It’s an odd thing when you stop to think about it, but small, inexpensive cars increasingly give you more in the way of choices (and features for the dollar) than higher-dollar cars.
For instance, the Kia Forte.
You can get it three different ways — sedan, hatchback sedan and two-door hatchback Koupe (spelled with a K on purpose). Your pick of three different engines and three different transmissions.
You will find, as you ascend the automotive food chain that such variety actually winnows — particularly when it comes to transmissions. Over $30k (especially if it’s a sedan) and it’s almost always automatic-only.
Another example of what you might call Reverse Flow is that lower-cost cars increasingly offer high-end equipment. This Kia, for instance, is available with automatic braking, adaptive headlights that turn with you in the curves, driver-adjustable steering, voice-activated navigation, LCD touchscreen and a dual-clutch automated manual transmission, too.
A latter-day Pinto, it’s not.
This goes for room inside, too. Would you believe the Forte sedan — which is technically a compact sedan — has about the same front and rear legroom (and trunk space) as a $50,000 (and mid-sized) Lexus GS350 sedan?
The fact that you can get all these features — and all that space — in a car that might cost you about $26k if you order everything and don’t bother haggling is a bright thing to contemplate at a time when so many other things seem very dark indeed.
WHAT IT IS
The Forte is Kia’s compact sedan/five-door hatch and three-door Koupe. Calling it an economy (or even “entry level”) car is language problematic.
There’s no such thing anymore.
It goes up against other modestly priced but not modestly equipped small sedans/hatches/coupes like the Mazda3, Honda Civic and Ford Focus, among others.
The Kia’s obvious virtues relative to its cross-shops are its very low starting price — $16,490 for the LX sedan (Honda wants $18,740 for the base Civic sedan; Mazda $17,845 for the base Mazda3) and the more-than-most amenities and equipment it offers.
Sedans and hatchbacks come standard with a larger and — surprisingly — more fuel efficient 2.0 liter engine, which replaces the previously standard 1.8 liter engine. Meanwhile, the optional 2.0 liter engine — which is a different 2.0 liter engine — gets downtuned slightly to 164 hp (it was rated 173 hp last year).
There’s also a new Sport trim, which gets a firmer-cinched suspension, a more aggressive 16-inch wheel/tire package and trim upgrades such as a chrome exhaust tip and rear spoiler.
The real ante-upping, though, is the Forte’s newly available suite of high-tech equipment, including the automatic emergency braking system mentioned above and what Kia calls Dynamic Bending Light technology, which keys headlight aiming to steering angle as you go through curves. Both of these are features hard to find in a car priced at this level — or even near this level.
The Koupe is temporarily absent from the lineup but will rejoin it this coming spring/summer. Inside gossip says it will get a stronger version of the turbocharged 1.6 liter engine used in the current (2016) Koupe as well as other significant functional upgrades, including the new technology features now available in the sedan and hatchback five-door.
Costs less to start than Civic, Mazda3 and Focus.
Available with high-end features as mentioned above — that aren’t available in other cars in this class.
New standard 2.0 liter engine has more gumption — and gets better mileage — than previous 1.8 liter engine.
Mid-sized car interior room (especially back seat and trunk) in a compact car package.
Longest-lasting warranty coverage of the bunch.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Significant (4 MPG) mileage drop if you buy the manual transmission version.
Manual transmission is not available with the optional 2.0 liter engine and only delivers 25 city, 33 highway — weak numbers vs. rivals like Civic which exceed 40 MPG on the highway with its optional 1.5 liter engine.
Mazda3 offers a color heads-up display (HUD) and adaptive cruise control — two high-end features not offered in the Kia.
UNDER THE HOOD
Kia — and Mazda — are two of the few car companies who haven’t gone all-in with very small and very turbocharged engines as the way to deliver the power/performance most buyers in this class want and expect while also meeting the demands of upticking federal fuel efficiency standards.
One alternative to the turbo’d engine is the Atkinson cycle engine — a type of engine that varies the compression/expansion rate of the combusting gasses within the cylinder. This is typically done in a modern car engine by holding an intake valve open longer than usual, in order to lower cylinder pressure but without changing the expansion rate of the air/fuel charge as it burns. This increases the engine’s thermal efficiency — and reduces fuel consumption.
A downside is that power is usually a bit less than would be the case otherwise — which is why the Forte’s new/standard 2.0 liter Atkinson cycle engine is slightly larger than the conventional (non-Atkinson cycle) 1.8 liter engine it replaces. Mazda’s Atkinson cycle engines — which are marketed as “SkyActive” engines — are also in the 2-plus liter range for this same reason.
The new/larger engine makes 147 hp at 6,200 RPM and 147 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,500 RPM — vs. the previous 1.8 liter engine’s 145 hp at 6,500 RPM and just 130 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,700 RPM — the new engine’s higher torque (at lower RPM) being a perk of the increased displacement.
Gas mileage also improves to 29 city, 38 highway — but there’s a catch. To get the best-case MPGs, you have to buy the optional six speed automatic. With the standard six-speed manual, the Forte’s mileage is only 25 city, 34 highway. This isn’t however too far behind the Mazda3’s 28 city, 37 highway or the 26 city, 36 highway delivered by the base-engined (2.0 liter) Focus.
But all of them are distant seconds and thirds to the Honda Civic’s 31 city, 40 highway — and that’s with its base engine. With its optional (1.5 liter turbo) engine, the Civic posts as class-best (and near hybrid) 32 city and 42 on the highway.
Some caveats, though: The Civic’s base price is $2,250 higher than the base price of the Forte — so you’ll have to drive a while to make up the difference if you buy the Honda. And you’ll have to drive a while longer if you go with the optional 1.5 liter, 42 MPG-capable engine. So equipped, the Honda’s base price goes up to $21,500 — a difference of $5,100 vs. the Kia that you will likely never make up in gas savings.
Also, the Civic’s optionally available automatic transmission is a continuously variable (CVT) automatic while the Kia uses a conventional six-speed automatic. Many people (me among them) are not big fans of CVTs, which are more efficient than a conventional automatic bit also — typically — noisier, especially in a small car with a small engine.
The CVT doesn’t upshift (or downshift) like a conventional automatic. It lets the engine rev up as you accelerate, with the idea being to get the engine to the optimal RPM for efficiency — which is usually a high RPM in a small engine — and then keep it buzzing there until you back off the gas. In an automatic-equipped car, revs go up and down as the transmission shifts through its forward speeds. The conventional automatic usually makes less racket for this reason.
You maybe lose 2-3 MPG vs. a CVT, all else being equal — but it’s arguably well worth the price.
Optional in the Forte is also a 2.0 liter engine — but it’s an entirely different engine. It is not an Atkinson cycle engine — and the emphasis is more on peak power (164 hp at 6,200 RPM and 151 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,000 RPM) rather than maximum MPGs (25 city, 33 highway). The hp is down a bit — at least on paper — from last year’s rated 173 hp at 6,500 RPM and 154 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,700 RPM. But if you glance back at the specs, you’ll notice the ’17 engine’s numbers were taken at lower RPM and the actual output might be the same as before.
Regardless, the Kia’s power output is less than delivered by the Mazda3 with its optional 2.5 liter (and 184 hp) engine. The Mazda’s mileage is also higher: 27 city, 36 highway. Ditto the Civic’s optional 1.5 liter engine, as described above.
The 1.5 liter Civic, by the way, is also the quickest of the bunch — posting the only sub-seven-second 0-60 run in this class.
With its base 2.0 Atkinson cycle engine, the Forte gets to 60 in just over 8 seconds — which is slightly quicker than the base-engined Mazda3 (8.3 seconds to 60) and much quicker than a base-engined Focus with its optional dual-clutch automatic; it takes almost 9 seconds to make the run.
Or rather, the fast walk.
With its optional 2.0 liter engine, the Forte’s 0-60 run is under eight seconds and on par with the 2.5 liter-equipped Mazda.
No word yet (as of mid-January) as to what Kia has in store for the SX Koupe’s 1.6 liter turbo four — which was the strongest available engine (201 hp) in this class/price range last year. This engine was also available with a seven-speed/dual clutch automated manual transmission, something very few cars in this class offer (the Ford Focus is the only other one that does).
Interestingly, the Forte’s corporate cousin — the Hyundai Elantra — will offer the turbo’d 1.6 liter engine in the sedan (and hatchback five-door) body style. Also interestingly, the ’17 Elantra gets a new mid-range (1.4 liter turbo) engine that will not (apparently) be offered in the Kia-ized version of this car. It should deliver close-to-Civic mileage, but the cost will also be higher than the Forte’s — and that should be taken into account when you decide which of the two makes the most financial sense for you.
ON THE ROAD
The Forte — like Kias generally — is set up to be sportier-looking and driving than its Hyundai-badged corporate cousin, the Elantra. Both cars come standard with the same base engine — the 2.0 liter Atkinson engine — but different suspension tuning. The Kia is set up to be firmer riding (especially the new Sport trim) while the Hyundai emphasizes a quiet, smooth ride.
Both cars have the same driver-adjustable electric power steering system, which allows you to tailor steering effort (lighter to heavier) as you prefer, at the touch of a button. Electric-assist power steering was adopted chiefly as a way to reduce drag on the engine (and so increase fuel economy slightly) but a side benefit is that it’s very easy to change steering feel on the fly — something that was not really doable with a hydraulically powered system.
Other than Hyundai, no one else selling cars in this segment offers driver-adjustable steering — even though electric-assisted power steering has become very common.
The new 2.0 engine feels stronger in the mid-range and during part-throttle acceleration than the formerly standard 1.8 liter engine, which is just what was intended. It’s an excellent all-arounder for a car like this, which is basically an A to B transportation appliance.
It’s just too bad about the mileage dip with the standard manual transmission — and that you can’t get a manual transmission with the optional (and stronger) 2.0 liter engine.
Probably because of the fuel economy dip.
If the same roughly 4 MPG loss happened, the up-engined Forte’s mileage might dip close to 20 in city driving and less than 30 on the highway — and that would be almost as politically incorrect these days as a minstrel show.
What’s odd — given Kia’s emphasis on sportiness — is the apparent withholding of the 1.6 liter turbo from the sedan and hatchback five-doors. Meanwhile, that engine is now on the roster for the 2017 Elantra, which does not come in “sporty” coupe (or Koupe) form.
In any case, you won’t be disappointed by the car’s acceleration, regardless of engine. Especially if you cross-shop rivals like the Focus, with its available 1.0 liter three cylinder engine. It has a turbo, true enough — but with only 123 hp available it delivers Pinto-esque thrust.
It also has a much wider turning circle — 36 feet vs. 34.8 for the Kia (identical to the Mazda3’s turning circle).
Curiously, given Honda’s usual excellence on that score, the Civic also has a surprisingly wide turning circle: 35.7 feet. The Honda is longer overall (182.3 inches vs. 179.5) but both cars have identical 106.3 inch wheelbases, so the disparity is… interesting.
The fulsome scurvy truth is that the Civic isn’t as sporty as it used to be. Meanwhile, cars like the Kia have caught up — or at least are close enough now to fog the Honda’s mirrors with their heavy breathing.
The Mazda3 is still the pick of the litter here, though — if joy to drive is the criteria. This goes especially for the yin-yang perfection of ride quality and handling, bundled together in the same car.
The Mazda has give but doesn’t bounce.
In comparison, both the Kia and the Honda are stiffer riding.
AT THE CURB
This is a nice-looking, but bland-looking car.
This stylistic conservatism is interesting given how radical Kia went with the Forte’s bigger brother, the Optima — which was styled by an ex-Audi guy. He made that Kia look as nice as (maybe nicer than) Audis… and BMWs, too.
It sold a lot of Optimas.
But while the Forte isn’t radical to look at, it has a radical roster of available equipment, including heaters for the rear seats — something that even just a year or two ago was a feature you’d find exceedingly rare in any car with a sticker price of less than $50k to start. Same goes for the headlights — the projector beam headlights — that turn with you in the curves.
This car is also radically roomy.
As it happened, the week I had the Forte — an S trim sedan — I also had a Lexus GS350 sedan. The Lexus is mid-sized, as far as its overall dimensions, while the Forte is a compact.
But check these specs:
The Forte has 42.2 inches of legroom up front and 37.3 inches of legroom in the second row. It has a 14.9 cubic foot trunk.
The Lexus (over $50k to start and a mid-sized car) has 42.3 inches of legroom up front, 36.8 inches of legroom in the second row and a 14.3 cubic foot trunk.
You wonder what you’re paying that $50k-plus for…
As far as its price (and same-sized) rivals, the Forte’s roominess is exceeded only by the Civic, which has 42.3 inches of legroom up front, 37.4 in the second row and a 15.1 cubic foot trunk. The gorgeous Mazda3 has a comparatively tiny trunk (12.4 cubic feet) and it also has a tighter back seat (35.8 inches) which goes to show you about function vs. form.
Meanwhile, the Focus is bland and a tight squeeze: just 33.2 inches in the back seat and a 13.2 cubic foot trunk.
It’s nice that the Forte’s LCD infotainment screen (4.2 inches is standard) is canted toward the driver and it is much easier to use — especially while the car is moving — than the Mazda’s pretty but functionally frustrating “floating” LCD screen and also the Honda’s sharp-looking but also functionally frustrating LCD.
It’s less nice that Kia only gives you one USB port (but two 12V power points). Given that almost all of us — even me, a very late adopter — carry a cell phone or iPod or other device with us pretty much everywhere, a car probably ought to have at least four USB hook-ups, two up front and two in back.
But the Kia does have (or you can order) heated seats out back — and that is very cool indeed.
Also, the old-school pull-up emergency brake. There is the Hoon Angle: You can use it to lock up the rear wheels while moving, so as to execute high-performance maneuvers such as the “bootlegger’s turn.” It also is inherently safer than the electric-activated (and On or Off only) parking brakes that first appeared on high-end cars (for the lazy rich) but which are filtering to cars in the sub-$20k class, too.
How safer? First, you can modulate the amount of braking force with a pull-up emergency brake, avoiding rear wheel lock-up. And the resultant skid. If your main brakes ever fail, you will appreciate this. Also, the pull-up lever connects to the back brakes via a reliable physical cable. The electric emergency brake is controlled via electric components that are inherently less reliable over time and more expensive to repair (to replace) when they develop a problem.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The line between “high end” and “entry level” cars is becoming seriously fuzzy. The main difference at this point is engine — you still get more of that for you money (well, usually). But as far as features and amenities, it is becoming really hard to justify the twice-as-much (let alone three-times-as-much) asking price of the more expensive stuff vs. the lower priced stuff.
This Kia not only gives you a lot for your money, it gives you more for your money than you’d get in many cars that are far from “entry level” . . . as far as their MSRPs.
And also relative to cars like the Civic — which is nice but relatively pricey. And the Mazda, which is fun — and beautiful — but not as roomy.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos