Of all the car classes remaining in the marketplace, the most life exists in the compact sedan class, where recent redesigns from Honda, Toyota and this week’s Kia Forte illustrate that the Asian automakers are not ready to abandon the vehicles that helped establish them in America. Indeed, the latest Forte is a stylish, handsome four-door that is larger, more comfortable and more capable.
With Fiat/Chrysler done with its small Dart two years ago, Ford ditching the Focus series and Chevy closing Cruze production soon, the small car segment will be completely dominated by import brands that may or may not actually build these cars in North America. There will be case studies for decades about how Toyota, Honda and Hyundai/Kia could build profitable small cars while the domestic Big Three automakers claimed that they could not.
Using the same stylists and styling emphasis found on its larger Stinger sibling, the latest Forte is 3 inches longer, wears much more attractive sheet metal and gains a revised chassis that offers vastly improved suspension compliance and ride quality. Kia broadened the safety gear offerings in the three trim levels — LX starts at $17,690, sportier S lists at $19,400, plush EX begins at $21,700 — while the interior also makes the leap from staid economy car to respectable, mature adult.
Screens (gotta have screens, right?) include 7-inch units in LX and S, with an 8-inch screen reserved for EX. Android/Apple connectivity is standard, with blind-spot detection, lane keeping assist, emergency forward braking, plus dynamic cruise all available in packages or at trim levels. Our EX also featured heated and cooled leatherette power seats, dual-zone climate controls and three-mode (comfort, sport, smart) driving selections for the new CVT automatic transmission. Kia still offers a six-speed manual gearbox for the base LX, while the CVT — with three more miles per gallon — standard on the S and EX. EPA ratings peak at 30/40 mpg, with our sampled sedan reporting 38 mpg when the weather wasn’t showering the surfaces with sleet and snow.
Base power comes from a 147-hp 2.0-liter engine with direct injection. EX trim gets you 17 more horsepower with the same motor utilizing Atkinson-cycle technology for greater efficiency and lower emissions, earning super low emissions status. The CVT mode selector button changes “shift” points as you desire, yet the change to a continuously variable automatic transmission reaps more miles per gallon — the general goal of owning a smaller car.
Kia will add a fourth Forte model later in 2019, with a 201-hp GT version joining the lineup.
Likes here include good outward visibility, comfortable front and rear seating and the ease with which all of the controls work. Smart-key ignition is an ongoing trend, simple touchscreens as opposed to complex is generally easier to use, plus the split-folding rear seat adds cargo convenience. The improved drive dynamics are notable and the more expressive styling is pleasing to the eye, with LED lighting all around, giving the Forte EX good presence.
Gripes are nuanced. It would be good if the Forte’s selected settings remained in place from start to start as you run errands, instead of having to reactivate the seat heaters, readjust the auto-climate, and reconfigure the touchscreen each time you thumb the ignition. And the Forte’s Kumho Majesty tires were reluctant partners in the snow, lacking the grip and performance that true winter tires would have provided — and most drivers would expect.
Each of the compact sedans in the marketplace is a credible small car. From the Corolla to the Civic, Sentra, Cruze and to the Elantra, these cars are almost as large as former midsize sedans, they are packed with safety and comfort technology, plus they drive better than ever before while getting responsible fuel economy. Only Subaru’s Impreza offers AWD, which explains its popularity in New England, however this Forte’s warranty — 10 years and 100,000 miles — is a different asset unmatched by its rivals.
Looks like a Stinger, floats like a butterfly. This new Forte will keep small car buyers happy.