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2014 Kia Forte EX First Drive

If the Japanese haven't already gone into panic mode, this gem from Kia should be the last straw

What It Is
A fresh take on the compact sedan that Kia desperately needs in its quest for segment relevance.
Best Thing
Excellent build quality and standout design in a practical four-door package.
Worst Thing
The FlexSteer adjustable steering in Comfort mode is downright awful.
Snap Judgment
Is it that good? We think yes, maybe even better.


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After more than a decade of trying, Kia finally got its compact sedan right with the 2009 Kia Forte. With styling that closely mimicked the class-leading Honda Civic, the Forte was a contender...and a victim of bad timing. Its whole marketing support was botched in the midst of the financial meltdown. Kia was lucky that a few of its other vehicles picked up the slack.

Now, we're in an economic recovery. Kia's sales have risen steadily for the past three years, thanks to high-value cars and crossovers, coupled with styling that no longer screams "cheap wheels." Now, Kia's upmarket styling and high-value product mix have been unleashed on one of the last Kia models in need of a push: the 2014 Kia Forte.

Kia flew us to Scottsdale, Ariz., to drive its latest compact sedan. Initially, the Kia Forte will launch with a standard six-speed manual and 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine shared with the Hyundai Elantra in the base LX model, starting under $16,000. A well-optioned model will be priced in the mid-$18,000 range. But for our drive, Kia lent us a loaded-to-the-gills Forte EX with a more powerful 2.0-liter engine that we anticipate will come in around $25,000, putting its best foot forward for us. But is its best good enough to top the competition?

Walkaround

In what has become the norm for Kia, styling is the least of this new Kia's worries. With the sleek styling of a European sedan, it's longer, wider, and lower than the sedan it replaces, with sharp lines that bisect curves, showing off curves you didn't notice before in different angles of light. Despite being larger than the car it replaces in every capacity but headroom, it's just 30 pounds heavier.

Cherry-picking cues from both the smaller Kia Rio sedan and the larger Kia Optima, the Forte comes off as modern and inoffensive. Less swoopy than the Hyundai Elantra--with which it shares its underpinnings--and less stodgy than the Honda Civic it's targeting, it's the closest thing we're going to get to a European-style compact outside of the staid Volkswagen Jetta and busy Ford Focus.

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Sitting Down

The upscale look and feel carries over to the Forte's interior, with a larger UVO touchscreen with its next-generation eServices being the star of the car. Using a smartphone app, the car will be able to implement Google Send2Car technology for its navigation system, in addition to in-vehicle diagnostics and concierge services with your local dealership, and service and support. Most automakers, including corporate cousin Hyundai, charge a subscription fee for the long list of features, but Kia has decided to make it free for the entirety of the car's 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. Kia is still deciding whether it will monetize the software after that.

Surrounding the eight-inch screen is carbon fiber-look plastic; soft-touch materials throughout; large, intuitive buttons and knobs for controls; and a 4.2-inch TFT screen sitting in the middle of the chrome-bordered gauges. Leather adorns the steering wheel and seats in our high-spec car, with the driver's seat getting both heating and cooling elements. The front passenger and rear outboard seats have to make do with only having heated seats. The look and feel is among the best in the class.

So what complaints do we have about the interior? While we found the seats comfortable, there was no give in the foam. We might as well have been sitting on cardboard wrapped in leather. And rear visibility? Fuhgeddaboudit. With a fast-sloping roofline and three tall headrests sitting above the rear seat cushion, you can still see out the back window to a small degree. But it's a good thing there are large rearview mirrors and an available backup camera readily available.

Driving

Kia positions the 2014 Forte as one of the sportier cars in its class, so we judged it to that standard. It felt planted in corners, that is, we felt we could drive it harder than we did and it'd be fine. Its suspension is stiff, with an aggressive tuning when paired to its 17-inch wheel and tire combination. We didn't mind it on Arizona's glass-smooth roads, but we wonder how it'll hold up on potholed and pocked roads elsewhere in the U.S.

Likewise, Kia turns up the sporty feel with its FlexSteer system, which adjusts effort needed to steer the car between Normal, Sport, and Comfort settings. Normal mode works just fine for your average commute. Sport ups the heft and sensitivity, despite lacking some of the road feel present in competitors like the Mazda3. But it feels more connected than the once again class-leading Honda Civic. Comfort mode, however, is detached, lifeless, and feels as though it came from a 1970s Buick. Kia desperately needs to reprogram it before it reaches our showrooms.

On the road, we found the car to be a smooth operator. Its engine is punchy never wanting for more passing power. We saw an indicated 33 mpg under mixed city and highway conditions, but we do wonder how that number will hold up in urban conditions. Its six-speed automatic transmission shifted smoothly at highway passing speeds, but it momentarily hesitated to kick down to pass at anything less than 40 mph. We imagine this is the result of programming to keep fuel economy numbers high.

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Summary

We have a feeling the 2014 Kia Forte is going to be a tough car to beat. Much like its top Japanese rivals that have enjoyed annual sales greater than 300,000 apiece, the Forte is a veritable jack of all trades. And, like them, it's a master of none. But where those cars, like the 2013 Honda Civic, are solid B efforts, the Forte EX feels like a B+. With its creature comforts, controls, and quiet refinement, the 2014 Kia Forte is a compelling, decently fun combination that's a substantial step above the cars Kia currently sells. There are sportier cars than the 2014 Kia Forte in its class that don't have as much space, and cars that have more space but lack the style and interior quality of the 2014 Forte. There are cars that are quieter and go down the road with a greater sense aplomb, but they lack the Forte's nippy character. And then there's the mechanically similar Hyundai Elantra sedan that lacks the Forte EX's more powerful engine, free infotainment system, sportier suspension, or its vastly upgraded electric power steering system. And we hear there's an even sportier Forte on the horizon.

The 2014 Kia Forte looks to be nearly the total package, but there are still some questions about the Forte and the rest of the Forte line: How will it handle bumpier roads? How's the smaller 1.8-liter engine in the Forte LX? Will the interior remain the same high-quality environment in lesser-contented models? And what will fuel economy rated at for each model, given that none of them have gone through the final EPA certification process yet?

The 2014 Kia Forte goes on sale in March, and we look forward to driving it then. Kia has a tendency to improve upon its cars in the time between when we drive them in preproduction spec and when they hit dealerships. If the Forte we drove in Scottsdale is any indication, though, the Kia Forte's engineers are going to have a lot of free time between now and then.

Basic Specs

2.0-liter four-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 173-hp, price N/A, fuel economy N/A

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