First Drive: 2010 Kia Forte

Give Kia credit; it's not afraid to take on a monumental task. The ambitious Korean automaker didn't start selling cars in the United States until 1994, and a mere fifteen years later it offers a full range of vehicles, from the entry-level Rio sedan to the seven-passenger Borrego SUV to the spunky, funky Soul "urban passenger vehicle." As with almost every other carmaker, its sales are down this year (although Kia's 6.8 percent drop looks positively paltry compared with the double-digit dips suffered by most of its competitors). The faltering economy hasn't stopped Kia from forging ahead with its product plans, however. In fact, the automaker boasts that not only have there been no cutbacks, but in May, it spent more money marketing its products than during any other month in company history.

Which brings us to the all-new Forte. With the Forte, Kia has set its sights on the notoriously competitive (and profit-challenged) compact sedan segment, and it is aiming squarely at the powerhouses that currently dominate the market: the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. That's no small task, and one at which Kia's erstwhile small sedan, the Spectra, utterly failed.

Compared with the Spectra, the Forte has a more dynamic look, with a distinct wedge-shaped profile and a wider stance. Its trunk is cavernous, with 14.7 cubic feet of cargo volume that can be further extended by lowering the split-folding rear seats. The cabin is nicely appointed, with cloth or leather seats, a user-friendly center stack, steering-wheel-mounted controls, standard Sirius radio, and Bluetooth.

The Forte is available in three trim levels: LX, EX, and SX. The LX and the EX are equipped with a 156-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission, with an optional four-speed automatic. The sportier SX comes with a 173-hp, 2.4-liter four with either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic. A Fuel Economy Package, which improves EPA estimated fuel mileage from 25/34 mpg to 27/36 mpg (city/highway), is available on the EX.

We drove an EX with the lively 2.0-liter, but the four-speed automatic to which it is mated longs for another gear - hammering the pedal for passing maneuvers resulted in timely but abrupt downshifts that were accompanied by too much engine noise. The sportier SX had an even more satisfying amount of power, but the six-speed manual took some getting used to, due to its overly sensitive clutch takeup and vague shift action. Although the Forte's performance isn't exactly ground-breaking, its speed-sensitive steering is accurate and progressive, its four-wheel disc brakes are up to the job, and its suspension, which was tuned in the U.S. for American road conditions, absorbs bumps well without unsettling the ride.

The Forte is unlikely to dethrone either the Civic or the Corolla - or for that matter the Mazda 3 - but Kia now has a bona fide competitor to all of them.

The Specs

On sale: Now
price: $14,390/ $17,890 (LX/SX)
Engine: 2.0L I-4, 156 hp, 144 lb-ft; 2.4L I-4, 173 hp, 168 lb-ft
Drive: Front-wheel

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