Compact cars have come a long way from the days of simple, tinny penalty boxes for commuters.
Today’s compacts offer fun driving dynamics, the latest high-tech features, comfort and refinement, all while remaining very cheap to purchase and operate. Truthfully, the modern compact is the car most drivers need. Healthy competition has kept the segment improving, and a lot of that competition has been coming from Hyundai and Kia with the Elantra and the Forte. We spent a frigid January week with a mid-range 2019 Kia Forte EX to see how the new model handles the day-to-day.
Despite being all new, the designers at Kia played it pretty safe with the new Forte, sticking with a fairly conservative and agreeable exterior appearance that looks more grown up than its predecessor. It clearly picks up some sporty styling cues from the exciting Stinger (reviewed here), but in an appropriately toned-down manner. Our mid-range EX is equipped with nice LED headlamps that do a great job lighting up the dark winter roads and some sporty looking 16” alloys.
The interior layout is totally revised as well and while it’s important to keep in mind that the Forte is built to a $16,495 entry price point, the interior is surprisingly refined and comfortable. Sure, there is an abundance of black and grey plastics, but the matte finishes and liberal uses of soft-touch materials mean most surfaces look and feel quite nice. Even the most basic LX comes with heated front seats and steering wheel. That steering wheel is also wrapped in a soft leather and has convenient controls for audio, cruise control and an LCD display in the gauge cluster.
Our EX came with the standard cloth seats, which feel like they would wear well, as opposed to synthetic leather available in higher trim levels. In this car, the cloth feels more fitting, and the seats are well bolstered, if a bit flat and hard in the centers. My colleagues took the Forte on a three-hour trip to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and nobody complained of being uncomfortable, which definitely bodes well for a compact like this.
As expected, the interior designers worked to maximize the most utility from available space, so there are two nice deep cupholders, a good-sized storage tray and a wireless charging pad worked into the center console. Under the center armrest is another storage bin, the door pockets are nice and wide, and there is a decent sized glovebox. Rear passenger legroom is great for a compact, but headroom is on the tight side thanks to the car’s sloping roof line. The trunk is deep and easily fit four tires with room to spare.
The Forte is powered by a 2.0L naturally aspirated four-cylinder outputting 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft. of. It’s mated to what Kia calls an ‘IVT’ (Intelligent Variable Transmission), which is their version of a CVT that’s been programed to simulate a regular automatic. The engine and transmission here are fairly basic, but the pair work together smoothly and the setup is more than adequate for the car.
In regular commuting conditions, the Forte feels somewhat peppy in the city and cruises well at speed on the highway thanks to the IVT keeping the RPMs low. Highway passing requires some planning given the relatively low power and slow response from the IVT, but it’s not bad enough to distract from an otherwise pleasant driving experience. At the end of the day, the Forte feels slower than other rivals, but a turbocharged model is coming soon for those who desire more.
If you do want to have a bit more fun on your commute you can select the “Sport” mode which weights the steering a bit more and lets the IVT rev the engine higher. Spirited driving is where the Forte does fall short of many competitors. The engine is no powerhouse, and with the IVT’s slow response time, brisk acceleration under load such as uphill or pulling through a corner feels laboured. The steering, like all Kia and Hyundai products, feels disconnected from the road, and the suspension is a bit soft for any real corner carving.
Road manners of the Forte are definitely better suited for the commuter who wants to get from A-to-B in comfort rather than someone interested in the joy of driving a smaller car. That said, the ride can be a bit harsh in the city, but I wouldn’t consider it worse than any its compact competitors. On the highway the Forte smooths out and feels well planted at speed, with my only critique on the highway coming from road noise intrusion, which is still not where it could be.
Fuel economy is always one of the biggest factors in the decision to purchase a compact car, and the Forte delivers here again. It’s simple naturally aspirated four cylinder means with a light foot it’s easy to really keep the consumption down. A week’s worth of commuting in arctic temperatures returned 6.4L/100km and the round trip from Toronto to Detroit returned a 5.9L/100km average. Of course, it’s happy on regular grade fuel.
Tech is high on the list of compact shoppers and Kia is answering those calls in the new Forte. The base LX manual at its $16,495 price comes with a large eight-inch touchscreen, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth and the heated seats/steering wheel. If you need an automatic transmission you’ll step up to the LX auto for $18,995 and also get Forward Collision Avoidance Assist, Lane Keep Assist and the Driver Attention Alert system. These are still considered premium driving aids, typically found on much pricier vehicles, and they work great.
The lane keep assist in the Kia is as competent as any luxury manufacturer system we’ve tested, and is capable of keeping the car steady between the white lines. Our tester is an EX with a price of $20,995 and for the extra spend it comes with a wireless charger, blind spot and rear cross traffic alerts, LED headlights, the LCD gauge cluster and 16” alloys. The one glaring omission from our EX tester is automatic climate control.
Another $1,500 will get you into the EX+ with LED lighting all around inside and out, and a nice sunroof. The EX Premium at $25,065 gets synthetic leather, push-button start, smart (adaptive) cruise control, the much-needed automatic climate control and even more driving aid tech. Lastly, the EX Limited at $28,065 delivers navigation, Harman-Kardon sound, cooled front seats and heated rear seats.
The bottom line here is that for well under $30,000 you can have a compact that’s nearly as well equipped as a larger luxury sedan, or for closer to $20,000 you can have an extremely well-equipped compact with some high-end features. Either way, it’s a great value! The Forte is not exactly a driver’s car, but the simple four-cylinder should provide years of mechanical reliability and efficiency in all conditions. Plus, what it lacks in excitement it makes up for in comfort. If I were in the market for a simple new commuter, I don’t think there’s anything I’d rather drive than the Forte EX .