By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Kia Forte has been on sale in the U.S. for just over 3.5 years, and the company is already replacing the compact sedan with an entirely new model. Blame it on the competitive market where new competitors seem to pop up over night. Blame it on customers who want the latest and greatest right now. Or, more accurately, blame it on Hyundai, who just did a mid-cycle update of its Elantra, and shares that car’s underpinnings with its cousins from Kia.
It’s about time. The first generation Forte was showing its age, and its interior and exterior styling were not in keeping with the new look set out by former Audi designer Peter Schreyer. Kia’s global design chief prefers a more premium look with subtle European undertones; one that is still sleek while eschewing the flash of the Hyundai cars on which modern Kias are based. It is also a design language that raises expectations. As a result, you imagine a Kia to be more refined, and anticipate it will have a greater range of standard equipment. Even when the vehicles, like the Forte sedan, are designed inside and out at Kia’s Irvine, California design center.
Despite the fact that many Kias come in multiple models —LX, EX, SX and Limited — the Forte whittles this down to the essentials, LX and EX. If you start with the LX, you won’t feel impoverished. SiriusXM, Bluetooth, steering wheel audio controls, power windows, air conditioning, and heated power side mirrors are all standard. This is the only model that allows you the option of a manual transmission, though it runs on 15-in steel wheels, and that gearbox (and the optional automatic) are mated to a 1.8-liter four with 148 hp and 131 lb-ft of torque. Add the Popular Package, and you get 16-in alloy wheels, keyless entry with a remote trunk release, cruise control, and a sliding armrest. The Eco Package gives you the requisite “eco” badge, dual-zone climate control with rear seat ventilation, a sliding front armrest and Idle Stop & Go, Kia’s stop-start system. Except for the last item in that list, it’s hard to say exactly why these items are “eco”.
Thankfully, the EX doesn’t offer that package. Instead it has a Premium Package that adds heated front and rear seats, a 10-way adjustable driver’s seat with air-cooled ventilation (front passengers apparently have to sit in their own sweat in the leather-trimmed seats), a power sunroof, 17-in alloy wheels, push-button start with Smart Key, and a heated steering wheel. Add the Technology Package and you get HID headlights with LED running lights, LED taillights (with 81 LEDs per side!), a 4.2-in color LCD screen, and dual-zone climate control with rear seat ventilation. This is on top of the standard UVO infotainment systems with eServices, keyless entry with remote trunk release, backup camera and display, sliding center armrest and cooled glovebox. There’s even FlexSteer which allows you to press a button on the steering wheel and change the feel of the electrically assisted power steering. (More on that later.) Also, the EX adds a stripe of chrome along the base of the greenhouse to jazz things up a bit, and places a 2.0-liter direct-injected four under the hood with 173 hp and 154 lb-ft of torque.
Dimensionally, the new Forte is 1.2 in longer, 0.2 in wider, 0.6 in lower and sits on a 2.0-in longer wheelbase. Despite this, second row leg room is down 0.7 inches. If that isn’t enough, the steeply raked windshield leads to an equally steep hood, the combination of which gives the impression that both are far away, and the front of the car — for shorter drivers — is hard to judge in close quarters. It takes a while to get used to, but the old trick of judging where the front of the car is by looking at the car next to you while you park comes in handy with the 2014 Forte.
One advantage of having such long A-pillars is that you can fill them (and the B- and C-pillars) with acoustic foam to reduce NVH levels in the car. And the 2014 Forte is quiet, helped by more foam in inner and outer cavities and front, center and rear underbody covers that help reduce the drag coefficient to a quite respectable 0.27. In addition, the cowl, rear floor and package tray have been reinforced, and 63% of the structure is made of high-strength steel. As a result, overall rigidity is up 37%, something the old Forte — which could get a bit squeaky as it got older — needed. Plus, it’s about 80 lb lighter than the car it replaces.
Step inside, and the Forte impresses with a multi-piece instrument panel that combines a soft skin over hard plastic, the latter with an imprinted faux carbon fiber weave. The instruments are large and clear, separated by a 4.2-in color TFT screen on which you can call up things like range, miles per gallon or, with the optional navigation, turn-by-turn instructions. The center stack is angled toward the driver, and, on our loaded test cars, holds an 8.0-in color touchscreen that gives crisp, clear images. Unfortunately, as I found out in my drive of the new Sorento, the navigation is neither as intuitive nor as easy to use as you might expect.
The passenger gets a good view of the soft skin dash top, the three semi-circular ripples on the face of the instrument panel, and has access to a huge glovebox. However, since the cars we drove didn’t have the owner’s manual in them, you can expect some of this space to be taken up by a handbook thicker than most legal texts. Then again, if you order an EX with UVO, they can play with the parental controls, interactive help, Twitter, Siri and Pandora, keep track of your mileage-based information, and more while you drive. Or, since the back seat isn’t a bad place to be, as long as those in the front aren’t extremely long-legged, they can talk to the rear seat passengers in civilized tones.
With the launch taking place in Arizona where the roads are pretty smooth, it’s tough to say how the 2014 Forte will be in places where the roads aren’t quite so… uniform. That said, the Forte didn’t allow too much of the road surface’s rough texture to come into the cabin, and the front subframe’s larger bushings dampened any irregularities; though at times it felt a bit too soft and underdamped. As before the Forte has MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear axle, but the shock absorbers have been retuned to give a more luxurious ride. So much so that, at times, the Forte felt like it was suspended by a hook. A good thing? Well, not really So-called “sky hook damping” is great if its done with an eye toward not making the car feel lifeless. Unfortunately, at times the Forte felt just like that: lifeless. It has a digital feel in an analog world, and the personality does not match up to what is promised by the styling. Furthermore, the highly touted FlexSteer, borrowed from Hyundai’s Elantra GT, feels as though the engineer in charge phoned it in. Press the steering wheel-mounted button to switch from Comfort to Normal to Sport modes, and you’ll experience what seems like a 10% difference in steering effort each time. You can almost imagine the engineer in question hastily altering the effort curve before rushing off to catch the last train home.
Undoubtedly, the new Forte will sell well, spurred on by its handsome new body, quiet interior, and full equipment list. And for most buyers in this price range — under $16,000 to start — that’s enough. They are looking for a well-equipped and stylish car that will get them where they want to go safely, securely and efficiently, and will not be disappointed by the 2014 Kia Forte. It is all that and more. For them, this is a grown up car. One can only hope that those looking for a more complete, well-resolved, and passionate car will find it when Kia launches the Forte 5-door later this year.