2014 Kia Forte

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. —The Kia Forte this spring will join the popular compact sedan segment that includes such vaunted competitors as the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra. This newcomer, based on our afternoon of driving in the Arizona desert, will be  a player.
Oh, hold on, wait a minute. You say the Forte isn't new to the segment, it came on board in 2010 as replacement for the forgettable Spectra.

Indeed, the 2010 Forte was a giant step for Kia, but the 2014 Forte is so much better in driving dynamics, styling and interior solitude that it deserves a complete reset, a do-over, if you will. It should give the brand a big boost in the crowded  compact segment when it arrives in showrooms in mid-March.

Most obvious, the Forte has been endowed with the new Kia design language and it works well, especially in blue. We know because all the EX trim-level cars provided for the Arizona introduction were dressed in blue. Based on the Hyundai Elantra platform, the Forte gets a sleek design of its own with the signature Kia "Tiger Nose" grille, broader shoulders than the previous version, sculpted hood and side panels and a steeply raked windshield. Its stance exudes confidence and athleticism.

Inside, the dashboard is conservatively handsome with easy-to-use controls and switchgear. An optional 4.2-inch LCD cluster offering scads of information sits neatly between the speedometer and tachometer. The center stack display is canted 10 degrees toward the driver.

Interior room is excellent for the segment. The Kia will accommodate about any size occupant up front, and leg room is adequate for two rear-seat passengers. The interior proved impressively quiet over both smooth and rough road surfaces in the Arizona desert.

Opt for the up-level EX trim and the owner will get virtually everything needed for the modern driving experience including full power equipment, air conditioning, satellite radio, steering wheel controls, Bluetooth connectivity, backup camera and a cooled glove box. Other available features are many including navigation, power heated and folding mirrors, heated steering wheel, xenon headlamps, heated and cooled front AND rear seats, dual-zone climate control — and for a luxury touch, puddle and door handle lamps.

But its the driving experience that puts the new Forte on a level playing field with the best the segment has to offer. We drove the optional 2.0-liter four-cylinder making a 173 horsepower mated to a six-speed automatic. We found it rewarding, very receptive to inputs from the right foot whether surging from a stoplight or passing an aggravating slow driver.

We did not drive the base 1.8-liter 148-horsepower engine, but figure it is on par with most competitors including the Honda Civic with its 140 horsepower and the Cruze, which sports 138. The smaller Kia engine also gets the six-speed automatic with a manual transmission available.

We would gladly pay the price of admission for the bigger engine. There obviously will be some sacrifice in gas mileage (EPA numbers have not been released) but we figure we'd sacrifice for the extra horses.

Prices have not been announced, but Kia predicts the base LX will start at under $16,000. Opt for a well-equipped EX will come in at under $19,000.

We think Kia has another winner with the new Forte, and now can make a grand re-entry into the compact sedan segment.

— Jim Meachen