The 2010 Kia Forte Koup wants to be a Honda Civic and it's pretty easy to understand why. The Civic has an image of fuel-efficiency that is supported by eye-catching styling and driving dynamics. The Kia Forte Koup so wants to be there.
Lots of cars have tried to become the Honda Civic — like the Chevy Cobalt, Mazda 3 and Scion tC — but Honda still sits on top of the sales pyramid. The Civic represented 339,289 sales in 2008, and when the recession began in earnest in June 2008, the Honda Civic was even the top-selling vehicle in the country.
But the 2010 Kia Forte Koup could change all that. It has the right look and the right driving dynamics. No challenger to the Civic has come with a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty like this Kia. No challenger to the Civic has ever come with standard Bluetooth and iPod integration like the Forte Koup. The Forte sedan will be the volume seller for Kia in this market segment, yet this 2010 Kia Forte Koup SX is not just the pick of enthusiasts like us but also the model most likely to really change the game for Kia.
Yes, we said "Kia" and "enthusiast" in the same sentence. And we did it seriously. Gone are the days when Kia was a dirty word in the automotive game. "Oh, you got a Kia. Sorry. Couldn't qualify for a loan on a Daewoo?"
The new Kia Forte has a laundry list of goodies that starts with standard Bluetooth phone compatibility and moves into standard USB/iPod integration — all the stuff you expect from cars from Korea these days. Yet it also includes hardware like the choice of two different engines, each with a choice of automatic or manual transmission, not to mention stability control and four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS.
This 2010 Kia Forte Koup SX is equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission ($1,000) instead of the standard six-speed manual, and for once we're glad to have a two-pedal setup. It's not that we've gone soft; it's just that in our First Drive of the 2010 Kia Forte, the manual transmission-equipped car proved to be tricky to launch, tricky to drive and otherwise impossible to live with unless you're a fan of frequent stalling. In comparison, the five-speed automatic is notable in two respects.
To begin with, 2nd gear winds out to a whopping 72 mph. This hyper-tall gearing means that every time you prod the 2.4-liter inline-4, you find a dead zone, a hesitation to respond. There's a brief pause as the engine fails to motivate the 2,919-pound coupe and then the transmission downshifts (often more than one gear), and the car sets off at last. The transmission is quick to shift and the programming is smart, but too frequently the process sends the 173-horsepower engine spinning wildly, and it sounds and feels like a blender full of smaller blenders full of speakers blasting white noise. As unpleasant as this can be at full throttle, top gear arrives very quickly during normal driving, so the engine loafs along below 2,000 rpm, which is its preferred state of being.
Stick it out through the unpleasantness long enough and the Kia Forte Koup SX will finish a quarter-mile run in 16.3 seconds at 85.8 mph. The 60-mph mark comes up in 8.4 seconds from a standstill (8.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip).
The second notable feature of the Koup's five-speed automatic is the shift action itself. There's an appreciable snick and thud as the lever clicks back through Reverse, past Neutral and into Drive and eventually thunks over to Manual mode. It's more like an Audi or a Mercedes-Benz than a Honda; it's that solid.
Koup de Grace
Mulholland Drive is one of California's super roads. It's famous and fun, tight and twisty, and spectacularly rough in places. This road is where reputations are made or broken. This is also where the 2010 Kia Forte Koup SX confused us to no end.
The steering proves precise and the feedback from the P215/45R17 Goodyear Eagle LS2 tires is excellent when this all-season rubber reaches the limits of adhesion. Trouble is, there is virtually no change in the feedback until grip is waning; there's no build-up in steering effort as you approach full lock, no lightness in effort at speed. There's a steady resistance that's effective, yet a little confusing.
What wasn't confusing were the overall driving dynamics. Solid. Precise. Well-damped. Grippy, even with all-season rubber. Fast. It takes a few warm-up passes through the corners to figure out just how well this chassis is dialed in. Off-camber, rough pavement, decreasing radius? It'll do it faster than any sane speed limit allows with virtually anyone at the helm. Each subsequent pass over the most challenging corners nets a higher speed, a higher confidence level and a higher respect for what Kia has accomplished here.
At our test track, without fear of police, deer or motorcycles, our driver chucked the Forte Koup through the slalom at 68.5 mph and buzzed the skid pad at 0.85g. It could be even better with summer performance tires. Of course, this aggressive suspension tune comes at a price, because there's plenty of road noise over broken pavement and sharp impacts are registered with a crash through the suspension.
Forte's Flown the Kia Koup
The 2010 Kia Forte Koup SX breaks some new ground in the way it looks, evidence of the money that Hyundai has poured into giving its performance-oriented division a distinctive identity that includes an elaborate design studio at Kia Motors America in Irvine, California. But there are some false steps here.
The style and energy expressed in the sheet metal never permeates the cabin in the way that Honda has properly stylized the interior of the Civic. It's the same bland design language we've seen from Hyundai and Kia before. The center console might be equipped with standard satellite radio, but its look leaves something to be desired. Buttons are large and clearly labeled and the HVAC knobs are where they should be; it's just that they don't feel good. Want to remind yourself that the Forte Koup is a cheap car from Korea? Adjust the air-conditioner or turn up the radio.
Even so, the 2010 Kia Forte Koup leaves us with the feeling that it is a significant leap forward for the Kia brand. No longer content to be the maker of cheap cars with great warranties, Kia has put together a world-class offering here. Every box has been checked: horsepower, warranty, standard features, fuel economy (23 mpg city/31 mpg highway). Even the rear seats are spacious enough for full-size adults. Plus the Koup wears sheet metal drawn by a former Audi designer.
Building a sound brand is harder than building a sound car. Reputations take time, and Kia's clock has just finally started ticking. So it's a little soon to anoint Kia as the new Honda. But when you're driving the 2010 Kia Forte Koup on Mulholland Drive, you can't help feeling that you've got a windshield full of Honda Civic in front of you and you're just about to pull out and pass.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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