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2014 Kia Forte5 SX Quick Drive

Hatching some new ideas in Kia's compact car lineup

There's something utterly appealing about a hatchback with a manual transmission. At least we think so, despite manual transmissions accounting for about 7 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. and hatchbacks likely holding s smaller sliver of sales than even that. Of course, we're also the quirky, pragmatic sort who like to have fun-to-drive cars. Feel free to use that last sentence for your online dating profile. You can thank us later.

We're probably in a severe minority, however, as most automakers have stopped selling cars with manual transmissions or hatchbacks altogether, despite the fact that hatches can carry more than their sedan counterparts and oftentimes look better, too. Fortunately, in Kia's pursuit of winning over new customers and going the extra mile, it's just released a hatchback version of its new Forte. Called the 2014 Kia Forte5, it has a lot going for it. But is it the sort of liftback we'd go head over heels for?

Model and Price

The 2014 Kia Forte5 shares more sheetmetal with the sedan than its Forte Koup counterpart. But under the steel styling, the Forte5 is mechanically identical to the two-door. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 173 horsepower on tap in EX models, while the uplevel SX gets a 201-horsepower, turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that's shared with the Koup and Hyundai Veloster. That's the one we drove, and it runs on Regular gas.

It's also available with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, the latter option lights our fancy. Since we drove a Forte Koup with the surprisingly good stick shift, we figured we'd go with the auto to see how it compared when paired with the turbo engine. Otherwise, options, features--our tester was loaded with both the Premium and Technology packages--and suspension tuning were identical to the Koup's. The Forte5 comes with a quieter exhaust system, however. Kia didn't give us pricing information, but we expect the Forte5 to start under $20,000 and ours to cost right below 26 grand.

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Safety and Key Features

Kia is known for putting lots of stuff into its cars for relatively modest money. While $26,000 is in the heart of midsize sedan money, the 2014 Kia Forte5 SX we drove had leather, power heated front seats with a cooled driver's seat, heated rear seats, a sunroof, Kia's latest version of UVO with navigation, an Infinity audio system, xenon headlights, and even a heated steering wheel. This is in a car that competes with the Ford Focus and Mazda3, among others.

As for safety, the Kia Forte5 has earned a four-star overall crash-test rating from the NHTSA, and its sedan counterpart earned the IIHS's 2013 Top Safety Pick rating despite failing the new small-front overlap test. The hatchback has not yet been tested, but we expect its results to be similar.

Family Friendliness and Utility

If you're looking at a compact hatchback for the sake of hauling around a hoard, gaggle, constituency, or congregation, this is where the 2014 Forte5 has its rivals whooped: usable interior space. Where the Mazda3, Ford Focus, and even the Hyundai Elantra GT have compromised back seats, the Kia Forte5 has leg room that rivals many a midsizer.

It also has 23.2 cubic feet of cargo room that's decently roomy despite not being that deep. The tradeoff is a nearly flat-folding rear seat that opens up into a vast expanse of room for furniture-hauling. While not an especially large car, the Kia Forte5 punches above its weight in space and utility and does so with an interior that's stylish and feels surprisingly high-class relative to much of the competition.

Comfort and Quality

If this is basic transportation, we're wondering how champagne seeped its way into our wishes and caviar filled our dreams. OK, so maybe this isn't that $376,000 Rolls-Royce that bossman Keith Buglewicz drove not long ago, but it's far above what we had come to expect in a compact car from even just a few years ago.

From the driver's perspective, controls for everything are well within reach, canted towards him or her. The large 8-inch UVO screen has clean, fresh graphics and plenty of well-labeled dummy buttons beneath it for on-the-fly menu access to the radio, navigation, diagnostic or eServices menus. Our only real qualm with it is that its display became washed out in bright sunlight at times. It could use a hood overtop of it. Otherwise, I'd still contend that, in terms of an overall combination of comfort, style, and quality, the Kia Forte is among the top places to be in its class.

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How it Drives

If you couldn't tell from our drive of the 2014 Kia Forte Koup, it's a drastic improvement from the already decent sedan. Steering effort and feedback is still on the numb side, with three Flex Steer settings available from steering wheel-mounted controls. The Forte5 shares the same steering system, which now makes it at least a bit more enjoyable when the road gets bendy.

The Forte5 also has the stiffer suspension of the Koup, which gives it a more dynamic feel. Is it going to set the world alight with performance numbers? No, but it'll at least make your commute more enjoyable than it ought to be. All of that said, the biggest difference between driving the Forte Koup and Forte5 revolved around the cars' transmissions. Our Forte5 was equipped with a six-speed automatic that feels like it dulls down some of the sprightliness of the turbo engine. Conversely, while accessing the powerband was a task best left for keeping the car in manual mode, the throttle response left nothing to be desired, with a smooth, instantly accessible launch.

Still, with a turbocharged engine under the hood, we weren't wanting for more power. And we weren't wanting for more noise, either. The Kia Forte Koup is tuned to have a supposedly sportier exhaust note, but we found it a little grating. On the other hand, the Forte5's exhaust is more muted and less noticeable. We wish it were available on the Koup or that the Koup for an exhaust note with some real testicular fortitude.

Summary

Going down the list of things we liked about the 2014 Kia Forte5 and its two- and four-door siblings, we came to the conclusion that the utility and functionality of the five-door was the most appealing, and the ride and handling of both the hatch and coupe were a step above the sedan's. We also realized that the six-speed manual transmission we sampled in the Koup let the little 1.6-liter engine sing, and it's not a shabby unit, either.

Perhaps, then, it's inevitable that if we were to recommend a Kia Forte, we'd go for the Forte5 SX with a manual transmission, cherry-picking all of the best attributes from each model and putting them into one. It's probably an obvious pick given how auto journalists think--given how quirky we are to want to live our lives in giant sandboxes and play with cars for a living. But it's a pragmatic choice, too.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $26,000 estimated
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 24 mpg estimated
EPA Highway: 35 mpg estimated
EPA Combined: 30 mpg estimated
Estimated Combined Range: 396 miles (estimated)

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