Competes with: Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta
Looks like: Classy Optima meets bad-boy Stinger ... and likes it
Drivetrain: 147-horsepower, 2.0-liter Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder mated to a new, Kia-designed continuously variable automatic transmission or a six-speed manual transmission
Hits dealerships: Later this year
Kia's redesigned-for-2019 Forte gets a more grown-up look and a more efficient powertrain that combines a refined version of its Atkinson Cycle base engine with a new, Kia-designed continuously variable automatic transmission — a combination of technologies more typically found in hybrids but now making its way to conventional cars. Debuting at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Kia estimates it will compete with mpg leaders among gasoline compact sedans by delivering 35 mpg in combined city-highway driving.
Related: More 2018 Detroit Auto Show Coverage
Like other redesigned compacts, including a new 2019 Volkswagen Jetta also unveiled in Detroit, the third-generation Forte appears aimed to deliver added appeal and value to compete in a market where the spotlight is being hogged by new SUVs.
The Forte will continue to be offered in three trim levels — LX, S and EX — "with the model line continuing to expand throughout its life cycle," Kia says, hinting at additional body styles or powertrains. (Corporate relative Hyundai has already added a higher-performance Sport model to its Elantra compact sedan lineup.)
The Forte's new exterior design combines a more upscale Euro-flavored look with elements of the sporty, fastback styling of Kia's new Stinger performance hatchback. The base of the windshield is moved back 5 inches for a longer hood, while the four-door coupe roofline stretches to the rear to accentuate the sportier proportions. But the new Forte doesn't just look longer — it is, by 3.2 inches for an overall length of 182.7 inches.
The Stinger influence extends to the headlight design and shape (projector lights, with LED available) and a more sculpted hood. In addition, the Forte gets a new, more refined version of the Kia "tiger nose" grille. A high beltline makes the roof look lower, while a high side character line extends from the headlights through the LED taillights and across the trunk lid. The front bumper has large, deep vents lending a lower, wider appearance, a design echoed in the sculpting of the rear bumper.
The interior has a cleaner, horizontal design for the dash that also shows hints of the Stinger and includes similar round, spoked air vents at the corners. The clean design adds to a feeling of space in the cabin, and materials upgrades include more soft surfaces at key touch points. In addition to the greater length, which adds legroom to the new car, the 2019 Forte also is nearly a half-inch taller, adding some headroom, and 0.7 inch wider; trunk space is increased to 15.1 cubic feet, up from the 2018 model's 14.9 cubic feet.
The standard 8-inch touchscreen sits high, tablet-style, in the driver's line of sight. The design still keeps some useful physical controls grouped cleanly at the base of the screen. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration are standard, and a wireless charging tray for compatible Android and newer iPhones is optional. Available premium audio is a 320-watt Harman Kardon system.
Under the Hood
The big news under the hood — good or bad, depending on your view of mileage-boosting CVTs — is the new Kia-designed transmission. How well this CVT has been executed is an evaluation that will have to wait until we get our hands on one. Current compact-sedan CVTs range from pretty good, as in volume models of the latest Honda Civic, to dreadful.
Kia estimates the 2019 Forte will deliver a 35-mpg combined fuel-economy figure, which would be a gain of 3 mpg from the 2018 EPA rating — putting it in a mileage league with compact sedan leaders, such as the Civic, as well as the Eco version of Kia corporate sibling Hyundai's Elantra (which uses a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic), and it would pass the CVT-equipped Toyota Corolla. Compare those 2018 EPA ratings here with the 2018 Forte. Official 2019 Forte EPA ratings will be announced closer to the launch.
Kia says it also has moved to limit some of the downsides of a CVT, including wrapping the transmission in a sound cover to reduce the characteristic "drone" noise that a CVT can have. The automaker says it also has tried to give it a more conventional-transmission driving feel with a chain-type drive belt, as well as artificial shift points under harder acceleration. A six-speed manual also will continue to be offered; it is standard only for the base 2018 Forte, with automatic optional.
Kia says the engine is a second-generation version of the Forte's Atkinson Cycle 2.0-liter four; output ratings are the same at 147 horsepower and 132 pounds-feet of torque. Handling improvements include a 16 percent-more-rigid body structure, and a tweaked suspension and steering.
A backup camera is standard for the 2019 Forte; a package of driver assistance and safety is available at extra cost. Optional features include a blind spot warning, lane keep assist, a forward collision system with automatic braking and adaptive cruise control.
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