2010 Kia Forte — New car, new direction for Kia

By Lary

I’ve never been a big Kia fan, but in the past few years, Kia has changed my mind in terms of both quality and dependability. It began when the company introduced its 100,000-mile warranty. I remember a discussion with a GM factory rep at a Portland Auto Show dinner, asking — and her avoiding answering — why Kia and Hyundai could warranty their $15,000 cars for 100,000 miles, while GM wouldn’t warranty its $50,000 Cadillac for the same.

What really turned my attitude around was the full-size Borrego SUV, and then the new Soul. Kia has solidified me with the all-new Forte, which has replaced the Spectra in it’s lineup.

In this market segment, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic rule. They boast huge sales numbers, long lists of standard features, and bulletproof reliability. Other competitors include the Nissan Sentra, Mazda 3, Ford Focus, and Hyundai Elantra — a Kia sibling (Hyundai owns Kia).

So how does the 2010 Kia Forte measure up? Kia has scored large against all of them — but especially against the Corolla and Civic. The Forte blends style, power, and technology better than either Honda or Toyota — since neither are considered styling innovators.

Walkaround: Designed in the company’s California studio, its bold look offers crisp, definitive lines, with a wide, aggressive stance, swept-back headlamps, and a sleek profile. Personally, I think the Forte is now the hottest-looking car in this class. Available in three trim levels — LX, EX and SX — the Forte sports an athletic profile, while subtle details like the functional upswept side-window line, which also increases visibility, and a tasteful new corporate grille add to the Forte’s good looks.

The sedan is the only body style offered right now, but Kia will soon introduce a hot-looking 2-door called the Koup, and hinted a five-door Forte hatchback could happen.

Pricing for the Forte starts at $13,695 for the LX, while the EX begins at $15,795, and SX pricing begins at $17,195.

Interior: The Forte offers one of the roomiest interiors in this segment, and does an excellent job of incorporating technology and function with style. The full-cloth seats are comfortable, with a six-way adjustable driver’s seat, tilt steering wheel, rear defroster and dual 12-volt power outlets in the center console all standard. Instrumentation is a driver-oriented three-gauge cluster illuminated in a red glow.

The EX and SX models offer numerous additional standard features such as power windows and door locks; remote keyless entry; air conditioning; map lamps; steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls; tweeter speakers; dual front and rear cup holders; and floor mats. Also offered on the EX is a Premium Package that includes a power moonroof and 16-inch alloy wheels, or a Leather Package with leather-trimmed seats with front seat warmers, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and metal-finish trim.

The SX has additional standard features, including a unique black interior with sport cloth fabric stitched in red, a leather-wrapped telescoping steering wheel, Supervision™ gauge cluster, and metal-finish shift knob and pedals. The SX also offers the optional power moonroof and leather-trimmed seats with front seat warmers.

Forte’s trunk is a best-in-class 14.7 cubic feet of cargo space.

One place the Forte shines is in the area of technology. Standard are Bluetooth phone connectivity with steering-wheel controls, Sirius/XM satellite radio, a USB port and auxiliary input jacks. The Civic requires buying its navigation system to get satellite radio.

Under The Hood: There are two four-cylinder powerplants — a 156-horse, 2.0, and a 2.4-liter that delivers 173 horses. The LX and EX are powered by the peppy 2.0-liter, while the SX uses the 2.4. There are four transmissions, depending on trim and option package.

Standard are five-speed manuals on the LX and EX, or a six-speed manual on the SX. The LX and EX feature a four-speed automatic unless you opt for the EX Fuel-Economy package, which has the same five-speed automatic offered on the SX. Both have a manual shift feature as well.

The 2.0-liter is EPA rated at 27/city and 36/highway with the five-speed auto in the Fuel-Economy package and 25/34 when paired with either of the two other transmissions. The 2.4-liter four rates 22/32 with the six-speed manual and 23/31 with the five-speed auto — basically in line with the Corolla and Civic — although the Forte powerplants offer more horses.

Behind The Wheel: I had the opportunity to put both an SX and EX through their paces at the recent national press rollout for the Forte, which was held in Seattle. We spent a day driving in all kinds of terrain and conditions — downtown city streets, freeway to the Mukilteo Ferry, across the entire length of Whidbey Island, over Deception Pass and on to LaConner for lunch. From there it was back downtown, via Carnation, Maltby and Redmond. We drove the SX before lunch and the EX back.

The ride is generally comfortable and surprisingly quiet. Besides the larger engine and additional equipment, the SX boasts firmer springs, bigger front brakes, retuned shocks, and a larger front anti-roll bar. It felt slightly tighter than an EX, however, the steering in both required slight corrections to hold a line in tight corners at speed.

Whines: Just the steering — which isn’t unusual for this entire segment.

Bottom Line: This segment isn’t about handling or horsepower, but about economy, comfort and price. With gas prices settling in at around $3, it’s quickly becoming about politically correct, roomy and increasingly stylish cars — exactly the Forte’s strengths. The Forte won’t dislodge Honda or Toyota, but will definitely gain credible market share against all competitors, except perhaps the Mazda 3. The new Forte is a contender — not the pretender the Spectra was. It offers the most standard technology, tremendous style, comfort, and most of all, value.