Test: 2010 Kia Forte SX Sedan

I was on the 2004 Kia Spectra launch in beautiful Southern California and was thoroughly impressed. It was a car that could at least keep up with the Joneses and Satos, if not the Müllers and Schmidts, and set the stage for good things to come from this ever-improving South Korean brand.

Now to look at Kia’s current lineup is to shake one’s head in disbelief. From a brand that was once seen as an automotive embarrassment in North America, the epitome of needs-driven consumerism, to being one of the coolest style statements of youth-oriented individualism is quite a leap in what has been a very short duration when compared to competitive brands that have been selling into our market for decades longer.

Kia still makes its more plebian offerings such as the Sedona minivan, which while attractive for a minivan will never be cool due to the stigma associated with the segment it resides in. The same can be said for the Rondo five-door people mover, or the smallest Kia Rio sedan, a good little car but hardly aspirational, whereas the Rio5 is one of the most attractive of its segment. Midsize sedans have a similar negative association, yet the Magentis was recently restyled successfully, plus it’s always been a good driver’s car. A new Sportage should up the wow-factor in its compact crossover category while the full-size Borrego takes the brand into the luxury realm, and flagship Amanti (Korea’s answer to the Lincoln Town Car) will soon get the heave-ho for something truly inspirational.

Inspiration is what Kia’s new Soul is all about, and to a lesser extent, again due to its more mainstream category, the new Forte really moves Kia, and the entire compact sedan segment, up a notch or two. The car, also available as a two-door coupe, dubbed Forte Koup in Kia-speak, is so surprisingly good that I was taken aback, as was my Mercedes driving business partner, all the staff in our office and anyone else I showed it to.

First and foremost the Forte makes an impressive visual statement. Its lines are clean, modern, and particularly upscale, a combination that actually has people doing double takes when they walk past. That contemporary style is transferred inside the cabin too, where it looks sophisticated and again, richer than its compact segment and price point suggests it should be.

Granted, the example Kia gave me for my weeklong test was the top-line SX model, featuring such luxuries as heated leather seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated switchgear for cruise and audio actuation, the latter featuring Sirius satellite radio in this configuration. The SX also gets automatic climate control, a power glass sunroof, trip computer, metallic-colour interior inserts, alloy sport foot pedals, 17-inch alloy wheels shod in 215/45R17 all-season shoes, a sport-tuned suspension, and fog lamps, over and above what comes standard with every Forte and option in the trim levels in between.

Standard with the LX are heated mirrors, body-colour door handles and rear garnish, front and rear mud guards, power locks, a four-speaker CD/MP3 audio system that really sounds impressive and features an auxiliary input and USB port, plus Bluetooth connectivity and the aforementioned wheel-mounted audio controls. Power windows with driver’s express-down also come with the SX, a centre console with storage compartment, variable intermittent wipers, plus dual power outlets on the front console, a map light with a sunglasses holder, Eco-Minder indicator, driver’s seat height adjuster, tilt steering wheel column, rear centre armrest with cupholders, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, and active front head restraints, and 195/65R15 all-season tires wrapping 15-inch steel wheels with covers. Air conditioning and keyless entry are optional.

Move up to the EX and those two options come standard, along with 16-inch alloy wheels inside 205/55R16 all-season tires, exterior mirrors with integrated turn signals, chrome door handles and rear garnish, two additional speakers added to the stereo, cruise control, front wiper de-icer, illuminated ignition, heated seats, telescopic functionality added to the tilt steering wheel, electronic stability control and traction control. A power sunroof is optional.

The base LX and better appointed EX come with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that is optimized for fuel economy first, achieving an estimated rating of 8.3L/100km in the city and 5.8 on the highway, although its output is nothing to sneeze at with 156hp at 6,200 rpm and 144 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 rpm, better than some rivals’ top engine choices. SX models come fitted with a sportier 2.4-litre four-cylinder boasting 173hp at 6,000 rpm and 168 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, while the fuel economy penalty isn’t too bad at 9.2L/100km in the city and 6.2 on the highway. Both engines use regular fuel, saving even more at the pump.

My tester came with the 5-speed automatic transmission, optional with the SX only, and mated to the 2.4 the little Forte certainly didn’t lack for power. It springs away from stoplights with a lot of spunk, and takes that same go-getter energy to the highway where it passes with confidence and tracks effortlessly at higher than posted speeds. I’d like to try the 5-speed manual that comes with the 2.0-litre engine or 6-speed manual equipped that gets shipped standard with the 2.4, but alas there has been no opportunity. Reality has it that most buyers will opt for the autobox, so at least I can say with confidence that it’s a good choice, and its extra top gear (compared to some rivals that only offer four-speed automatics) helps with fuel economy and top speed. LX and EX models, incidentally, have the option of a four-speed automatic.

With either automatic a manual shift mode makes driving in the corners more enjoyable, and to that end the SX model I employed was a real treat when the road started to wind. The 1,301-kilo (2,868-lb) sedan takes to the road with a substantive feel, its 2,650 mm (104.3 inch) wheelbase allowing for agile handling yet a smooth ride. Braking is good thanks to discs all-round and ABS standard across the line, while traction and stability control, standard above LX, add a level of security even if the weather is wet and roads slippery.

In that respect, standard front-side thorax airbags and side-curtain airbags front to rear are a Forte forte, allowing the little car to endure a 5-star driver’s side crash rating from the NHTSA, as well as a 4-star rollover resistance rating. Rear passengers only get a 3-star rating for side impact. Frontal crash ratings are as good as possible, however, at 5 stars for the driver and front passenger.

Also comforting is a warranty that covers the Forte for five years or 100,000 km bumper to bumper, where most of its competitors only offer three year, 60,000 km comprehensive coverage.

I’m not going to be so bold as to say the Forte is the best compact sedan now available to Canadians, but I will say that it’s easily one of the best and might just offer the best value for money. And in this class, value is most important. The fact that Kia bundles up all this value in one of the best-looking wrappers available is just a bonus.