Kia Forte — A player in the growing compact segment

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Overcoming the sales leadership of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla is about as close to impossible as anything in the automotive world.

The Civic and Corolla, both outstanding examples of what $18,000-to-$20,000 can purchase in optioned-out clothes, have been the runaway sales leaders in the compact segment for years. In 2008, sales of the Civic and Corolla totaled nearly 700,000. While sales are down for 2009, their percentage of the compact segment has not slipped. And nothing is going to change anytime soon.

There are some very good compact cars on the market, arguably as good as the Honda and Toyota. Included are the Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Rabbit and Ford Focus.

Add to that list the all-new 2010 Kia Forte.

What Kia hopes to do is carve out a profitable piece of the big pie, be competitive with the lesser lights and increase sales over its previous compact — the Spectra — by offering a well-made, fuel- efficient, big-warranty, low-cost vehicle. Success in this case will be measured by eventually beating Spectra’s 2008 sales of 68,000.

The Forte is better in just about every way including styling, which, arguably, is among the best in class. Styled at Kia’s California design studio, the Forte has an attractive front end with swept-back headlights and a creased hood that flows neatly into the A-pillar. A subtle beltline sweeps upward into a classy rear deck that features a spoiler effect. The taillights have an upscale look and would reside quite nicely on a much higher-priced vehicle.

We think a small, perhaps one-car family needing relatively inexpensive transportation — or any family desiring a reliable second car or a comfortable commuter car — will find that the newest Kia will fit their needs. It comes with two energetic, but frugal engine choices, an impressive list of standard equipment starting at $14,390, and long-term piece-of-mind warranties that include a 5-year/60,000- mile bumper-to-bumper and a 10-year/100,000-mile drivetrain. Roadside assistance is also included.

If you don’t want to shift for yourself, add $1,000 to any of the three trim lines — LX, EX and SX — to get an automatic transmission.

We are always impressed with an inexpensive vehicle when the standard- equipment list is long. Too many times prospective buyers lured by the base price of a model will discover to their dismay that “base” is exactly what they will get — a modern-day stripper. By the time they add on what they feel are necessities the “base” price has escalated considerably.

Not so with the Forte. Standard on all models including the LX are a 2- liter 156-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission, six-way adjustable driver’s seat, tilt steering wheel, four-speaker audio system with CD/MP3 player and USB and auxiliary audio jacks, Bluetooth connect-ability, antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control and a full compliment of airbags including side- curtain bags.

The fly in the ointment here is that most people, except perhaps in the very far north climates demand air conditioning these days. That’s a $1,500 option.

Move up to the mid-level EX for $2,000 more and not only will you get air, but also a full assortment of power equipment including windows, doorlocks and mirrors, and cruise control. Seems like a bargain.

The standard Forte comes with a very acceptable engine that we found up to the task of moving the car through all facets of daily driving. We never felt overwhelmed by traffic and never had a problem easily reaching merging speeds on the freeway.

That being said, our EX trim level edition came with what we think is a very worthwhile $600 Fuel Economy Package option that includes a 5- speed automatic in place of the standard 4-speed automatic and motor-driven power steering.

That surely adds at least slightly to performance and it allows the Kia to achieve 27 mpg in city driving and a commendable 36 mpg on the highway. Gas mileage with the base automatic is 25/34.

For those who desire a little more punch and who don’t mind paying a bit more, the top-line SX comes with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder making 173- horsepower. An SX we tested came with a really nice six-speed manual, a leather seat package and a power sunroof plus all the extras for a total of $19,490 including destination charges.

Kia says expect 0-to-60 times in the mid 8-second range for the 156- horsepower engine and upper 7-second range for the bigger powerplant.

We found the Forte had a comfortable ride, which should be expected in a family sedan, with predictable handling, confident braking and decent-feeling steering. This is not the car for carving up winding roads on the weekend, but buyers surely don’t expect to get a sports sedan when purchasing a compact family vehicle.

What the Forte will do is carve up parking lots. It’s extremely tight 33.8 turning circle makes easy work of gaining access to small openings in the mall lot and for a quick turn-around on side streets.

Inside, the driver will find clear, easy-to-read gauges. We like the satellite radio readout, which with the push of a button dispensed song title and artist. Kia will pick up the first three-months of the subscription.
We found the driver’s position good, and leg room both front and back were adequate. One of our usual rear-seat passengers had no problem finding leg room even with the front seat more than half way back on the track.

Trunk space is generous for a compact car measuring 14.7 cubic feet. It will hold two sets of golf clubs, but on our day at the course we decided to simply fold the rear seatbacks forward with the pull of a trunk handle to make storage that much simpler.

Our EX test car came with considerable standard equipment for a base price of $17,490. The fuel economy option brought the bottom line to $18,090.

While the sedan is currently the only body style, Kia will soon introduce a two-door version spelled Koup. Go figure. And for later introduction, Kia has hinted at a five-door hatchback. If it does arrive, that would be our choice.

While the Forte breaks no dramatic new ground it acquits itself quite well in all areas including impressive styling making it competitive with segment leaders.

The relatively low price, a laundry list of standard equipment including Bluetooth, a USB and auxiliary port and the long-term warranties make it even more attractive.

Base price: $14,390; as driven, $18,090
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 156 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 144 foot-pounds @ 4,300 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 178.3 inches
Curb weight: 2,740 pounds
Turning circle: 33.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.7 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 36 MPG highway, 27 city
0-60: 8.5 seconds (estimated)
Also consider; Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus

The Good:
• Attractive upscale styling
• Excellent fuel economy
• Long warranties

The Bad:
• Can get noisy on certain road surfaces

The Ugly:
• Four-speed automatic standard equipment