Kia Forte — Promising more than it can deliver

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(November 27, 2017) It’s been a while since we last dove the Kia Forte — the late 2013 launch program in Arizona to be exact — but we came away reasonably impressed with Kia’s small sedan. The sleek styling, capacious and well-appointed interior, low NVH levels, and decent fuel economy were enticing. However, the unresolved suspension damping, lifeless steering with similarly lifeless power assistance adjustments, and rear seat backrests that don’t fold completely flat tempered our enthusiasm.

For the 2017 model year, Kia has whittled the number of models available at launch — LX, EX, SX, Limited — down to a more manageable LX, S and EX, placing the sporty new S trim level between the two extremes.

It adds a sport-tuned suspension, 16-in. alloy wheels, front LED running lights, automatic headlights, rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tip, black cloth seat trim with contrasting piping, a soft-touch IP and upper door panels, leather wrapping for the steering wheel and gearshift knob, a 7.0-inch display screen, 3.5-inch driver’s display, and a drive mode select switch. That’s a lot of stuff for just over $20,000.

To this our test unit added the $1,490 Technology Package. It replaces the 3.5-in. driver’s display with a 4.2-in. color unit, and adds pushbutton start with smart key entry, auto up/down front windows, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, blind spot detection, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, LED turn signals in the outside mirrors, front foglights, front door handle pocket lights, LED taillights and hands-free smart trunk actuation.

It’s a good bit of kit for the money, but those of us in colder climates have to shell out another $2,500 for the Premium Package in order to get heated power front seats that go with an upgraded center armrest and sunroof.

But enough about that. Is the S sporty? In a word, no.

Thankfully, Kia jettisoned the  FlexSteer adjustable steering the car launched with, but more work is still needed. Though the steering wheel itself is quite nice to hold (and look at), it is connected to an electric power steering system that is lacking in feel and precision.

The same is true of the suspension, which dumps the previous “skyhook” damping for something stiffer. Unfortunately, the combined effect of a restrictive damping curve, a lack of coordination in the front to rear roll couple, and an annoying “hobby horse” bucking on the highway detracts from what could be a fun-to-drive small car.

The same is true of the 2.0-liter engine under the hood. It produces a credible, but not sporty, 147 hp and 132 lb.-ft, of torque, and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It is the same unit found in the entry-level LX, though that car offers the option of a six-speed manual transmission. You have to move up top the EX to get the direct-injected 2.0-liter and its 164 hp and 151 lb.-ft of torque, which would not be out of place in a car that supposedly has sporting pretensions.

This point is driven home by the fact that it is prudent, if not sometimes necessary, to toggle the drive mode select from Normal through Eco to Sport when accelerating onto the highway or trying to pull skin off pudding. Without it, this is a nearly nine second car from 0-60 mph, though the tall gearing does help fuel economy. We averaged 36 mpg in combined driving, but needed a light throttle foot to do so.

The 2017 Forte S isn’t a bad car, it’s just not the car the “S” designation promises. It is disappointing that, after three years, the Forte feels no more coordinated, precise or fun than it did at its launch, even though a lot of tuning has taken place. And that is the biggest disappointment.

The Virtual Driver