Kia Forte offers good looks at a low price

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by By TOM VOELK / Special to KING5.com

NWCN.com

Posted on June 25, 2009 at 1:05 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: Driving Northwest: The Kia Forte

Every week I do my best to provide the best possible automotive information I can with an added dose of perspective and humor for no extra charge.  Writing about this week's car, the Kia Forte I clicked on Dictionary.com to check out the precise meaning of the name: 

"noun- a strong point, as of a person; that in which one excels."

No surprise.  But guess what folks?  We've been saying it wrong.  Once again, Dictionary.com:

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Usage Note: The word forte, coming from French fort, should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, (fr't?'), which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian. In a recent survey a strong majority of the Usage Panel, 74 percent, preferred the two-syllable pronunciation.

Oh, how awkward of us Americans.  The Italian pronunciation we use means "in a loud, forceful manner." I suggest correcting people at cocktail parties.  You're sure to be invited back often given your display of intelligence and quick wit.

Back to the Forte.  However you pronounce it (Kia goes with the more popular fore-tay) they're aiming to compete with Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Honda Civic and Ford Focus.  Kia, which appropriately means "arising from Asia," is clearly excited about this sedan.  And why not?  It looks great, gets exceptional gas mileage and seats five adults.  All of this starts at the low, low price of $14,390, including destination.  Like a trip to Dictionary.com, there are some surprises here and there.

Pay attention.  There will be a quiz. 

Forte replaces the Spectra in the Kia lineup and that's fine because it wasn't exactly a household name.  It comes in three models - LX, EX and top-of-the-line SX.  Base LX cars are motivated by a 2-liter 4-cylinder that makes 156 horsepower.  Transmission choices are a standard 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic (a $1,000 option).  Move up to the EX and the drivetrain remains the same but there are some standard equipment upgrades and the ability to move into some ritzy trim. 

Adding $600 to an automatic equipped EX buys a Fuel Economy package, the model I'm spending most time in.  It includes low rolling resistance tires, aerodynamic tweaks and a 5-speed automatic tranny.  Finally there's the SX.   It gets the big motor, a 2.4 liter 4-cylinder making 173 HP.  It also adds 17-inch alloy wheels, a tuned suspension, telescoping steering wheel with a leather wrap, sporty aluminum clad pedals and glowing gauges among other items. Transmissions here a 6-speed manual and 5-speed automatic.

It gets better.   Kia makes SIRIUS satellite radio, Bluetooth phone connection and dedicated iPod interface standard across the board.  So are electronic traction and stability control, anti lock brakes and six airbags.  Try as you may, a fully loaded high-end SX will not cross the $20,500 barrier unless you find some dealer who sells mink floor mats.  It would appear giving is Kia's forte.

So what's not to love?

Just a few things.  That base LX price is very low but does not include air conditioning or a folding rear seat.  Those are part of a $1,500 Convenience Package.   Thinking of adding it?   You might want to check out the EX for just $600 more.   I did not drive the manual transmissions but fellow journalists who attended the Kia press launch in Seattle were not enamored with them.  Hey, I can't do all the work for you.  There's something to pay attention to during your test drive.

Fuel economy defined

Listen up Merriam and Webster, you don't need a hybrid to get decent gas mileage.  My Fuel Economy package tester scores 27 city/36 highway with the EPA.  That just squeaks past Honda Civic DX at 25/36.  The best a Mazda3 with auto tranny can score is 24/33.  Corolla?  26/34.  Without that package, 2-liter equipped Fortes still do well at 25/34.  SX cars with the 2.4 engine are a bit thirstier at 22/32 for both the 6-speed manual and 5-speed automatic.  

Put the go pedal down and acceleration is average in class. With no time to run actual acceleration tests, the seat of my pants gets the impression that Forte is in the same ballpark as Corolla and Civic even though Kia's two engines deliver more horsepower than the competition.  The tranny upshifts early and often to maximize MPG.  It's a bit slow to downshift when passing but that's the norm these days as engineers program them to get the best fuel economy possible.  

The driving dynamic is strictly by the book.  Forte drives most like the comfort oriented Toyota Corolla.  The suspension is compliant with more body roll than I remember from Civic.  Sporty drivers will stick to their Mazda3s.  The interior is moderately quiet for a low cost car, making long road trips much more tolerable.  

A pleasant place to see the world from

Interior design and materials have a good solid look about them.  Again, this space reminds me most of the conservative Corolla.  Forte doesn't have the same rich look of the Mazda with its soft touch materials and light show antics.   The Kia is less expensive though.  Some folks don't like the hard plastics the Forte employs for the instrument panel, but since it's not a surface people tend to touch a lot, it's easy to shrug off. 

EX cars get a tilt steering wheel. Upgrade to the SX model and it gets a leather wrap and telescoping adjustment.  Cloth seats in the LX and EX get blacked-out trim, the faux metal found in SX and leather trimmed EX cars is much richer. It's what you stare at the most, spring for it.  The stereo with six speakers, a CD player and SIRIUS satellite radio has decent sound for a budget ride.  The USB port that the iPod cable connects to can also handle a flash drive full of MP3 music.  No expensive player needed.  Built in satellite navigation is not available.  Go get yourself a Garmin but put it away when you park.   Yes, I know I sound like your mom.

Little big car 

Forte is roomy for its size and three average adults will be fine in the backseat.  Kia doesn't chince out, there's a folding armrest complete with cup-holders.  The side door pockets hold beverages as well.  Seat mounting brackets are untrimmed but hey, you're driving and you won't have to look at them.  I'd like to see a second pocket for the kids to stash Happy Meal toys.

I'm on a press event and can't do my normal bath tissue test.  Kia claims the trunk is the same size as an Acura TL, which holds six packs of Costco's finest.  That's pretty good for a compact sedan.  For the record Mazda3 scores 5.  There are handy releases in the trunk that lower the split 60-40 seatbacks making the space flexible.  My only gripe is hinge arms that can pinch cargo when fully loaded.  Yes, I know, this isn't an Audi and so it won't get space saving hinges.

The joy of SX

Go for the SX and there's more than an engaging engine.  The pedals get sporty aluminum trim, the gauges glow with Supervision lighting.  Optional leather seats even get bun warmers. Overall this version is the one most people will be happiest with.  Even with the more engaging suspension this car still doesn't run the way a Mazda3 or Civic Si does.    Kia promises a sporty 2-door Forte coupe will be available soon and it's sure a looker.

Kia is down less.

While sales are down across the board in the automotive world, Kia's fate isn't as bad as the competition.  Because their down only single digits  they've gone from 2.1 percent of the total U.S. market to 3.1 percent.  They also seem to be earning some respect.  In the past when they've shown unbadged cars to focus groups, people rated the cars highly only to drop their rating when the Korean's logo was revealed.  With the Forte clinic, Kia claims folks rated it #1, even after the nameplate was unveiled.  Rodney Dangerfield no more.

Kia of the future

At the press event Kia quickly flashed a few drawings of their future models up on the big screen.   Kia's chief designer Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi, looks to be transforming Kia's look for the better.  It will be fun to keep an eye on their design if Forte is any clue to their direction.   Kia says this sedan will be their volume seller, but unlike the popular and funky Soul (which outsold Scion xB and xD combined recently) they won't use fluffy rodents to market it. 

If you're a childless couple, Kia is targeting you.  No doubt they'll also crow about their 10-year, 100,000-mile warrantee to keep Forte looking like the smart choice.  Want to look good but keep costs down? No matter how you pronounce it, you'l l find Forte in the dictionary under style and value.

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