Take a look at the sales charts, or better yet, the roadways of America, and you'll see that those crafty car brands from South Korea are banging out hits like Bieber and Gaga. First Hyundai turned itself around, going from crappy cars to respected rides and giving Honda a reason to look over its shoulder. And now Hyundai's Kia division is following suit, only with a greater emphasis on the fun stuff. The 2012 Kia Forte SX five-door is the latest example of how this carmaker is hitting all the right notes, putting out another entry that should chart high on the consideration lists of savvy shoppers.
The Forte five-door (or Forte hatchback, if you prefer) is a new addition to the Forte lineup. As a hatchback, it offers passenger room similar to a sedan but with greater cargo capacity within a smaller, easier-to-park footprint. Sadly, Americans tend to look down their noses at hatchbacks, envisioning them as the vehicular poster children for the generic "economy car." But to our collective eye, the Forte five-door looks rather sharp, more like something you'd see in Europe, where even upper-level nameplates offer hatchback body styles.
Overall, the Kia Forte SX five-door is pretty easy to live with, given its solid performance, solid build quality and welcoming cabin that can be outfitted with a number of unexpected yet practical luxury features. Driving enthusiasts may be pleasantly surprised at this Kia's athletic handling chops, while those looking for a plush ride may deem the SX's sport-tuned suspension too firm. As such, we'd recommend cross-shopping the Forte SX five-door with the Ford Focus hatchback, Mazda 3 hatchback and Volkswagen Golf.
With the SX trim, the front-wheel-drive Forte boasts a 173-horsepower 2.4-liter inline-4 — an engine size and output you'd likely expect from a midsize car, not a compact. Teamed with an automatic transmission with no fewer than six speeds, you'd also probably expect it to have performance that's notably superior to other compacts. Unfortunately, not so much. At the test track, the Forte SX's dash to 60 mph from a standstill took 8.8 seconds and the quarter-mile arrived in 16.6 seconds at 83.7 mph. These are respectable numbers, but not much quicker than the Ford Focus and Honda Civic.
In the real world of city traffic and open freeways, however, the Forte's power is more than adequate and its cooperative automatic is an ally, providing swift downshifts when needed and holding gears when it should. And although the engine can get a bit noisy when you floor it for maximum thrust, it's quiet enough during normal acceleration and relaxed at higher freeway speeds. Indeed, at 70 mph the engine is turning just 2,100 rpm thanks to that tall 6th gear. Braking is also commendable, with a firm, progressive pedal and a good stopping distance from 60 mph of 122 feet.
Running through the winding canyon roads of Malibu, the SX was fun to fling around with its quick, precise steering, generous grip and well-planted chassis. We can say without pause that this is one of the more enjoyable compacts out there. At the track, the Forte turned in a strong slalom run, threading the cones at an impressive 68 mph.
Fuel economy, however, proved disappointing, likely due to the automatic's sporty programming, which proves surprisingly eager to downshift in response to your throttle foot's request for more power. Against the EPA combined estimate of 26 mpg, we averaged 23.4 mpg. When you consider that our long-term Buick Regal Turbo is averaging 23.9 mpg, that's disappointing.
Those up front will find comfortable seats, though given the Forte SX's sporty bent and handling ability, we'd like a little more lateral support. And though most staffers appreciated the sporty steering wheel with its leather wrapping, a few felt the leather must have come off an elephant given its somewhat rough graining. Everyone appreciated the powerful air-conditioning during a few days when temps were in the mid-90s.
The rear seat is high enough to provide ample under-thigh support, and generally well-shaped. It also offers an impressive amount of space for this segment; sit in the back of a Mazda 3 and then jump into the Forte and you'll see what we mean.
Given the SX's bias toward sporty handling, its suspension expectedly serves up a ride that's on the firm side, perhaps too much for some folks. But those who prefer cars with a sharp feel behind the wheel likely won't mind at all. The cabin is fairly quiet at freeway speeds, with minimal wind and engine noise intrusion.
All the Forte's instruments and controls are easily read and used. The climate control uses the foolproof three-knob layout, while the radio has similarly tried-and-true volume and tuning knobs. The audio system also features standard iPod integration that's a no-brainer to use and the system kicks out clean and full sound. Another standard nicety is Bluetooth with automatic phonebook download (a time-saving feature that is not necessarily standard with every Bluetooth-equipped car). The available keyless entry/ignition is one of those things you quickly appreciate and wonder how you did without, while the Forte's navigation system proves intuitive to program.
We do have a few high-tech gripes, however. One is the annoyingly loud "beep" that is sounded in acknowledgement whenever you're using voice commands, while the other is that said commands are not always understood and thus require you to repeat yourself (especially if you have a strong Boston accent).
Installing a rear-facing child safety seat in back is relatively easy, thanks to the Forte's roomy rear quarters and relatively large door openings. It will expectedly require you to move the front passenger seat up quite a bit, however, thus limiting that seat to shorter folks. The hatch's spacious cargo area easily accommodates a golf bag and medium-size travel case.
Design/Fit and Finish
Usually, small hatchbacks of a given model tend to look rather downmarket, while the sedan version looks more upscale. Yet to our eyes the Kia Forte hatch is certainly attractive, with clean, chiseled lines that have neither a bland econobox vibe nor the overdone, trying-too-hard look of something like the current Mazda 3.
The cabin is clean if somewhat generic in style, though a few features, such as some metallic trim on the dash and contrast stitching for the optional leather seating, liven things up a bit. Our Forte's build quality was generally very good, with even panel gaps and no squeaks or rattles to be heard. Even the way the console top precisely clicks shut every time without a shudder gives off a solid, quality feel.
Who should consider this vehicle
Those looking for a roomy compact car with a sporty, fun-to-drive personality should check out the 2011 Kia Forte SX. A firmer ride and responsive automatic transmission support Kia's fun-to-drive persona, although the trade-off is fuel economy that's typically below that of its rivals.
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