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First Drive: 2014 Kia Forte

The old Kia Forte was a decent car with terrible timing. It debuted four years ago, just ahead of a tidal wave of vastly improved small cars like the Chevrolet Cruze, the Ford Focus, and the Hyundai Elantra. To add insult to injury, the car's launch coincided almost exactly with the federal government's Cash For Clunkers initiative, forcing Kia to divert much of its advertising budget toward promoting the program. The compact never recovered, becoming a rare underperformer in Kia's lineup. Although the brand's overall sales have nearly doubled in the last five years, the Forte doesn't do any better than the Spectra it replaced.

The good news for the Forte is that Kia has enough money to create its own timing. Four years after its debut, when we'd normally expect to see a significant refresh, we're instead getting an all-new car, the 2014 Kia Forte sedan.

Styling: Blander but better

In other segments, Kia has been able to win over buyers with a healthy helping of styling and quirkiness. For its new small car, however, Kia seems to have bowed to the practicality-first conventions established by perennial segment leaders Honda and Toyota. "When consumers shop for a small car, the rational part of the brain dominates," says Kia product planning manager Ralph Tjoa. So it makes sense that the new Forte's design prioritizes packaging. The window line slopes down toward the A-pillar, providing the driver Honda-like visibility, and then stretches back into a traditional C-pillar. Whereas the old Forte has a relatively muscular hood and flared front fenders, the new one has an unmistakable cab-forward nose, which further improves visibility. The car looks longer than its predecessor, which it is. Its wheelbase is two inches longer than before (the same as the Hyundai Elantra's), and overall length has increased by a little more than an inch.

The Forte doesn't completely give up on style -- Kia's trademark tiger nose grille juts out more prominently than ever, and optional bits like LED lights and smartly applied chrome window trim create a sense of drama. In this respect, the Forte reminds us of the new Dodge Dart, putting a handsome face on a traditional compact car shape.

Interior: Getting in touch with Kia's softer side

For about a minute, the old Forte had one of the best interiors in the compact segment. Then, as noted, we got spoiled by the likes of the Focus and the Elantra. The new cabin rivals those competitors with a healthy helping of soft-touch materials. A nicely laid out color touchscreen is optional and doubles as a backup camera display. Passenger volume has dropped slightly despite the larger exterior, but the front passengers enjoy more head, leg, and shoulder room. The already generous trunk has also grown slightly larger. As always, Kia offers plenty of features, including optional heating for just about every conceivable surface -- front seats, rear seats, and steering wheel. Much like the exterior, the cabin dispenses with most of the outgoing car's sporting pretensions: the formerly purposeful-looking steering wheel has become bloated and almost droopy; gauges no longer feature hotdog orange backlighting. There is a bit of faux carbon fiber to liven things up, although it looks very fake, indeed.

Driving dynamics: Learning some manners

Dismissing the old Forte's sports car touches as being mere pretense is a bit unfair -- it certainly tried to please enthusiasts with a powerful engine and a stiff suspension. And yet, it never quite came together into a compelling driver's car. The old 2.4-liter four-cylinder was coarse and slow to respond to accelerator inputs, and the rock-hard ride didn't yield a worthwhile handling advantage. With the 2014 Forte, Kia has taken a more sophisticated approach. There's a lot of hardware derived from the Elantra, including a lighter platform and a smaller 1.8-liter base engine. Kia also applied what Tjoa calls "aggressive" noise, vibration, and harshness countermeasures, including larger bushings to isolate the front subframe, acoustic sound insulation under the dash, and a dual-layer engine mount.

The manicured roads around Scottsdale hardly present the toughest ride-quality test (indeed, the good weather isn't the only reason car companies love to introduce new cars here). We'd venture to say that the suspension has improved over that of the current Forte. It still lets in more road noise, though, than refinement leaders like the Focus and the Volkswagen Golf.

Whereas the styling and the interior sacrificed sportiness in the name of refinement, the actual driving experience is now more engaging than ever. We drove the EX, which features a 2.0-liter directed-injected four-cylinder. It has the same output (173 hp) and slightly less torque (154 lb-ft) than the top engine in the outgoing Forte sedan, but in real-world driving it feels considerably more responsive. It winds quickly through its rpm range and never seems out of breath, even as we head toward higher elevations. The EX now comes only with a six-speed automatic, something we'd be more upset about if the old car's manual transmission hadn't been so vague and notchy (a stick-shift is still offered on the base model). The accelerator pedal isn't the only control to have improved -- the brakes feel firm, and the steering, now electric rather than hydraulic power assist, is refreshingly heavy, especially when the optional "Flex Steer" system is set in Sport. As we've unfortunately come to expect from Kias (and Hyundais), though, that weight doesn't build naturally.

Kia has not announced fuel-economy numbers for the new Forte, but one can assume that the 1.8-liter engine will match rather closely the figures it achieves in the Elantra: 28 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. Optional stop/start technology could provide a small bump in the city.

Conclusion: Catching the crowd

Even with its strong powertrain, the 2014 Kia Forte doesn't have quite as much character as we'd hoped -- perhaps we've been spoiled by the larger Optima and all those dancing hamster commercials. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that this is a more polished car than the one it replaces. Its interior quality, driving dynamics, and feature content all safely meet our very high standards for small sedans. For a dose of style and performance, we can still look forward to new versions of the Forte coupe and hatchback.

On sale: Early 2013
Engine: 1.8L four-cylinder, 148 hp, 131 lb-ft; 2.0L four-cylinder, 173 hp 154 lb-ft
Drive: Front-wheel
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic
EPA Fuel economy: 25-28/35-38 mpg city/highway (est.)