First impressions last. Except when they don't. A few years back, I didn't think the new-generation Accord was all that special. The enlarged Honda mid-sizer did the monkey-making thing; ascending the sales charts to become America's top-selling mid-size family sedan. My first impression of Kia's all-new Forte: it's a hit. The Kia Forte's a cheap (as in inexpensive), safe, somewhat stylish, fuel-efficient sedan that transports up to four adults in perfect comfort, without driving like a penalty box. In fact, this car is good enough that it could be a turnaround product for Kia, which has struggled to establish its place on the American automotive scene. But will it? What am I, psychic?
Design may not be the Forte's forte, but it's got the whole non-objectionability thing nailed nailed. Kia's California design studio crafted a car where cleanliness cozies-up to divinity. The Forte's tall greenhouse provides plenty of glass; a welcome change from the current trend for rising beltlines (and plunging sight lines). The Forte's front fenders have flair, albeit with a clear Mazda influence. But the Kia's overall shape could have been penned by a European Ford stylist; it reminds me strongly of the Ford Mondeo and VW Jetta.
The Forte's cabin is as simple and inviting as the Fairmont hotel's restrooms. My tester came in a mix of grey hues. As is the way of such things, none of the materials or shapes looked cheap or flimsy, although the price point demands the former and time will tell on the latter. Still, someone's sweated the details. The Forte's steering wheel offers an attractive symmetry, the right grippable thickness, and a soft, leather-like polymer covering that's easy on the palms. There's ample leg room for all four passengers, and a large trunk.
The Forte tries to be the Hannah Montana of ergonomics; combining knobs and buttons to get the best of both worlds. In this it succeeds, in both the good (popular) and bad (as satisfying as bubble gum) sense. The learning curve is as steep as a bunny slope; major gauges are large and easy to read at both day and night. Taste-wise, well, an airplane model plastic silver bezel surrounds the center stack of the instrument panel. Make of that what you will.
On the road, the Kia Forte moves with more enthusiasm than you'd expect from a 156-horse, 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. While the Forte's target market probably doesn't even own a stopwatch, I estimate the quad cog autobox-equipped sedan's zero to sixty mph times live somewhere in the mid-eight second range. (A five-speed manual is available. The SX has an optional five-speed automatic). Bottom line: the Forte EX's powertrain is more than sufficiently spirited for suburban driving and quite capable of drama-free passing maneuvers on two-lane highways.
Thanks to a well-sorted suspension and modestly aggressive 16-inch rubber, the Kia's handling is poised and . . . poised. More importantly, the four-wheel disc brakes come complete with electronic brake-force distribution. Nanny rides shotgun. Alas, you can't switch of the electronic stability control system in the Forte EX. Did I say alas? [A lass I lack joke deleted.] Yes, I did. When flung through a series of very tight esses (flung I tell you!), my test Forte remained flat and composed. That said, even before turning a wheel, Jack Baruth would tell you that front-wheel-drive understeer is the name of this game.
Unfortunately, the Forte EX's engine goes all Suicidal Tendency (i.e. thrashy) at anything above 4000 rpm. It's not enough to be irritating, unless you're irritated by such things. As Kia Forte buyers more likely to dine on budae jjigae as push the four banger to its upper reaches of its rev range, it's no biggie. Still, it's too bad that Kia doesn't fit the five-speed automatic on the EX; it would make a huge difference in the NVH department.
The Forte's suspension tuning needs some, perhaps any, refinement. On frost heaves and worn concrete pavement joints, the Forte feels loose, hard riding and crashy, even at moderate speeds. Again, it's not quite enough to enervate budget shoppers, but urban drivers might be happier in something, anything, a little more plush riding.
Value, though. Value. The Forte features a lengthy list of standard equipment, including Bluetooth, the aforementioned electronic stability and brake-force distribution, anti-lock brakes and a tire monitoring system. With a $19,000-and-change bottom line on my Forte EX, the Monroney could be the best looking thing about the whole car.
The Forte is a three-base hit for Kia. With more powertrain and suspension tuning refinment, the Forte could go yard against some of the toughest rivals in the automotive league. Provided my imprimatur is not the kiss of death, the Forte will go a long way to bolstering the budge brand.