The Kia Forte 5-door is new for this year and expands upon the existing sedan and Koup body styles. I like the styling and packaging of the Forte hatchback, but the car could use a little more refinement to match up to its competitors. I drove a Forte sedan two years ago and was rather impressed, but that was a different small-car market. Compared to the latest crop of small cars available in 2011, this Forte 5-door feels cheap and unsatisfying to drive.
The Forte’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is surprisingly powerful, but it’s somewhat loud and sounds coarse. The clutch pedal is annoyingly vague and has a very high engagement point, making it difficult to find the bite point and easy to stall in low-speed parking maneuvers — ask me how I know. I was similarly dissatisfied with the throttle, which permits what feels like a half inch of travel before there’s any apparent engine response. The pedals conspire to make smooth city driving more difficult than you’d expect from an economy hatch. Kia could also do with fine-tuning the suspension, as it is easily unsettled in corners, and even the smallest on-road bumps induce crashes and rattles in the cabin.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
If the folks at Kia adopted the zeal of Chrysler’s engineers, next year’s Kia Forte could be a brilliant car. The Forte is a good first effort from a reinvigorated Kia and while it has some key fundamentals in place, a thorough reengineering of crucial components systems could completely redefine the car. On the positive side, the Forte is attractive, the interior is very nice, and the packaging works well. As a fan of four-door hatchbacks, I love that Kia is offering a hatchback variant along with the volume-leader sedan and the very cool coupe. So what needs improvement? The suspension and transmission — urgently. The Forte’s ride is sometimes brittle over small, sharp impacts and sometimes abrupt over large bumps. It could benefit from slightly softer springs with firmer damping. The five-speed manual’s stick is loose, imprecise, delicate, and lacking feel. At a time when automatics are generally more efficient, the reason to get a manual is driver enjoyment — but this manual offers little. The final critical fix is recalibrating the throttle pedal, which is slow to respond yet overly aggressive in how pedal travel corresponds to throttle opening. A more engaging, drivable car would be more responsive yet make the throttle opening more progressive.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Here is the thing about the Forte: when it came out in mid-2009, it was considered near the top of the compact car heap, with its high-quality interior, reasonably fun driving dynamics, and peppy engine. Then the second-generation Mazda 3 launched. And the Chevrolet Cruze. And the Hyundai Elantra. And the 2012 Ford Focus. And the Forte got left behind.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad. The 2.4-liter is peppy once you wind it up past about 2700 rpm, and the brakes are powerful though not very linear and have very little feedback in the pedal. The clutch is as vague as can be, with zero feedback, making smooth, low-speed shifts a near impossibility. However, the exterior is handsome and clean, and the interior is well-built and uses reasonably high-quality materials.
The Forte provided a little more than expected for $20,000 two years ago, it’s just that, seemingly overnight, the competition raised the bar to a point that Kia’s engineers didn’t think it would go to. Let’s fast-forward to today — Kia finds itself with a lukewarm offering in one of the hottest (and freshest) segments around. However, given what Kia has rolled out recently with its newer models like the Sportage and the Optima, I am excited to see what the next Forte will be. Too bad that it won’t make an appearance for another two to three years at least.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
The Kia Forte 5-door is a nice addition to the Forte lineup. It offers a decent amount of utility for the price and is wrapped in handsome sheetmetal. The interior is also fairly appealing with nice looking, textured materials, an attractive, easy to use central dash, and crisp, sporty-looking gauges. In fact, in terms of style and functionality, the Forte 5-door actually competes pretty well with even the freshest competition both inside and out.
Unfortunately, the Forte falls far short of the competition in terms of driving refinement and enjoyment. I won’t belabor its shortcomings, as several others have already summed them up, but the Forte’s poor driving dynamics and manual transmission seem like a step backward for a company that has improved on every one of its vehicles with each generation. Kia could solve many of the Forte’s shortcomings by swapping in mechanicals — specifically the manual transmission and chassis components — from the Elantra Touring, produced by corporate cousin Hyundai. We drove that car back in 2009 and were hugely impressed by its excellent ride and sporty B&M shifter.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Donny hits it on the nose. The Forte impressed mightily when it came out with its strong styling, attractive interior, and generous platter of standard features and options. When I first drove it, I liked it despite a few flaws. Now, however, I climb into it having recently experienced the new Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, and Honda Civic. The Forte’s flaws, although still relatively few, are now glaring.
The big issue, as others have noted, is the absolutely dreadful relationship between the numb clutch and gas pedal — they’re barely on speaking terms. Forget about trying to heel-and-toe downshift, just try to get away from a stoplight without stalling.
I can see some readers shaking their heads at us narrow-minded enthusiasts for dismissing a well-equipped, good-looking small car on the basis of a transmission that most people won’t order. And yet in this case (as in many others) the shortcomings of the stick shift are a bellwether for the way the entire car is dynamically tuned. The suspension crashes over bumps, the throttle is lazy, the steering is heavy but numb. This is clearly an example of a car that’d benefit from some time either in Europe or on a racetrack.
The Forte remains one of the best styled cars in the segment, particularly in this new hatchback form, and it still comes with an impressive array of features. Those who plan on getting an automatic and who live in an area where the roads are smooth should certainly consider it. But don’t forget to drive the Focus, Cruze, Civic, and Elantra as well.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The Forte hatchback is new for 2011, but I didn’t realize it existed until the keys to this test car were plunked down on my desk. As my colleagues have noted, the Forte was a big deal and very impressive when it debuted not so long ago, but even the addition of an attractive new body style was overshadowed by all the news that competitors have recently been making in the compact-car segment. The so-called 5-door (a name that drives this copy editor crazy, by the way — rear hatchbacks are really doors?) starts off at $1900 more than the sedan, but I think it’s easily the more desirable Forte due to its better looks and superior utility.
The car we tested had the optional 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, but I would have guessed that it had the base 2.0-liter four (which produces only 17 hp less than the bigger engine), so unremarkable was its performance. It is nice to have a stick shift in a car like this, but this six-speed is one of the least enjoyable contemporary gearboxes, as its action is limp and a bit crunchy. I agree with those who have already noted how easy it is to stall the engine when rolling away from a stop, too, since there’s not much torque and the clutch is so finicky.
I was also disappointed with this Kia’s lack of refinement: road noise is quite apparent, and you can really feel the wheels bouncing around at the ends of the axles. Handling is no revelation, either.
Fortunately, the interior is pleasant and comfortable; it doesn’t contain great materials, but they are well assembled, as is typical of Kia products. The red stitching in the seat upholstery lends a sporty feel. This test car was also equipped with an abundance of nice features: heated front seats, leather upholstery, a sunroof, and lots of useful stowage compartments.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
2011 Kia Forte SX 5-door
Base price (with destination): $19,090
Price as tested: $20,840
2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine
6-speed manual transmission
17-inch alloy wheels
Electronic stability control
Traction control system
Tire pressure monitoring system
AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with 6 speakers
Sirius satellite radio
USB/Auxiliary input jacks
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
60/40-split fold rear seats
Tilt/telescoping steering column
Options on this vehicle:
Leather package — $1000
Leather seat trim
Heated front seats
Auto-dimming rearview mirror
Power sunroof — $750
Key options not on vehicle:
SX technology package — $1800
Navigation with rearview camera
Automatic climate control
Push button start
Remote start — $295
22 / 32 / 26 mpg
2.4L DOHC 16-valve I-4
Horsepower: 173 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 168 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Curb weight: 2896 lb
Wheels/tires: 17-inch alloy wheels
215/45R17 all-season tires