2018 Kia Forte- The Name Game

What’s in a name? Well, according to Kia; a lot. Their compact sedan offerings have gone through a slew of names over the past two decades. Released for 1994, their first compact player in the U.S., the Kia Sephia, not only sounded like a car from a Dr. Seuss story, but was equally fun to read out loud. That car lasted two generations until being replaced by the more serious Spectra in 2004. The more grown-up moniker reflected on Kia’s ambitious goals to be a major contender in the industry. Finally, the Spectra was replaced by the Forte in 2008, and the name has since tenaciously stuck through three generations. The definition of “forte” is a strength or skill, and Kia would like to make you think that their small car as a strong competitor. But does the name stack up?

The third generation all-new Forte has been recently released for 2019, but today, we have one of the last 2018 models representing the second generation. It was a worth a revisit and a shout-out to the outgoing model that was originally released for 2014.

This Forte shares its chassis with the Hyundai Elantra, albeit with some suspension tweaks and Kia’s unique styling theme. Despite being at the end of its cycle, the Forte is still handsome with sculpted lines and purposeful curves. It’s a smart, cohesive design, and a refresh in 2017 added new headlights, taillights, and a more pronounced tiger-mouth grille that ties the Forte closer in looks to its bigger brothers, the Optima and Sedona. The overall style is tidy, attractive, and will age better than some of the Forte’s overwrought competitors.

The clean styling approach continues inside. Kia’s goal with the Forte was to make the cockpit driver oriented, and for the most part, they succeeded. All controls and the dash are focused and slanted toward the driver’s seat. It’s simple and effective. That may explain why the bizarre ribbed theme stands out. The doors panels and passenger side dash cover have ripples that don’t blend with anything else. My guess is that they’re just an attempt to break up the expanse of black plastics, but the eye immediately focuses on them. Whatever the reason, they look like afterthoughts. One of my complaints with earlier Fortes was that there were no less than seven different plastic textures used on the dash, creating a busy surface. That was addressed in the refresh and, despite there still being an excessive amount of panels that constitute the dash, it’s more cohesive than before.

There are no issues at all with the controls and ergonomics in the Forte. Like most modern Kias, there isn’t a learning curve and everything is straightforward and logical to use. Ventilation is controlled through three simple knobs and Kia’s UVO infotainment system remains one of the best in the business; responsive and user-friendly. Pairing a phone is effortless and there’s enough physical buttons to complement the touchscreen.

Gauges are crystal clear and legible to read at a glance. Once again, there’s no trickery. The driver position itself is extremely comfortable for long drives, with multiple adjustments and the seat tracks allow for generous rearward travel to help long-legged pilots. The seat cushions are supportive, the telescoping steering wheel has plenty of adjustments, and the centre armrest slides to help tailor the perfect seating position. As a whole, the front seats are very accommodating for full-size adults. Thanks to the liberal usage of glass, thin roof pillars, and a crisp rear camera display, visibility is excellent all around.

Touchpoints on the dash and armrests are nicely padded and it’s obvious that Kia has sweated the details. Some cheap touches are present, but should be expected at this price point. All pieces feel tightly assembled at Kia’s new plant in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. One oddity were the two clocks that were within inches of each other on the dash; one was on the touchscreen and the other in its exclusive spot housed in the dash. They’re unsynchronised, and an obscure oversight that neither Captain Hook or my OCD would appreciate. I understand the reasoning for the dashtop clock since the non-touchscreen radio does not read the time, but like the odd ripples in the cabin, it’s a strange Forte detail that seems like an oversight.

The rear seats brought conflicting reviews. Shorter passengers raved about the Forte’s abundant headroom and legroom. Taller passengers felt that kneeroom was cozy, and that the sloping roofline sacrificed headroom, causing an uncomfortable chin-to-chest posture. At first, we weren’t sure if we were discussing the same car, but it turns out that a few inches in height can make all the difference. The seats themselves are nicely contoured and even have a centre armrest with cupholders. We’ll say that the Forte’s rear accommodations are average for the class, and advise to test it with real passengers before committing.

The trunk space is bountiful at 14.9 cubic feet, which is more than the Civic, Corolla, Focus, or even stablemate Elantra. Only the Nissan Sentra bests the Forte at hauling larger items. The cargo hold itself is a useable shape with minimal wheelwell intrusive and a nice, low and wide liftover. Rear seats do fold 60/40 to add even more practicality. Below the trunk floor, Kia has yet again skimped on the spare tyre and only offers an inflator kit. Hyundai has been getting back onto the spare tyre bandwagon, but Kia remains a holdout.

All Fortes come with a 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine equipped with 16 valves and dual continuous variable valve timing (D-CVVT). The higher-spec EX trim does also have gasoline-direct injection, providing 164 horsepower, but our lower level LX and the S trim come with the regular multiport injection, bringing the power down to 147 horsepower. That’s pretty average for this class, and the 2.0 Nu (Kia’s name for this motor) powerplant feels peppy around town. Throttle response is eager and the car feels sprightly from a stop. The engine does lose a little bit of steam at highway speeds and becomes breathless when passing. The motor, while subdued at most of the rpm range, does get buzzy north of 5k rpm. But for the average driver, it does what it’s meant to without complaint.

Backing up the 2.0 is a choice of two transmissions; a six-speed manual or an electronically controlled six-speed automatic with a manumatic mode. With our car, there was also Drive Mode Select (DMS) offering a choice between sport and eco mode, that varies the timing of shifts based on performance preferences. In either setting, I didn’t notice much difference between them. Left in “normal” mode, the automatic is a fine companion. Shifts are smooth, nearly transparent, and nicely timed. It is ready to downshift whenever more power is needed and matches the engine’s around-town enthusiasm.

Every passenger was unanimous that the Forte’s ride is stiff. Kia did go a different route than Hyundai by using a Torsion-beam rear setup. This design has its advantages, namely being cheaper and more compact. But it also translates to a rougher ride and, in the case of the Forte, a noisier one. Each road imperfection was transmitted to the cabin as was any suspension noise while trying to soak it up. The firmness wasn’t too annoyingly apparent on most highways, but on neglected back roads and California’s infamously mediocre freeways, it became obvious.

Steering and handling also drew mixed feelings. Under normal driving conditions, the Forte is just fine. Steering feel is nicely weighted when parking, cruising around town, and on the highway. But push it around corners, and there’s a vagueness that doesn’t inspire confidence. The same goes for handling; it’s predictable and pleasant enough. Yet with spirited driving on a twisty road, the rear end tends to give out with some understeer and wants to shimmy when the road’s uneven. That Torsion-beam suspension can be thanked for that as well. It’s no match for the Mazda3 or Ford Focus. However, most Forte owners will unlikely drive their cars fervidly and the Forte is perfectly acceptable in everyday use.

The EPA rates the automatic Forte LX at 29mpg in the city and 37mpg on the highway. Our recordings fluctuated wildly during the eight days that the Kia was in our custody. While doing mundane errands around town, the Forte eeked out an average of 27mpg over the course of several days. But during a 200 mile highway jaunt, the mileage skyrocketed to a hybrid-like 47mpg. Your results will certainly vary.

Our test car had 13k miles on the clock at the time of rental and felt solid. There were no creaks, rattles, or quality issues. The only [minor] defect was a rubber molding that had come lose on the inner grab handle on a rear passenger door.

Prices on the Forte start at $16,800 in LX trim with the manual transmission. At that price, the car is generously equipped with 15-inch steel wheels, heated mirrors, air conditioning, full power accessories, a trip computer, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver seat, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, Bluetooth, and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, USB connectivity and an auxiliary audio jack. Our LX added the automatic transmission and the LX popular Package that includes niceties such as the UVO touchscreen, rear view camera, cruise control, Android and Apple CarPlay, Drive Mode Select, and a host of interior upgrades. Strangely, the LX Popular Package only comes with the Aurora Pearl Black paint, an additional $295 cost. Henry Ford once quoted that folks could buy a Model T in any colour as long as it’s black, and Kia holds that same philosophy with the Popular Package. So we digress, and our inevitable Aurora Black Forte added up $20,090. At that price, the Forte is competitive with similarly optioned compact sedans.

Yet overall, the Forte comes across as average. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid little car that does what it’s asked to and would please most buyers in this price range. In fact, it’s a competent car that does almost everything well. Yet it isn’t exceptional or a standout in any criteria, and includes a few shortfalls. Secretly, I was hoping the Kia would win me over. Not only for the ambitious name, but I kept it longer than most rentals and became well acquainted and fond of it as a companion on the daily grind. It’s likeable, competent, handsome, but middling enough to please the masses. Across the showroom is the Kia Soul, and for the same price, it handles better, carries more gear and is a more well-rounded package. The Forte just didn’t have a forte over any other car. Despite the name, it’s a score of 2.0/5.0 boomerangs


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