SEATTLE, Washington - Long known for its budget-priced vehicles, Kia has been moving steadily toward the heart of the market. Budget-minded buyers aren't the only customers Kia seeks these days. Latest entrant into the tight race for compact-car sales is Kia's 2010 Forte, which occupies the spot formerly held by the Spectra in the South Korean automaker's U.S. lineup.
"We're a bit of a challenged brand," admitted Kia's communications director Alex Fedorak. Design becomes "more important as the brand moves forward." Forte translates to strength in Spanish, and that's a commodity the company can use.
Serving as a replacement for the departed Spectra, "Forte adds styling, power, and class-leading features," said senior product strategy manager Fred Aikins. He points particularly to the "broad-shoulder look to the front end," along with an "aggressive rear end." Kia claims a drag coefficient (a measure of aerodynamic slipperiness through the air) of 0.29 - a good figure for a family compact sedan.
Built on a 104.3-inch wheelbase, the Forte is 178.3 inches long, 57.5 inches high, and 69.9 inches wide. As a comparison, the Spectra was slightly smaller at 177.2 inches long overall, on a 102.8-inch wheelbase. Forte luggage space totals 14.7 cubic feet.
Two engines are available. A 156-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder goes into LX and EX models. The sportier SX holds a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which produces 173 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque. The SX engine works with a six-speed manual (Kia's first) or five-speed automatic transmission. LX and EX models get a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
Befitting its bigger engine and sportier nature, the SX sedan gets firmer springs and a larger front stabilizer bar. Every Forte has all-disc antilock braking, with electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist to help with emergency stops. A sport-tuned suspension and 17-inch wheels are available.
A Fuel Economy Package is available for the EX, including electric motor drive power steering rather than the conventional hydraulic system used on other Forte models. Rather than the four-speed automatic transmission installed in regular models, the Fuel Economy version gets the five-speed, to eke out more miles per gallon. Silica tires promise lower rolling resistance, a "smart" alternator is used, and minor aerodynamic enhancements have been made on the car's underside, to smooth airflow. As a result, that model earns an EPA fuel-economy estiamte of 27 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway (30 mpg combined), versus 25/34 mpg for a regular EX sedan (with either manual or automatic). EPA estimates for the SX edition are 22/32 mpg with manual shift, and 23/31 mpg with automatic.
Electronic Stability Control (with traction control) is standard. Six airbags are installed, along with active front headrests and antilock braking. All Fortes with an automatic transmission have an Eco Minder, to help achieve greatest gas mileage. Kia claims that the Forte weighs just 10 pounds more than its Spectra predecessor. Within the five-passenger cockpit, the driver faces a triple-cylinder gauge cluster.
Forte is one car that tends to grow on you, with each passing minute. Kia's Spectra not only failed to stand out, it fell short in a couple of areas. Its Forte replacement does not fall into that category. Scoring at least acceptable in all respects, it ranks notably above average in several. Kia has been among the most-improved makes in recent years, and Forte is a prime example of that succession.
With either automatic transmission and the smaller (2.0-liter) engine, performance is pleasantly brisk. Both automatics are very easy-shifting, too.
Handling of the EX model isn't perfect and doesn't qualify as sporty, but this sedan is more than competent and reasonably confident on the road. No troubling body lean is evident at ordinary speeds, and the Forte is agile enough for a compact sedan. In fact, it beats some competitors in nimbleness.
Initially, an EX with the Fuel Economy Package yielded a surprisingly rough ride on an urban expressway. Once or twice, that sedan even felt twitchy through modestly wavy segments. The Fuel Economy model's silica tires could be part of the cause, but the roughness might have been due primarily to that particular road surface. Throughout the balance of the drive, north of Seattle, ride quality proved to be largely trouble-free, though it's not quite as easygoing as a typical compact sedan.
Steering with the Fuel Economy Package's electric power assist doesn't feel markedly different from the conventional setup in a regular EX model, but a slight difference is indeed noticeable. The electric system doesn't feel quite as connected with the road.
The smaller engine is quite quiet, and shifts from the five-speed automatic transmission are barely noticeable. Some road/tire noise appears, but not enough to annoy.
Front-seat occupants get plenty of space, including sufficient headroom. The backseat is rather roomy, too, as long as the front seat isn't all the way back. Forte's triple-gauge cluster is quite easy to read, even though the units are deeply set.
Forte prices start at $13,695 (plus $695 destination charge) for the entry-level LX sedan, which does not include air conditioning. A midlevel EX model stickers for $15,795, versus $17,195 for the sportier SX edition.
In addition to air conditioning, the EX gets a six-speaker audio system, cruise control, power windows and door locks, keyless remote entry, and power mirrors. Alloy 17-inch wheesls, foglamps, and a telescoping steering column are included on the SX sedan, which also features larger front brake discs. Air conditioning is available for the LX, as part of a Convenience Package.
Kia sales in the U.S. are down 6.8 percent, admitted sales vice-president Tom Loveless. On the other hand; all makes except for Subaru are down way more. "Our trend line is relatively flat" for the past 12 months, Loveless said. Furthermore, "we are gaining significant market share." Kia is particularly strong in rural and midsize markets. Year-to-date sales in the northeast region, for example, are up 81 percent.
Primary Forte rivals include the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Ford Focus, and Chevrolet Cobalt. Kia's compact sedan also competes against the Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, and Hyundai Elantra. Later this summer, Kia will launch the two-door Koup version of the Forte.
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