In 1994, Korean automaker Kia debuted on the West Coast with a compact coupe and a small sport utility called the Sportage. The marketplace was ripe for new products as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan were taking big chunks of the established brands as sales were increasing each year. Kia, not yet aligned with Hyundai, wanted a piece of this action.
At first, the Kia vehicles struggled. Quality had been sacrificed in some areas to achieve low prices. Some buyers didn’t mind, while others were disappointed. Others scoffed at the presence of the Korean brands.
Fifteen years later, Kia now offers 12 models in a lineup that outsells Jeep, GMC, Mazda, Chrysler, Mercedes and a lot of other automakers. As a top-10 retailer in America, Kia is now looking at obtaining many of the closed franchise points that were formerly Saturn, Chrysler and Pontiac dealerships. Nobody is laughing at Kia anymore.
For the upcoming 2010 model year, Kia has three new models rolling into showrooms. The Forte sedan, as pictured, replaces the outgoing Spectra compact car. A Forte coupe will debut later this summer, while an all-new Sorento midsize SUV based on an updated car platform will premier later this fall.
The new Forte is directly targeting the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla in both appearance and performance, while undercutting the pricing of each of these top-selling rivals with more standard equipment included in the pricing structure. A base Forte starts at $14,390, $800 less than the entry-level Civic and $1,000 less than the Corolla.
First off, buyers will notice how much cleaner looking and how contemporary the Forte is compared to the outgoing Spectra. Using a broad face with graceful hood and shoulder lines, the new Forte is much more satisfying to look at. From a distance, some viewers can be excused for actually thinking that the Kia looks like a Honda.
At 178.3 inches long overall, the Forte is slightly larger than the Spectra and the Civic and almost spot-on to the Corolla’s measurements. The Forte also rides on a longer 104.3-inch wheelbase — more about this in a minute.
Under the hood, the Forte uses a 2.0-liter DOHC in-line four like the Spectra, but the revised version now makes 156 hp due to continuously variable valve timing; a gain of 12 percent over the previous edition. Despite the added power, the Forte also gets better fuel economy than the Spectra, returning 25/34-mpg on the EPA cycle while the Spectra managed only 24/32-mpg with less power.
My practically brand-new Forte was a consistent performer. The first fill-up returned 32 mpg. The second fill-up gave me 31.9 mpg. The third fill-up averaged out to 32.2 mpg and the final tank top-off was 32.9 mpg. The Kia didn’t seem to mind how much the right pedal was used.
The Forte uses a four-speed automatic for its optional transmission — like many small cars do — while a five-speed manual is standard. If midsize and large cars gain more miles per gallon with a six-speed automatic, wouldn’t it make sense to also offer this more efficient transmission in compact cars? Just a passing thought.
My sample Forte was the top-of-the-line EX sedan. Riding on 16-inch alloy wheels, the EX seemed to supply good transient responses while driving, yet the ride was firmer in some conditions than expected and steering feel was more muted than some other compact cars. I can only venture the guess that the base cars — with smaller 15-inch wheels — offer a slightly softer ride.
The Forte’s cabin was suitably subdued for this class, but you won’t confuse the ambient noise suppression for a Lexus. On the other hand, the Kia offers a full range of features that intend to entertain and impress — and undercut the competition’s value quotient.
Since Kia buyers already know about the brand’s 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, the company’s management knew that if Kia expected to emulate the path to success that other Asian automakers like Honda and Toyota established, the Forte would need some bells and whistles to make ‘the deal’ almost as powerful as the car itself.
Here, both Kia and Hyundai have mastered this strategy with tremendous success.
In EX trim, the Forte offers the features that compact car buyers now want with their fuel economy, features that used to be reserved for larger, more expensive sedans.
Standard items on the EX (list for $16,795) include; Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, USB and multiple auxiliary outlets, Sirius satellite radio, traction control, electronic stability control, full-length side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, automatic transmission with manual shift action, as well as outside mirrors with turn signal indicator lamps, and sunvisor extenders. You can’t find sunvisors with extending tabs on most cars that cost more than triple the Kia’s price.
Conversely, the Forte did not offer a real trip computer setup that helped you monitor your actual fuel economy, and the four-door lacked a compass or outside temperature gauge — a feature that I find increasingly relevant for all cars.
Seat comfort was more than adequate for my extended travel. The driver’s seat manually adjusts; however, as you raise the seat the bottom pan also tilts to the front. Independent seatback and seat-pan action here would better serve different physiques.
Add a power sunroof and heated leather seating and the Forte’s price is just over $18,000 — with a larger price gap between equally equipped Civics and Corollas.
Without a doubt, Kia has made huge strides over the past 15 years. The sales increases are not folly. These cars are worthy of more serious buyer attention.