Kia's newest car, the 2010 Forte, is a convincing alternative for small sedan shoppers who feel the Toyota Corolla has gotten too pricey and the Honda Civic is too ordinary.
The four-door, five-passenger Forte is about the same size as the two best-selling small sedans. And the Forte's front end might even be mistaken for that of a Civic.
But the Forte's starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is just $14,390 compared with $16,100 for a 2010 Corolla and $16,215 for a 2009 Civic.
Meantime, the Forte comes with more power than most Civics and an impressive 10-year/100,000-mile vehicle warranty that far surpasses the three years/36,000 miles of regular warranty coverage provided by Toyota and Honda.
2010 Kia Forte SX
- BASE PRICE: $13,695 for LX manual; $14,695 for LX automatic; $15,795 for EX manual; $16,795 for EX automatic; $17,195 for SX manual; $18,195 for SX automatic.
- AS TESTED: $20,490.
- TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, mid-size sedan.
- ENGINE: 2.4-liter, double overhead cam, inline, four cylinder engine with CVVT.
- MILEAGE: 23 mpg (city), 31 mpg (highway).
- TOP SPEED: NA.
- LENGTH: 178.3 inches.
- WHEELBASE: 104.3 inches.
- CURB WEIGHT: 2,868 pounds.
- BUILT AT: South Korea.
- OPTIONS: Leather package $1,000; power sunroof $800.
- DESTINATION CHARGE: $695.
Of course, the Forte is so new -- just out this summer in Kia dealerships -- that there are no reliability ratings. Both the Corolla and Civic have reputations for reliable operation.
And there are no Forte crash test results yet posted by the federal government.
Kia officials do point out, however, that all Forte models come fully equipped with standard safety features including head curtain air bags, front-seat, anti-whiplash head restraints, traction control, Brake Assist and electronic stability control.
In comparison, Brake Assist and stability control are available only on upper level versions of Civic, and the lower-end models of Corolla still have rear brake drums, rather than discs like the Forte's.
Note that the base price is for a Forte with manual transmission and no air conditioning. With air conditioning, the Forte starts at $15,890.
Kia applied its tried-and-true approach to the Forte, which replaces the Spectra small car in showrooms. Basically, the Forte is attractively styled, nicely equipped and put in the market with pricing that undercuts the major Japanese competition. It also has a more refined ride than the Spectra.
Most people didn't give the Forte a second look during my test drive, even though the paint was a shiny, bright blue.
The car's styling is similar to that of a Civic but with a bit more pizzazz. The only person who noticed the car was a young man in his early 20s who decided it was better looking than a Civic and was something he would check into.
But the Forte is more than looks. The car's two engines -- a 156-horsepower, 2-liter four and the uplevel 173-horsepower, 2.4-liter four -- generate more power than the Corolla's two engines and more power than in most Civic sedans.
The test Forte was a top-of-the-line SX, so it had the larger engine with 168 foot-pounds of torque coming at 4,000 rpm. The powerplant moved the less than 2,900-pound Forte so easily in town and on highways, some of my passengers mistakenly thought the car had a V-6.
Mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, the Forte's most powerful four cylinder worked smoothly and only revealed its four-cylinder character during hard acceleration, when the engine buzzed noisily.
Otherwise, the Forte scooted around corners and merged into traffic without fuss and without a hint that it was under stress.
The smaller displacement base engine isn't as peppy and is typically mated to a four-speed automatic unless the buyer opts for the Fuel Economy Package that includes the five-speed automatic along with fuel-efficient tires and electric, not hydraulic, power steering.
Fuel mileage is good in all Fortes.
Specifically, the best Forte mileage rating is 27 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway with the smaller engine and the Fuel Economy Package. The test car was rated at 23/31 mpg.
In contrast, the 2010 Corolla's best rating is 26/35 mpg with base engine and manual transmission, while the 2009 Civic with manual transmission earned a 26/34 mpg rating.
The Forte uses regular unleaded gasoline, and thanks to a larger gas tank than what's in the Civic and Corolla, the tester traveled nearly 350 miles before needing a fill-up.
There was noticeable road noise inside the car on rough pavement, and the front MacPherson strut suspension and rear torsion beam configuration managed most road bumps in a more sophisticated way than was done in the Spectra.
The ride isn't exactly sporty, however. Even in the SX, which has stiffer springs, larger tires and stronger brakes, the Forte has more of a mainstream feel, with predictable front-wheel drive manners in the curves. Steering, too, isn't as precise as you might wish for in a sporty car.
The interior is a pleasant environment for people of nearly any size. Front-seat passengers get 40 inches of headroom, and in the back seat, legroom of 35 inches tops that of the Civic.
Trunk space, too, is more generous than in the Civic: 14.7 cubic feet vs. 12 cubic feet in the Civic sedan.
Gauges are well arranged and glow a bright red at night. Knobs and buttons on the dashboard also are well-sized.
The SX had a sizable dead pedal to the left of the brake pedal. It's a spot that allows the driver to rest or brace his or her left foot during driving. The only distraction: The dead pedal in the test car was covered by a matte silver-colored plate with black rubber nubs, a look reminiscent of a cheese grater.
Wind noise is kept to a minimum, and the SX six-speaker, surround-sound stereo system provided clear tunes. Note that all Fortes come standard with USB port and auxiliary audio input jack for connecting MP3 players.
The Forte will be joined in coming months by a two-door coupe.