Las Vegas -- The old Kia Forte hatchback was well beyond its sell-by date, with a miserable ride quality, buzzy engines, and cheap interior materials. When the all-new version debuted in February at the Chicago auto show, it appeared that Kia had worked the same magic on its new Forte5 hatchback as it had on the Forte sedan, renovating the compact car with bold design, a smarter cabin, and myriad mechanical updates. The icing on the cake? The 2014 Kia Forte5's SX trim level is now geared toward performance and has a powerful turbocharged engine under the hood.
Although they ride on the same chassis, the differences between the Forte sedan and the 2014 Kia Forte5 are significant. The wheelbase is the same, but the hatch is 8.2 inches shorter. Every body panel aft of the front doors is unique to the hatchback, as are the side skirts and the entire roof. And whereas the sedan offers two efficient but humdrum four-cylinder engines -- a 148-hp 1.8-liter and a 173-hp 2.0-liter -- the introduction of the Forte5 (as well as the two-door Forte Koup) afforded Kia the chance to add a more exciting engine choice to the mix.
The base Kia Forte5 EX uses the same 2.0-liter mill available in the sedan, but the SX employs a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-four with direct fuel injection and variable valve timing. It delivers 201 hp at 6000 rpm and 195 lb-ft of torque from 1750 to 4500 rpm. A six-speed manual transmission and a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters are available. Those power figures pitch the Kia Forte5 against some formidable competition, at least on paper, as it matches the output of the Honda Civic Si and exceeds the output of the current Volkswagen GTI by 1 hp.
The Forte5 SX receives numerous other changes compared with the Forte5 EX: more aggressive front and rear fascias, a carbon-fiber-look rear diffuser, blacked-out door handles and mirrors, dual chrome exhausts, LED taillights, and HID headlights. Within the cabin, visual tweaks are limited to stainless-steel pedals and carbon-look dashboard trim. As for handling upgrades, the front anti-roll bar is one millimeter thicker than in the EX model, at 23 mm; the front brake discs have been enlarged by 0.8 inch; the suspension has stiffer springs; and 18-inch alloy wheels are shod in 225/40-18 tires.
Grins Come Easily
We set off in the 2014 Kia Forte5 SX toward Mount Charleston, which rises to 12,000 feet above the flat Nevada desert, and instantly find that the six-speed manual transmission is a joy to use. Its rounded knob sits atop a stubby lever that slides directly into each gate with authority; close your eyes, and the transmission's light action, narrow gate, and palm-size shifter wouldn't be out of place in a rear-wheel-drive sport coupe. It's a welcome change from the old Forte -- and even some more recent stick-shift Kias -- in which mushy, imprecise gearboxes undermined the driving experience. The gear ratios are closely spaced and well chosen for brisk driving, although the engine does buzz above 3200 rpm at highway speeds.
Also satisfying is the way the transmission doles out the turbo engine's power to the front wheels. The fat torque band comes on sooner than you can say "turbo lag," lighting up the all-season tires all through first gear. The turbo engine's emphasis on low-end torque delivery makes for quick dashes through the gears, but it starts to feel dull as the revs swing toward redline and the engine runs out of zest.
Even the optional six-speed automatic transmission isn't a downer, as it snaps between gears at the flick of the small steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Some of the engine's direct, responsive nature is muted by the automatic, and we maintain that the delightful stick is the better option, but the Forte5 remains swift and eager when shifting itself.
On the sweeping bends of Nevada's rural two-lane roads, things are a little more mixed. On the upside, Kia has managed to keep the firmer springs and low-profile tires from ruining the Forte5's ride. The car is as taut and well polished as a more expensive vehicle, and the crashy nature of the old Kia Forte has been totally eliminated. The suspension upgrades are on the mild side and don't transform this hatchback into a corner-carving weapon, but it is notably more responsive than a regular Forte.
On the other hand, the electric power steering communicates barely anything through the leather-wrapped wheel. The Forte5 comes standard with three different modes for the electric power steering, and we strongly recommend leaving it set to Sport, as Comfort and Normal modes are over-assisted and light. Even then, there isn't much indication that the steering wheel is actually connected to any parts of the front suspension. We'd prefer one well-tuned steering setting to three dynamically compromised ones.
Performance chops aside, the SX trim level simply enhances the very capable 2014 Kia Forte5 hatchback. Compared to its predecessor, the Forte5's bold lines and modern interior propel it toward the top of its class visually. The mildly flared rear fenders and wide front grille give this hatchback a squat, purposeful look enhanced by the SX trim level's larger wheels and bolder body kit. The bodywork is more aerodynamic than the old Forte five-door, too, although Kia doesn't yet have fuel-economy ratings for the SX turbo.
The interior of the Kia Forte5 has likewise rocketed forward in terms of sophistication, with an intuitive touchscreen navigation system, options like cooled front seats and push-button start, and a smart color LCD trip computer between the round gauge binnacles. It may be filled with plastic, but the cabin looks and feels infinitely more modern than the outgoing model. The car also boasts more leg-, shoulder-, and headroom, the latter aided by a tall roof. Cargo capacity is up 20 percent to 23.2 cubic feet with the seats raised, beating out the Mazda3 hatchback (20.2 cu. ft.) and the Volkswagen Golf/GTI (15.2 cu. ft.) and essentially matching the Ford Focus hatch (23.8 cu. ft.). The rear seats fold flat easily, and the wide liftgate produces a large opening for carrying bulky loads.
A Kia official doesn't argue when we complain that the old Forte5 was loud and rattly, so it comes as a great relief that the 2014 model is considerably better put together. Extra insulation, foam-filled crossmembers, and special two-layer engine mounts help keep noise and vibration out of the cabin. Only a hint of tire roar and a modicum of wind noise are noticeable at highway speeds.
Warm Is Good
It might not have world-class steering feel or autocross-ready handling, but the Kia Forte5 SX isn't really aiming to topple the likes of the Volkswagen GTI. Instead, the SX offers a sportier and more exciting version of the well-rounded Forte5, all while maintaining Kia's focus on quality, design, and value for money. Pricing hasn't been confirmed, but we're told to expect a range of $21,000 to $25,000 for the Forte5 SX, undercutting most sporty compacts with similar power. That's a lot of car for the money.
If the Volkswagen GTI is a hot hatchback, then the 2014 Kia Forte5 SX is a warm hatch in the most complimentary sense. It's not quite as sharp as the best sport compacts, but no other Kia is as much fun to drive as this turbocharged five-door.
2014 Kia Forte5
|On Sale:||December 2013|
|Base Price:||$22,000 (est.)|
|Engine:||1.6L turbo I-4, 201 hp and 195 lb-ft|
|Transmission:||6-speed manual, 6-speed manual|
|Cargo Capacity:||23.2 cubic feet|