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