Jason Kavanagh, Senior Vehicle Test Engineer
Mother Nature needs an attitude adjustment. We flew halfway across the planet and endured a gut-wrenching bout of food poisoning to drive the 2010 Kia Forte Koup in Seoul, Korea, only to have our driving time coincide with torrential rains, the likes of which are seen there but once or twice a year.
The deluge created gridlock in downtown Seoul and a timid pace on the flooded freeways. We plodded along washed-out byways with the Koup's wipers set on full kill, straining to see the taillights of the motorist a dozen car lengths ahead of us. This was at noon.
Kia's first-ever coupe body style deserves a better first go than this.
The Metal's Mettle All is not lost, however, as any seat time is better than none.
Developed primarily for the North American market, the 2010 Kia Forte Koup shares its 104.3-inch wheelbase with its sedan counterpart introduced earlier this year. It's lower and shorter, and none of the coupe's sheet metal is carried over from the sedan save for the hood. The Koup's basic footprint emulates that of the Honda Civic coupe and Scion tC, which, not coincidentally, are what Kia reckons will be the Koup's main competitors.
Obvious stylistic influences from the Honda Civic are evident in the Koup's furrowed face, but it's no copycat. Styled in the elaborate, well-equipped design studio at Kia Motors America in Irvine, California, the Koup has a chunky aggression that sets it apart from its rivals. Its confident presence reveals none of the awkwardness that plagues the styling of many modern Korean cars, and the striking Koup is proof that inexpensive cars don't have to look dowdy.
Two trim levels, EX and SX, will be available when the 2010 Kia Forte Koup goes on sale in late August of this year. The EX carries a 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 156 horsepower and 144 pound-feet of torque. You have your choice of a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic, but either way you'll get 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway.
The SX model offers a bit more sport. It steps up to a 2.4-liter four that fizzes up 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. When you choose the six-speed manual gearbox, you'll get 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway. If you choose the five-speed automatic, you get 23 mpg city/31 mpg. The suspension is firmed up, the wheels grow to 17 inches, 215/45R17 tires are fitted and subtle body trimmings are added.
Pricing is yet to be finalized, though the Koup will likely eclipse the sedans slightly. Figure on base prices including destination of about $17,250 for the EX and $18,650 for the SX.
Not Quite a Wet Blanket Through the smashing rain it's impossible to hear the voices in our head, much less discern nuances like road noise. A pause in the downpour while at a stoplight, though, reveals a rorty exhaust note. Kia's brass tells us that the engineering staff focused on enhancing the lower frequencies in the development of the Koup's engine sound compared to the sedan.
Because the 2010 Kia Forte Koup's 2,849-pound curb weight is within a few cantaloupes of the sedan, acceleration to 60 mph remains in the mid-7-second range. The engine is decently peppy but doesn't beg to be driven hard. You'll find yourself reaching for the shift lever well before redline at 6,500 rpm.
The drive-by-wire throttle calibration could use a rethink. There's so much manipulation going on that it's impossible to smoothly creep forward in Seoul's plentiful stop-and-go traffic. Driveline lash from the soft engine mounts is likely what this throttle mapping is attempting to offset.
Furthermore, successfully rev-matched downshifts are stymied as the engine hangs onto revs between gearchanges and doesn't respond crisply to throttle blips. This crummy throttle response really dulls the impression of sportiness in an otherwise acceptable powertrain.
Poking and Prodding We have no qualms about the driving position afforded by the SX's tilt-and-telescoping wheel and height-adjustable seat. With these niceties, even guys taller than 6 feet will have headroom in front. The cabin is roomy if plain-jane, finished in subdued hard plastics arranged in a way that lacks the personality of the Koup's sheet metal. Fortunately, outward visibility is excellent, since the styling hasn't fallen victim to the recent craze of beltlines you need a periscope to see over.
To the left of the steering wheel are a curious-looking flip-down control knob and two buttons. This, of course, is the interface for the LED lights that ring the speaker grilles in the interior door panels. You can set the brightness of these red halos and even allow them to pulse to the beat of the music. (We're not making this up.)
Clambering into the backseat would benefit from a memory tilt-slide feature of the front seat to ease access and preserve the seat position. There is a surprising amount of legroom in the backseat, though headroom feels the pinch of the coupe's roof line being 2.4 inches lower than the sedan. The rear seatback is of the 60/40 split-folding variety that, alas, lacks a center armrest.
These two missteps stand in contrast to the Koup's list of features that includes Bluetooth, USB and aux jacks, keyless entry and satellite radio. Leather and a sunroof are also available. Those funky speaker lights just like those of the Kia Soul? Standard on the SX.
Fewer Doors, More Sport Though the Koup's MacPherson strut front and twist-beam rear suspension layout is fundamentally similar to the sedan, Kia engineers have given the Koup a more sporting calibration. The Koup's dampers and antiroll bars have been pumped up for a more buttoned-down demeanor, and revised front control arms provide increased steering caster to give the feel of the helm more substance.
Our fully equipped, top-shelf SX tester is agreeably taut without spoiling the ride. Only the lumpiest pavement threatens to upset the Koup's composure. And sure enough, the Koup's body stays nicely flat when you bend it into a sweeper. The weight of the hydraulic-assisted steering is just right, too, with the kind of precision that reminds us of a Honda.
A light brush of the brakes is all it takes to shed speed — the Koup's middle pedal is almost too responsive at the top of its stroke. Among the free-for-all known as Seoul's traffic, brake behavior of this sort is something of a mixed blessing.
Beyond these cursory impressions we'll reserve judgment about the Koup's willingness to wriggle until one shows up at our office for a full test.
Clearing, With a Chance of Horsepower Kia wants to shed its cheap-and-cheerful image and metamorphose into an automaker with which driving enthusiasts can identify. The 2010 Kia Forte Koup shows the company pivoting around to face the right direction, and it offers more style than you'd typically find at its price point. Not quite a Civic Si with money on the roof, the Koup is more of a base Civic coupe with a twinkle in its eye.
So the obvious question is whether a true performance variant of the Koup in the vein of the Si is in the cards. When pressed, Kia's marketing head replies, "A higher-performance model has not been decided yet. However, we are working on a direct-injected 200-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that would fit in the Koup."
As the next logical step in the Forte's evolution, that's something we can get behind.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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