What It Is
The second generation of Kia's sporty koup, er, coupe.
Punchy engine, strong chassis dynamics.
Steering feel could still use some tweaking.
Think of it as a gentler, more luxurious Honda Civic Si.
Have the Korean automakers ever built a legitimately fun car? I'd argue, until now, no. The Hyundai Veloster is too numb and isolated from the driving experience; its shifter is like churning through butter as the cream starts to solidify. The Hyundai Genesis Coupe feels like it has three filters between you and the steering and shifting inputs.
But the 2014 Kia Forte SX Koup provides a sincere argument to the contrary: A car that finally shows Korea can make something decently fun to drive for modest money.
Debuting way back at the New York Auto Show in the spring, the Forte Koup follows the sedan and is rolling out concurrently with the Forte5 hatchback, providing a sportier alternative to the four-door model. With a base 173-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the Koup stands a rung above the sedan, which comes standard with a less-powerful 1.8-liter engine. However, we took to the outskirts of Las Vegas to try something wholly different: a new turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 201 horsepower on tap, paired with a six-speed manual transmission. The two-door Forte shares all of its mechanical and suspension bits and pieces with the Forte5 hatchback, so we decided to test that one with an automatic transmission to get a broader feel for the Forte lineup. But this Forte, the Koup, looked poised to go head to head with the Honda Civic Si, so with lofty expectations, we decided to see if it could deliver.
WalkaroundStyle has never been the Kia Forte Koup's problem. Even in its second generation, that still stands true. The Kia Forte Koup shares many of the same sorts of curves with its sedan counterpart, but truth be told, it only shares a handful of exterior parts. The rest is unique to the sportier models, including its slimmer, smaller "tiger nose" grille that carefully evolves the look that was first brought to the brand back in 2009.
The presentation of the car is sharp, smart, and hunkered down. On base-level EX models with the 2.0-liter engine, there's contrasting black trim on the car's bumpers; on the SX, much of it has been replaced in simulated carbon fiber on both the front and back. That's another way to say fake. Tacky as it may be, it still looks good. Isn't that what matters the most when you're buying a coupe anyway?
Sitting DownIf you're a fan of the Kia Forte sedan's interior, you're not going to be unhappy with the Koup's. It still has plenty of soft-touch materials, the same odd wavy dashboard, all the fake carbon fiber you could ever want, and more features than you would have found in a loaded-up Mercedes-Benz E-Class from a decade ago.
But then there are the big differences: Two fewer doors and an extra pedal on the driver's side. We can happily report that the former isn't a big deal. Although you inevitably have to duck and contort into the back as you would in any other compact coupe, once you're there leg room is nearly on par with the sedan's. That's to say: It's pretty expansive and comfortable. Once sitting in front, there's a flimsy seatbelt holder that clicks up and down to keep you from strangling yourself. It's an inelegant solution, but it works. Then there's the shifter, which has a small, round handle that easily fits in the hand and corrects many of the issues we've had in the past with Hyundai and Kia manual shifters. Overall, it's a nice place to be, awash in technology and surrounded by what we'd consider better than average materials and build quality for the class.
DrivingDollar for dollar, spec for spec, the closest competitor to the Kia Forte SX Koup is the Honda Civic Si, which despite being down on power versus much of its competition is still one of the benchmarks of the class when it comes to driving enjoyment. So how does the Forte Koup stack up? Depends on how you look at it.
Our loaded-up Forte SX rang in at around $25,000. For that same money, a Civic Si would lack the Forte's power leather seats with heating and cooling elements--the Civic has manual cloth buckets--xenon headlights, LED tail lights, heated steering wheel, power-folding mirrors, and even keyless entry in some models. Of course, the Kia lacks the Honda's limited-slip front differential that helps put power to the pavement down more adequately in aggressive driving. Insomuch, and we must relent this, the Kia doesn't drive quite as well, either, and its exhaust note sounds more booming than peaky and aggressive like the Honda's.
Those shouldn't be taken as complete knocks against the Kia, however, because it's the first road-legal Korean car we've ever driven that we can say is actually enjoyable to drive from a performance enthusiast's perspective. Where cars like the Hyundai Genesis have clunky shifters, the Forte's six-speed manual clicks through its gate smoothly and precisely. Its clutch is progressive, and its chassis soaks up bumps, yet rides firmly. It's definitely been firmed up from sedan, and its steering weighting and feel--our biggest gripes against the sedan--have both been greatly improved, but could still use one great steering setting instead of three marginal Flex Steer options. Driving it through the mountains in higher elevation that would sap the Civic's power demonstrated the turbocharged engine's merit and the car's overall spunk.
On the open road, we noticed almost no turbocharger lag, as the car surged with tenacity and plenty of punch. That's partly attributable to the Forte's ultra-short gearing, which had the car's engine spinning at more than 3,000 rpm at 70 mph. Still, including some aggressive acceleration runs, we recorded 27.2 mpg over a mostly highway route. And it can run on regular gas--something few other high-strung turbo cars can do.
SummaryIs the 2014 Kia Forte SX going to jump to the top of the heap of sporty compact cars? No, not with vehicles like the Civic Si, Ford Focus ST, and Volkswagen GTI out there. However, it's about time a Korean car at least be mentioned in the same conversation. And if there's one out there, this is going to be the one to do it. While not as sharp as some of its competition, the Forte balances that out with more luxury, comfort, and convenience features and still maintaining driver involvement. It's also cheaper than most of its rivals and that 10-year warranty helps with peace of mind, too.
Like every other Kia in recent memory, the Forte Koup improves upon a car that was stylish but lacked any real character. The 2014 Forte Koup makes a compelling case for itself with style, quality, and chutzpah. If you're a hardcore weekend racer, it's not going to satiate your driving desires without some modifications, including more aggressive tires than the 18-inch off-brand tires our test car had. But if you were holding yourself back from buying a Forte Koup for any number of reasons in the past as a part of the general car-buying public, this car makes good on just about any excuse you could have had in an eye-catching package that ought not be ignored.