2010 Kia Forte SX

I’m impressed with the Kia Forte SX. The interior is well-designed, and the materials are generally quite nice for a compact car, although there are still few remnants of the really cheap plastics that Korean cars have become synonymous with. I was surprised to learn that the sound system isn’t an optional upgraded unit, because it sounds so good and offers features like iPod integration and satellite radio.

I was also happily surprised by the power that the 2.4-liter I-4 puts out. There’s a healthy amount of torque available, so you don’t need to shift constantly in traffic. The six-speed manual gearbox is nothing more than adequate and the clutch is a bit finicky, but I give Kia credit for offering six forward gears in the Forte SX — lesser Fortes have to make do with five-speed manuals or four-speed automatics.

Sadly, I don’t see Kia giving buyers a reason to get out of Honda Civics or Toyota Corollas. There’s enough here to tempt Nissan Sentra and Chevy Cobalt shoppers, however, so that could be enough to make the Forte a success. A good experience in the Forte could be enough to keep buyers in the Kia fold once it’s time to upgrade to a refreshed Optima sedan. If budget-minded buyers want a little more style, there’s always the Kia Soul parked a few spots over at the dealer.

Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor

As the former owner of a Kia Spectra, the Forte’s predecessor, I’m slightly disappointed that the Forte didn’t leave a stronger impression on me. Sure, it’s a lot better than the Spectra, but I was kinda rooting for Kia to directly hit the Civic/Corolla target. Instead, the Forte comes up a bit short — closer than the Spectra, but still short.

Don’t get me wrong … the Forte offers exceptional power, lots of features, and a comfortable and reasonably spacious cabin and trunk. My opinion is clouded, though, by hard (though well-grained) plastics in the interior, a strangely slow-revving engine that’s easy to stall thanks to vague clutch-pedal engagement, and exterior styling that’s nice but, to my eyes, too derivative.

To me, the base-model Forte, which starts at $14,390 but has a smaller engine, is more tempting. Once you option a compact Kia sedan to just under $20K, it’s easy to get distracted by what else that cash could get you, be it a tricked-out Soul, a larger Optima, or something from the dealership next door.

Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor

The Forte is a well-executed compact sedan that will, as my colleagues have noted, have a difficult time making inroads against the 500-pound gorillas of this category, the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. But it’s so much better than the Spectra it replaces, and it’s really well equipped for the money. Although it has none of the bottom-of-the-barrel aura that plagued the Spectra, it also has little of the cachet of its sibling, the cheeky little Soul wagon.

Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor

In terms of packaging, styling, features, and quality, Kia has a competitor in the Forte. While the styling looks like it was driven off a Honda dealer lot, there’s nothing here that looks distinctly Korean or pointedly cheap. That’s a huge start toward dispelling preconceptions. Good things continue inside too. The center stack and instrument panel are sporty and easy to use. There are also upscale offerings like heated seats, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and iPod integration. With the Forte, Kia should see plenty of new shoppers in its showrooms.

But that won’t necessarily translate into sales. I was totally unimpressed by the driving experience and imagine test drives will cause quite a few people to turn away from the Forte. Over railroad tracks and lumpy, patched pavement the Forte doesn’t feel in control at all. That feeling is magnified as the car continues to bounce around long after you’ve cleared the offending rough patch. The rear end feels especially stiff, and one can feel it squirming side to side when you hit a patch of rough road through a bend. In addition to the difficult clutch pedal, there’s the finicky throttle calibration. The throttle reacts far too aggressively to minor pedal inputs, so it’s easy to over-rev the engine as you try to leave from a stop. Then at the next light you’ll inevitably struggle not to stall the Kia while trying not to commit the same mistake. The powertrain and steering are neither terrible nor exemplary.

Kia’s biggest mistake with the Forte was trying to copy the Civic. When you’re mimicking another company’s product, you have to beat that car to win respect. Falling short just makes you look like a poseur. Had Kia tried something more original, the Forte would have been a much more desirable car, even with its dynamic shortcomings.

Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor

Count me in with the reasonably impressed crowd. The Forte is a bit rough around the edges, but offers a whole lot of value and feature content for a very reasonable price.

Much has been said about the Kia’s derivative styling, but up close and in person, it’s a handsome sedan – better looking, I daresay, than the Honda Civic it’s clearly aping. The interior is likewise a strong effort, with nicely grained plastics and lots of impressive standard features like Bluetooth and an iPod connector.

Neither does the Forte embarrass itself on the road. In everyday driving, it impresses with lots of usable power and accurate, decently weighted steering. Ride quality was on par with other compact cars I’ve driven recently. As others have noted, it lacks the polish of a Civic or a Mazda 3, particularly in its throttle calibration, and I’ll admit I stalled it once as I tried to cope with the slow-to-rev engine and vague clutch takeup. I suspect the available five-speed automatic will better showcase the engine’s low-end torque.

Would I take the Forte over a Civic? Probably not. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Forte, along with the Soul, takes Kia out of the bargain basement and into the realm of solid competitors. And I can imagine some nonenthusiasts will be tempted away from the class leaders by the Forte’s plethora of features. The ten-year warranty doesn’t hurt either.
My semi-endorsement does come with a disclaimer, however. Our particular Forte exhibited an obnoxious interior squeak, one that would call for a trip to the dealer. Given that press cars are often early-production units and live generally tortured existences, I’d be willing to guess this is an unusual occurrence. If this issue shows up on more cars, though, it would be a deal breaker.

David Zenlea, Assistant Editor

I’m surprised no one besides Eric Tingwall mentioned this car’s abysmal ride quality. It crashes over bumps; it feels like there’s no damping at all. The 45-series tires no doubt aren’t helping here, but even so…

The flaccid clutch was another negative, and the shift action is clunky.

On the positive side of the ledge, the engine, is responsive for this segment, with plenty of torque down low. The interior is pleasant, and the exterior is clean-looking and modern. But Kia engineers need to take apart a Mazda 3 and study it. Carefully.

Joe Lorio, Senior Editor

2010 Kia Forte SX

Base price (with destination): $17,890
Price as tested: $19,490

Standard equipment:
Air conditioning
Sirius satellite radio with 3-month subscription
Bluetooth connectivity
Power windows
Cruise control
Leather steering wheel and shifter boot
Power mirrors
Tilt and telescoping steering wheel

Options on this vehicle:
SX Leather Package – $1000
-Leather seat trim
-Heated front seats
Power sunroof – $600

Key options not on this vehicle:
5-speed automatic transmission – $1000
Auto-dimming mirror with compass – $180
Auto-dimming mirror with compass and Homelink – $250

Fuel economy:
22 / 32 / 26 mpg

Size: 2.4L 16V DOHC in-line 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 173 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 168 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm

6-speed manual

Weight: 2853 lb

17-inch wheels
215/45 Goodyear Eagle LS2 tires

Look for: Engine & transmission NVH, ride quality, throttle tip-in, clutch pickup

Competitors: Honda Civic, Chevy Cobalt, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla

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