Kia Forte — Hitting all the right notes

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The compact sedan segment is loaded with good products — frankly, it's hard to make a bad purchasing decision these days — but there are standouts among the standouts. And the 2014 Kia Forte sedan is at the top of this exceptional class in terms of styling, a high-quality interior, standard and optional equipment, reasonable performance, and price.

The Forte competes quite well in its segment and we even recommend people in the market for a premium compact sedan such as the Buick Verano and Acura ILX check out the top-line Forte EX trim. The Forte stacks up well against those cars offering virtually all the equipment and amenities for several thousand dollars less.

Nothing against the Buick and Acura, both excellent vehicles. It's just that the Forte loaded up with available options for under $26,000 provides the same level of refinement and features.

We realize styling is subjective, but we think most people will like the new Forte look. 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 during an Arizona introduction were dressed in "Abyss blue." And our test car for a week of evaluation was — you guessed it — Abyss Blue.

The Forte's design is sleek 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 angled 10 degrees toward the driver. Fit and finish in the several cars we drove was excellent and materials were of top quality.

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

Here's a look at what makes the Forte at just over 25 grand the equal of the aforementioned Acura and Buick. Among standard and optional equipment are leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats, a ventilated eight-way power driver's seat with memory, heated steering wheel, keyless ignition and entry, xenon headlights, LED taillights, dual-zone climate control with rear seat vents, navigation, Kia's Google-powered Uvo voice-activated infotainment system with satellite radio and USB/iPod and auxiliary input jacks, cruise control, rearview camera, and sunroof. And for the luxury touch, there are puddle and door handle lamps.

All this might not matter if the sedan didn't perform as well as segment competitors. But it’s the driving experience that truly 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 found in the EX trim making 173 horsepower mated to a six-speed automatic. We found it very receptive to inputs whether surging from a stoplight or passing an aggravating slow driver.

For comparison purposes, the 2.0-liter has been measured from 0 to 60 in a very competitive 7.8 seconds and even more impressive the Forte will stop from 60 to 0 in just 117 feet. Fuel economy on regular gas is EPA-rated at 36 mpg highway, 24 city and 28 combined.

The Forte is not a sports sedan. But its handling capability is worth noting, and it is fun to drive in all situations including rural winding roads. Shifts from the six-speed automatic are so seamless that they are virtually imperceptible. And even at highway speed the Forte is amazingly quiet.

While we have dwelled on the top-line Forte, the entry-level LX starting price is a family friendly $16,700, and it will likely be the volume seller. It comes with considerable standard equipment and a 1.8-liter four-cylinder making 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque mated to the six-speed automatic. For those who like to shift for themselves, it can be ordered with a six-speed manual.

The Kia EX starts at $20,200. Our well-outfitted test car, which included both the Premium and Technology packages — both worthwhile in our estimation — carried a bottom line of $25,515 including destination charge.

The Forte will also be offered in hatchback and coupe formats for 2014. The interesting thing about the coupe in that it will come with an optional turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder making 201 horsepower.

Kia has a got a winner with the new Forte, which should appeal to a wide range of people including those shopping compact entry-level luxury.

Base price: $16,700; as driven, $25,515
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 173 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 154 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 179.5 inches
Curb weight: 2,837 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 36 highway, 24 city
0-60: 7.8 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic

The Good
• Head-turning styling
• High-quality interior
• Extensive list of standard, optional features
• Excellent fuel economy

The Bad
• Falls short of sporty

The Ugly
• Discounts may be hard to find