We were just starting to mosey our way out of Scottsdale, Arizona, in the 2014 Kia Forte EX when we noticed that something was missing.
Prodding the right pedal from a stoplight, we were greeted with a supple wave of power that delivered a smooth getaway. And as we hopped onto a highway on-ramp, the hearty 173-horsepower direct-injected four-cylinder thrust the compact sedan forward with plenty of scoot to merge safely.
Our passenger continued his casual conversation without raising his voice as we reached an easy 70 mph. It seemed great, yet we knew something was missing from the previous Forte.
We sidestepped onto a Saguaro cactus-lined two-lane and took off through the hills of the Tonto National Forest. The suspension easily soaked up bumps, and wind and road noise were nearly nonexistent.
And that's when it hit us. This Kia Forte is missing plenty of things, like the noise, the crudeness and the harsh suspension of its predecessor. And the annoyingly abrupt throttle tip-in the Forte was plagued with? It's gone, too. They're all gone, and the 2014 Kia Forte feels like a completely different car because of it.
All-New. All Over Again
Just three and a half years ago the then-new Kia Forte was launched, replacing the Spectra as Kia's compact economy car. But since then the competition in the category has heated up considerably. So much so that Kia quickly came up with an all-new car. It utilizes the platform of the new 2013 Hyundai Elantra and was sculpted by Kia's design chief, Peter Schreyer.
Kia executives affectionately call Schreyer "our not-so-secret weapon." And why not? Good design sells cars. Kia's California Design Center in Irvine did the bulk of the work on the Forte's new lines. The aggressive face, rising beltline, massively sloping roof and short deck aren't just pretty, they're slippery, too. The Forte has a drag coefficient of 0.27, which is very low and great for mileage.
Despite the major redesign, the new Forte takes up pretty much the same footprint as before. The wheelbase is 2 inches longer while overall length grows by just 1.2 inches. Roof height is down an inch, and width is increased by 0.2 inch.
Overall interior room has decreased ever so slightly. But unless you're some kind of a deformed giant, you'll fit in this car. The real shocker is that, in spite of that style-centric roof line, there's actually decent rear headroom. The trunk has a nice wide opening and total volume is up from 14.7 cubic feet to 14.9. That's better than the Ford Focus (13.2 cubic feet) and about even with the Chevy Cruze (15).
Six-Speeds for Everybody
Kia said we could drive any Forte we wanted, as long as it was an EX model in blue. Maybe it didn't want us to be underwhelmed by the base LX's 1.8-liter four-cylinder and its 148 hp and 131 pound-feet of torque. The LX can also be mated to a six-speed manual unlike the EX, which is available only with a six-speed automatic.
The 2.0-liter GDI four-cylinder is new to the Forte EX. It's basically the same engine found in the uplevel 2013 Kia Soul, but with the addition of direct injection. As such, the 2.0 GDI isn't shared with any other Kia or Hyundai product, for now at least.
Its 173 hp at 6,500 rpm and 154 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm put it on the high side for eco-minded compacts. The Focus only musters 160 hp, the Honda Civic 140 and the Cruze just 138 hp.
Even with the extra sauce under the hood, you won't become giddy with speed when you press on the 2,857-pound Forte's accelerator. What is impressive, though, is the smooth and quiet way it delivers the power to the front wheels. You can barely make out more than a minor hum at freeway speeds. The foam-filled pillars and special sound-deadening for the dash pad do their job. Spin the tachometer toward redline and the four-banger does get loud, but never thrashy or unrefined.
Part of the reason the Forte never feels fast is the smooth-shifting transmission. It's so seamless that you need to watch the tach to notice a shift, they're that imperceptible. On the downside, it heads for 6th gear as soon as possible to boost mileage, but it reacts intuitively with a downshift when you give the throttle an extra prod.
The EPA has yet to give fuel mileage ratings, and Kia refused to provide any estimates.
The Forte's MacPherson strut front and twist-beam rear axle, as well as its electric-assist steering are the same units used in the Hyundai Elantra, but the tuning is unique to Kia.
The 2014 Forte EX also adds what Kia calls Flex Steer. It lets you adjust the assist level among Comfort, Normal and Sport via a button on the steering wheel. In truth, we didn't notice huge differences in effort, and deemed Sport the best feel for all driving.
Bend the new Forte into a curve and you'll find it strikes a good mix between ride and handling. It doesn't have the steering precision or suspension communication the Ford Focus boasts, and midcorner bumps can upset the rear a bit, but overall it does a nice job of soaking up harsh hits with at least some back-road playfulness on tap for more enthusiastic drivers. Go any harder and the optional 17-inch tires find their limits quickly and significant body roll sets in.
Simple and Honest
Press your finger against any button in the Forte's cabin and you're greeted with soft-feel plastic like the keys on a laptop. Turn a knob and the detents are perfect. Overall, the Forte's cabin nearly matches the quality of the class-leading Focus, but with honest functionality and none of the Ford's overstyled messiness.
Kia was proud to point out that the Forte's center stack is canted 10 degrees toward the driver, just like its bigger brother, the Optima. Or a 1980s-era Volvo 760.
Notable features include a cooled driver seat that's available in the optional Premium package, and Kia's UVO hands-free infotainment system, which comes standard on the EX. A new eServices aspect of UVO features 911 Connect in case of an accident, roadside assistance and real-time maintenance notifications as well as connection with Twitter, Siri and Pandora. The contract is free for the first 10 years/100,000 miles, and Kia says no additional data plan for your smartphone is required.
We paired our iPhone in near record time.
Doing the Numbers
The 2014 Kia Forte will start arriving in U.S. dealers in mid-March. Kia has yet to announce official pricing, but says a Forte LX with manual transmission, Bluetooth, satellite radio, air-conditioning, power windows and power/heated mirrors will start under $16,000. A "well-equipped" LX with the Popular package (16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control and keyless entry) will start in the mid-$18s.
The EX 2.0 GDI standard features list is even longer, including the UVO eServices, back-up camera, a sliding center armrest and a cooled glovebox (cold enough for candy bars but not drinks). A starting point of $18,600-$19,000 is a safe bet.
Compact car shoppers used to have to be satisfied simply with good fuel economy and a low entry price. That's no longer enough. Gas prices, heated competition and customer demands have forced manufacturers to build compacts that are as stylish, quiet and feature-filled as midsize sedans. The first-generation Kia Forte proved how quickly expectations can change. The second-generation 2014 Kia Forte proves how quickly Kia can rally back and produce one of the best compact cars on the road.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.