Our 2010 Kia Forte SX falls into step with Seattle's afternoon gridlock. The compact sedan's 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine quickly becomes a necessity during all our last-second lane changes. And, sure enough, all four of the front-seat cupholders can accommodate micro-roasted coffee in 16-ounce recycled paper cups.
Somehow we don't think the Spectra, predecessor to the 2010 Kia Forte, would have blended into Seattle's coffee culture. It wasn't quick or refined, and didn't have the panache to make inroads with a caffeinated, left-of-center crowd.
Although our 2010 Kia Forte SX looks like a Civic from the front, there's confidence behind its clean lines and crisp detailing. It's a grown-up compact car penned by an A-list designer, Peter Schreyer, once of Audi but now of Kia.
If you think high style has no place in budget transportation, don't bother telling Kia. Schreyer and the Forte are part of the Korean automaker's grand strategy. Everybody's market share is fluid right now, so if you sell an otherwise respectable economy sedan, like say the 2010 Kia Forte, and it has attractive, cool-kid sheet metal, well, you just might have the next Mazda 3 on your hands.
Feel My Forte Already Kia reports that its new Forte sedan has caused a stir in focus groups that compared it against its compact-class competitors. Actually, says Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors America, Kias usually do well in focus groups — but only in blind tests.
"Normally, for the Kia brand, as soon as you take the tape off the badge, consumers are like, 'Oh, no, we don't want that!' This was the first time in our history when consumers said, 'That is still the No. 1 vehicle.'"
Still, Kia worries that you might be prejudiced against the Spectra name, perhaps associating it with ratty, 1990s-era Sephias. "The Spectra name didn't really mean anything to people," Sprague says. "We're trying to signal to the marketplace that Kia is reinventing itself, and to do that, we felt we needed a much stronger name for this vehicle." Conveniently, "Forte" connotes strength.
In reality, the 2010 Kia Forte is not radically different from the outgoing Spectra in size or focus. It has a 104.3-inch wheelbase like the Hyundai Elantra, but whereas the Hyundai has a multilink independent rear suspension, the Kia Forte uses a torsion beam, along with struts in front. The Forte's 61.3-inch front track and 61.6-inch rear track give it the widest stance of any economy sedan in the U.S., though it also has some of the widest wheels and tires, with 17-by-7-inch alloys and P215/45R17 rubber fitted on the top-of-the-line SX model.
In keeping with the new name, Kia's compact sedan also has a stouter structure. Its unit body incorporates 63 percent high-tensile steel, enhancing rigidity without piling on pounds. An overdue switch to aluminum-block engines also helps control weight.
Two Engines, Four Transmissions Yes, the 2010 Kia Forte can be had with either of two engines à la Mazda 3. The base 2.0-liter inline-4 is rated at 156 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 144 pound-feet of torque at 4,300 rpm (or 154 hp and 139 lb-ft for PZEV states).
This 1,975cc engine is part of the new Theta engine family and thus related to the 2.0-liter in the Mitsubishi Lancer and Dodge Caliber (indeed Hyundai did the primary engineering for this powerplant). The 2.0-liter is standard on base Forte LX ($14,200 base price) and mid-range Forte EX ($16,200 base price).
A five-speed manual or (for $1,000 extra) a four-speed automatic transmission drives the front wheels. That is, unless you check off the Fuel Economy package option (add another $600) for the Kia Forte EX, which upgrades you to a five-speed automatic, while mandating low-rolling-resistance tires, electric power steering, a "smart" alternator that runs only when the battery needs charging and aero enhancements that infinitesimally enhance the sedan's 0.29 coefficient of drag.
Only the 2010 Kia Forte SX ($18,100 base price) gets the 2.4-liter engine. The SX ends up weighing over 100 pounds more (2,853 pounds total), but the 2.4 compensates with 173 hp at 6,000 rpm and 168 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm (165 hp and 161 lb-ft, respectively, in PZEV form). Also, your front wheels can be driven by either a six-speed manual or the five-speed automatic.
Serious About MPG Mediocre fuel mileage made the Spectra tough to justify as commuter transportation, but this won't be a problem for the 2010 Kia Forte. With the Fuel Economy package, the Forte EX earns a 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway EPA rating -- the highest of any non-hybrid, non-diesel sedan in this size class.
All other LX and EX models get a respectable rating of 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway, although you'd think Kia would just use the five-speed automatic and electric power steering across the board to pump up mpg in anticipation of rising CAFE standards.
"Electric steering assist is more expensive than using hydraulic power steering," says Fred Aikins, director of product planning for the Forte and Soul. "We've got the steering feel so that it's pretty much indistinguishable between the two, so it's primarily a cost issue. With the five-speed automatic, that again has to do with cost, as well as the current production capacity of five-speed automatics."
Mileage falls off a bit on the 2010 Kia Forte SX, but you'd be hard-pressed to top its rating of 22 mpg city, 31-32 mpg highway in any car with a large-displacement four-cylinder engine.
6 Speeds, 666 Ways To Stall
Until the Forte Koup arrives later this summer, the SX sedan is the sportiest Kia Forte you can get, thanks to its better engine, better transmissions and sport-tuned suspension with firmer springs, re-valved dampers and bigger front antiroll bar.
But you wouldn't know that from the car's sluggish throttle response, which combines with the six-speed gearbox's abrupt clutch engagement to make even the most enthusiastic manual-transmission holdout regret his choice.
If you can avoid stalling the engine as you leave the stoplight, you'll find the 2.4-liter turns out to have a pretty nice power band with useful midrange torque and a smooth delivery. There's not much going on at the top end, though, so you'll likely reach for the next gear before the redline at 6,500 rpm. But quick gearchanges aren't really possible in the 2010 Kia Forte SX, as the engine hangs onto revs while rocking around in its soft mounts. Kia says the Forte SX will run to 60 mph "in the 7s." We expect a very abusive launch will be required and we're not sure we want to be there.
We also get some time with a Forte EX sedan with the four-speed automatic and find this combination even less to our liking, as excessively tall gearing blunts whatever oomph the 2.0-liter four might have to offer.
In either case, the five-speed automatic is probably the more livable choice.
More Toyota Than Mazda We're pretty happy with the 2010 Kia Forte SX's compromise of comfort and control on the freeway. It has the most sophisticated ride quality of any Kia to date, its compliant suspension seeing us over all manner of ruts and dips without fuss.
But even with a sport-tuned suspension and fairly low-profile P215/45R17 Goodyear tires, the Forte SX is more notable for its body roll than its cornering precision. The car doesn't seem interested in carving up a back road. Its hydraulic-assisted power steering offers reasonable weighting, but little feedback.
Three iPod-Ready Trim Levels It's hard to make those dynamic complaints stick, though, when you pore over the standard features list. Prices haven't changed much from the 2009 Spectra, but you're getting more stuff.
The base Forte LX is still a stripped-down sedan without air-conditioning, power accessories or cruise control. For 2010, it gains four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, stability control, Bluetooth, satellite radio (three months of Sirius), and auxiliary and USB ports.
Forte EX and SX models have all of the above, plus access to a leather package ($1,000) with heated seats. A sunroof is available on the SX for $600, but costs $800 on the EX, which also picks up alloy wheels. Only the 2010 Kia Forte SX gets a telescoping steering wheel.
Harman International has already developed an Infinity system for the Forte with a claimed 360-watt amplifier and nine speakers. But Kia hasn't decided whether to make it a factory- or port-installed option, so it's not available right now. Nor is a factory navigation system.
Calling the 2010 Kia Forte an ordinary car is not the slam it appears to be. The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla have mostly been ordinary cars, remember.
Still, Kia's newest compact sedan shouldn't be embracing ordinariness. As a commuter car, it's adequate. But its drivetrains are so thoroughly tuned to minimize fuel consumption and emissions that there's not much of a driving experience left to enjoy. This is especially true of the 2010 Kia Forte SX, which looks like a Mazda 3 s rival on paper but goes all limp as soon as you goose the throttle.
For an undemanding few, the 2010 Forte SX's uncommon fashion sense and huge price advantage over the Mazda 3, Lancer GTS, Corolla XRS and Nissan Sentra SE-R might offset these annoyances.
But to us, $19K is still $19K. We'd like to see Kia make some drivetrain adjustments, rather than whip out the value card.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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