By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Kia’s forte is designing snazzy, affordable cars that make the competition’s cars seem boring and over-priced.
Under-engined (and under-warraranted) too.
The new Forte, for instance.
No denying its snazzy looks. But take a look at some of its goods: Standard 148 hp engine and six-speed manual transmission (with a six-speed automatic optional). The Honda Civic comes standard with 140 hp — and a five speed.
Honda also wants almost $2,300 more for that, too.
The new Corolla has its charms — including a very roomy back seat and a standard six-speed manual transmission. But it also has the old Corolla’s engine. And the step-up automatic is still a four-speed automatic. The Corolla’s base price is also almost a grand more than the Kia’s.
Mazda’s 3 (all-new for 2014) is a much closer shave — gorgeous bodywork, 150 hp (and 41 highway), six-speed manual — all standard. Butt it’s still more expensive and — like all the ones above (and some more below) only comes with a three year, 36,000 mile “whole car” warranty. Kia will pick up the bill for five years — and 60,0000 miles.
Oh, one other thing. Kia gives you the choice of conventional sedan (with conventional trunk), hatchback sedan and coupe. Several of the others come only as sedans — take it or leave it.
So, is there anything not to like about the new Forte?
WHAT IT IS
The Forte is Kia’s entry-level compact, in the same general class as the cars mentioned above. Base price for the LX sedan is $16,700 — topping out at $20,200 for an EX with the upgrade 2.0 liter engine.
Hatchback sedan and coupe versions will become available a few months from now, in early 2014. At the time of this review in early November of 2013, prices for the hatchback and coupe had not yet been released.
The works. The ’14 Forte is redesigned from the tread to the roof.
Beats ’em all on price — but isn’t a cheapie. AC, most power options and a six-speaker stereo with Bluetooth are all included.
Beats most of them on power/performance.
Standard six-speed manual transmission is more fun to drive than competitor’s five-speed manuals.
Optional six-speed automatic is also more fun to drive than competitor’s CVT automatics — and much more current than at least one competitor’s four-speed automatic.
Untouchable warranty coverage.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
The Forte’s gas mileage isn’t quite top of the pile. That’s about all I could come up with.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Forte comes standard with a 1.8 liter, 148 hp four paired with either a six speed manual or (optionally) a six speed automatic. This combo is good for 29 city and 36 highway and 0-60 in about nine seconds.
This is a pretty decent package for a car with a sticker price just over $16k. Both the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla — which are significantly more expensive cars ($18,955 and $17,610 to start, respectively) come with less powerful standard engines and — in the case of the Civic, a five-speed manual transmission The base Corolla does come with a six-speed, but if you want an automatic, you get a disappointing four speed box that’s simply outdated technology for a 2014 model year car. The Civic and the Corolla do get slightly better gas mileage — emphasis on slightly: 28 city, 39 highway for the automatic-equipped (five speed) Civic and 31 city, 37 highway for the manual-equipped Corolla. Neither of these two is any speedier than the base-engined Forte.
Mazda’s all-new 3 brings a standard 155 hp engine to the table — as well as 30 city and 41 highway. It’s now the one to beat in this segment, offering top-drawer performance (0-60 in about 8.3 seconds) as well as class-leading fuel economy.
But the Forte has another card to play — an optional 2.0 liter, 173 hp four that gives the Kia power enough to match the Mazda’s 0-60 run while still achieving a very decent 24 city, 36 highway. And on deck for spring/summer 2014 is a turbocharged 1.6 liter four that will reportedly make 201 hp — and ought to give the Honda Civic Si a tussle for hustle.
There are some wild cards out there — including the hybrid version of the Civic, if your chief desire is fuel economy uber alles (44 city, 44 highway) and Mazda will eventually get a diesel engine into the lineup (once Uncle Sam eases up on the regulatory rigmarole) but however you look at it, the Kia has the bases well-covered.
ON THE ROAD
Even with its base 1.8 engine, the new Forte is one of the quicker cars in its class. Including the automatic-equipped version. This is notable and worth emphasizing.
Several competitors are comparably peppy when ordered with the standard manual gearbox, but — as in the case of the Toyota Corolla — if you order the optional automatic, they are torpid, slow-reacting and often over-noisy.
Kia is to be credited for offering even the base trim Fortes with six-speed transmissions — both automatic and manual. It makes a big difference as far as how the car reacts — and whether it’s fun to drive or a chore to drive it.
With the 1.8 engine and either transmission, the Forte is a notch above basic transportation — and that’s something I’d say of only one other competitor, the base trim Mazda3.
With the upgrade 2.0 engine and either transmission, the Forte is a snappy little runabout that reminds me — if you’ll permit a motorcycle reference — of a small CC sport bike along the lines of a Kawasaki Ninja 250. Both are light, agile — and “flickable.” There is enough power to make it entertaining — and the tighter spacing between each of the six-speed’s six forward gears makes it easy to keep the engine’s revs where they need to be for any given situation.
Both the engine and the transmission sound good, too.
This is another significant difference between the Forte and some of the competition, especially those that pair their engines with continuously variable (CVT) automatics. These are efficient (hence their increasing ubiquity) but also tend to make a racket, particularly during full-throttle acceleration.
You do sacrifice a few MPGs with a conventional six-speed automatic vs. a CVT — but the difference is relatively slight (typically 2-3 MPG) and — in my opinion — a sacrifice well worth making for the sake of everyday enjoyability.
Ride and handling-wise, there are noticeable departure points, too. The Forte is much more eager to dance than the Corolla — the softie of the bunch. The steering’s not quite as “right there” as the Civic’s though — and the Mazda3 (which comes standard with a more aggressive 16 inch wheel/tire package vs,. the 15s that are generally standard in cars in this class) beats them all, giving you a near-perfect balance of ride-compliance, absence of body roll and precise, confident steering. The downside to the Mazda is price. Even the least expensive version starts out $1,000 higher than the base Forte ($17,740 vs. $16,700) and the most expensive version of the 3 is almost $27k — while a loaded Forte EX with the upgrade 2.0 engine barely crests $20k.
If money weren’t a factor, I’d go with the Mazda.
But since money is a factor for most people . . .
AT THE CURB
I can’t fault the new Forte’s swoopy, un-econobox styling. Of course, even the new Corolla — the Mrs.Doubtfire of economy cars — is pretty swoopy. They all are. In fact, the econo-box — properly speaking — is all but extinct. By any standard — even size — none of the cars in this segment are Blue Light Specials. They don’t look cheap, they don’t feel cheap. And they all come with necessary amenities such as AC and a better-than-basic stereo as part of the standard equipment package.
The truth is no one makes a cheap car anymore — not in the way they used to make them. Certainly not in the compact class — which is now characterized by cars like the Forte (and Corolla and Mazda3 and Civic) that are nice cars, in and out, than even luxury cars were when I was in high school back in the ’80s. I have the perspective of Yugos and early Hyundais and Reagan-era Fiestas and Chevy Cavaliers. Those were crap cars . . . when they were brand-new.
So what does this Forte offer that the others don’t?
For openers, the choice of three bodystyles. The sedan launches first, followed by the hatchback sedan — and then the sport-themed (and Civic Si targeting) Koupe later in 2014. When the full lineup is available, Kia will offer a spectrum of choices unavailable at your local Toyota or Honda or Mazda store. Of those three, only the Civic is available in two-door coupe form and Honda and Toyota do not offer hatchback versions of their four doors.
Another departure point — a feature unique to the Forte — is Kia’s UVO voice-command interface for the audio and infotainment systems. Toyota offers a suit of “apps” — including Yelp! and Pandora radio — but they’re touch screen rather than voice-activated. The new Mazda3 has a voice-activated system, but its function and capabilities are different. You’ll have to try out each of these various systems to see which one you like best.
I mentioned size a few paragraphs above. All the cars in the (cough) “compact” segment are edging ever-closer to being mid-sized cars, outside and in.
The new Corolla is the closet to mid-size — with more backseat legroom (41.4 inches) than a Mercedes E-Class. But they’re all growers, including the KIa. Lookee here:
The Forte sedan is 179.5 inches, snout to tail. A mid-1990s Corolla — a template for “econo-box” if ever there was one — was almost eight inches shorter overall (172 inches). To put a finer point on how much the “compact” segment has tippy-toed toward mid-sized since then, consider that in 1990, the Camry — a mid-sized car at the time — stretched only 182.1 inches, stem to stern. The ’90 Camry also had only 34.4 inches of backseat legroom — seven inches less than the “compact” 2014 Corolla. And 1.5 inches less than the “compact” 2014 Forte sedan.
All the cars in the current (cough) “compact” class also have front seat legroom that would have qualified them as mid-sized (and even full-sized) cars not that long ago: 42.2 inches for Forte and Mazda3, 42.3 for the Corolla and 42 even for the Civic.
Buyers should readjust their frame of reference.
The Forte sedan has a better-than-decent-sized trunk, too: 14.9 cubic feet. This is noticeably larger than the Mazda3 sedan’s 12.4 cubic foot trunk and the Honda Civic sedan’s 12.5 cubic foot trunk. It even trumps the Corolla — which has a 13 cubic foot trunk. The forthcoming Forte hatchback sedan will of course be even more spacious and accommodating.
I do my best to be honest when evaluating cars — otherwise, people reading these reviews might as well read the PR copy the automakers put out on their web sites. Usually, it’s pretty easy to identify a given car’s negatives — and contrast them with competitor cars’ positives. Not this time, not with this car.
I mentioned the Forte’s slightly less-than-class-best fuel economy. There’s that.
I will also mention that the Forte’s a little bit of a fatty relative to most of its competitors. It weighs 2,837 lbs empty — which is a bit on the beefy side for a car that is nominally a (cough) “compact.” If it were a few hundred pounds lighter — as a “compact” car ought to be — it would be both speedier as well as more economical to drive. But the fact is, all the (ahem!) “compacts” of 2014 are weighty waddlers. Even the Civic weighs in at 2,740 pounds — and it’s the lightest of the bunch. The Corolla bellies up to the curb at 2,820 lbs. The Mazda, 2,799 lbs.
Guess what a 1990 Corolla weighed? 2,390 lbs.
How about a 1990 Camry? 2,690 lbs.
So, there’s that. But they’re all equally guilty of excess avoirdupois.
It’s about all I could come up with as far as the Forte foibles.
And I feel compelled to mention the startling fact that none of the Forte’s major competitors have seen fit to match Kia’s warranty coverage. As spacious as the new Corolla is; as swanky — and sporty — as the new Mazda3 is — neither car’s manufacturer apparently has enough confidence in their cars to back them with more than a three-year, 36,000 mile comprehensive warranty. That’s perhaps the one thing that’s still low-rent about current-era “economy compacts.”
Except for the Forte — which is backed by a five year/60,000 mile comprehensive (“whole car”) warranty — and a secondary ten year/100,000 mile powertrain (engine and transmission) warranty. Given that something like a failed transmission in a modern car can easily leave you with a $3,000 repair bill, knowing you’re covered is psychologically — and financially reassuring.
Final thing: a few years ago, when Kias were the new kids on the block, their depreciation rates were perhaps not the best. That’s no longer the case today. Meanwhile, the old lions — Toyota and Honda — are riding the coat-tails of their former glory. They’d better get with the program — or Kia, et al, will hand them their asses.
Heck, that’s already happening.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re shopping for a new “compact,” don’t neglect to cross-shop this Kia.