handling
On the whole, the Forte offers controlled suspension responses, but bigger bumps can be jolting; the cabin shudders slightly when you hit particularly large ones. This is a firm-riding car, no matter if you're considering an EX sedan or an SX model like our hatchback, which comes with a sport-tuned suspension. The 2012 Civic does a better job of cushioning blows from broken pavement.
The steering, meanwhile, doesn't live up to the expectations set by the Forte's firm suspension. You expect it to be sporty, but in reality it doesn't do much to engage you. The Forte goes where you point it, but it doesn't encourage you to drive it hard. For the enthusiast-oriented compact-car buyer, the Mazda3 remains one of the best choices out there.
Interior quality has become a battleground in the compact segment, and you can see the results of manufacturers' efforts in the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, 2011 Elantra and 2012 Focus. Where a high-grade interior was once a way for an automaker to stand out from the rest of the class — like Volkswagen with its Jetta — it's now part of the price of entry.
While decent, the materials in the Forte are a half-step behind some of the newer competition, like the Elantra and Cruze, but the intuitively placed, logically designed controls help make up for that: It's easy to get in the Forte and understand all the controls after just a quick look around the dash. That might not seem like much, but the new Focus, for one, has stereo buttons that are hard to use.
Our EX sedan had nice-looking woven seat fabric, while the SX hatchback had an optional Leather Package with heated leather front seats that added $1,000 to the car's price. The front seats are comfortable.
The backseat offers more headroom for adult passengers than the Elantra, but the bench seat's thigh support isn't as good as you'll find in a Civic. Taller occupants will encounter limited legroom.
The hatchback body style increases the Forte's cargo-carrying capability, but not as much as you might expect. The sedan's trunk measures 14.7 cubic feet, while the hatchback has 19.4 cubic feet. Still, the hatchback — with its larger cargo opening and taller cargo area — provides a level of versatility versus the sedan that people like.
The 2011 Forte sedan earned 2011 Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, having received Good overall scores in frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests, as well as IIHS' roof-strength and whiplash-protection tests. The designation also demands that an electronic stability system be offered, and one is standard on the Forte.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tests, the Forte received four out of five stars in frontal, side-impact and rollover tests. Marring those results is a safety concern stemming from the side-impact crash-test results: During the test, the cabin door panel hit the torso of the dummy in the rear seat, increasing the chance of injury.
Forte in the Market
The Forte is a perfectly acceptable car, but being acceptable is no longer enough in the compact class, which is populated by overachievers. A look at the results of our recent Compact Sedan Shootout tells the story: The Forte placed fourth out of five cars. The Forte has only been around a few years, but it's already time for Kia to go back to the drawing board.
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