2014 Kia Forte EX Road Test

Frustratingly close to being better than just "good"

What It Is
Kia's best attempt to date to break into mainstream compact sedan success.
Best Thing
Plenty more space, style, and features than your average small car.
Worst Thing
Driving dynamics still need some work.
Snap Judgment
Kia's well in the hunt, but working on the details could propel it to alpha dog status.


In this industry, there's a wanderlust about being shipped off to some exotic location, glad-handing with colleagues and executives, alike, and coming back from your augmented reality thinking that what you drove was the next big thing to make it in the auto market. That's why many in this industry would rather test cars away from all the pleasantries of filet mignon and five-star hotels, preferring to be surrounded by unpaid cable bills on their desks and yelling children instead.

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When I drove the 2014 Kia Forte EX in Scottsdale, Arizona, some months back, I duly noted that I thought it was a game-changer in the segment, a veritable up-rooter of the status quo. But that car, loaded at $25,400, was optioned unlike most you'll ever see at your local Kia dealership. And I noted that the Scottsdale roads, perfect and uninterrupted by tight corners, were terrible bellwethers of this car's handling prowess. A better measure would be in Los Angeles with a more reasonably optioned model. Fortunately—and fortuitously—we were given two weeks with the Kia Forte in two different guises. The first was the same loaded-up version we had in Scottsdale. The second, a more reasonably optioned Kia Forte EX with cloth seats, halogen headlights, and sans navigation, was similar to what you'll find on just about any Kia lot across the nation right now without having to search too hard.

The point of the exercise was to see if the car stacked up after the glow as well as it did in Arizona. In some respects, it did. It was better than I remembered with my relatively short stint in it. In others, however, it exposed some flaws that show where the unbelievably quick-moving Korean automaker still has to focus its efforts.

What We Drove

The 2014 Kia Forte sedan comes in two basic flavors: The Forte LX with a 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and the Forte EX with a 2.0-liter engine with a maximum output of 173 horsepower. Both of the cars we drove had were up-level EX models, but they couldn't be further apart when it came to the options sheet. One car had no options, costing $20,200, including $800 for destination and handling. Still, it had Kia's UVO infotainment system, a backup camera, power windows and door locks, cruise control, steering wheel-mounted radio controls, and an adjustable Flex Steer system that can loosen or stiffen steering inputs in an effort to make the car feel sportier.

The other car, at $25,400 all in, came with automatic xenon headlights, a sunroof, heated leather seats with the driver's seat also having a cooling function, a navigation system with a larger screen, a push-button starter, and LED tail lights and headlight accents, among a list of features that is simply too long to remember. All of that came by way of the Premium package ($2,600) and Technology package ($2,300), which can't be had without the Premium package. Frankly we think the navigation system and sunroof should both be standalone options.

On the safety front, both of our Fortes came with four-wheel disc brakes, six airbags, and LATCH points for two child seats in back. As an all-new model, the Forte scored four out of five stars in federal crash safety tests.

The Commute

Having this car at the same time as a 2013 Toyota Corolla and 2013 Mazda3--both on their way out as new models supplant them for the upcoming model year--it quickly became evident that the Kia Forte is in a whole other league of quietness and composure over the highway. It drives like a bigger car than it is, smooth-shifting and compliant over most any road surface. Where Korean cars used to either handle like a limp noodle or were borderline sadistic as they'd crush your spine on potholed roads, the Forte shows that its suspension tuning is finally where it ought to be.

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Inside, we were greeted with plenty of usable features and space, all at fingers' reach. Even Kia's UVO infotainment system has been simplified and sped up so that it's painless to use when in motion. Some of our editors weren't fans of the Forte's interior materials, saying that the leather on the fully optioned Forte was cheap-feeling and the controls weren't to their likings. But, quite frankly, they're par for the class. Some cars, like the upcoming 2014 Toyota Corolla, don't even have real cow hides on their options sheets anymore.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the 2014 Forte has to do with its fuel economy. Rated at slightly disappointing 24 mpg city/36 mpg highway, we saw between 24 and 27 mpg with both cars on average. Not that that number is particularly egregious, but most cars in the class are reaching closely, if not surpassing, 40 mpg on the highway. And over the same roads, the high-tech Forte--with its advanced fuel injection and six-speed automatic--couldn't even match the Toyota Corolla's fuel economy with its old-school engine and four-speed automatic transmission.

The Grocery Run

On the other hand, what the Forte lacks in efficiency, it more than makes up for in people-hauling ability, with a massive back seat and cavernous trunk, which ties our seat-of-the-pants with the Honda Civic for best-in-class honors. Two child seats fit with ease, and the LATCH points were par for the course; a little tight between the seats, but not impossible to reach.

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Behind said rear seat in the Kia, which can be optionally heated by the way, is 14.9 cubic feet of cargo space. What does that mean to you? Sixteen grocery bags in our standard testing and 10 with a Britax stroller. That's just above the 15/11 count we recently recorded in the 2013 Toyota Corolla, which has 12.3 cubic feet of space on paper.

The Weekend Fun

In the grand scheme of things, having fun in a compact car isn’t necessarily the top priority. Alas, Kia bills itself as a sporty brand in the U.S., so we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't see how the car held up in aggressive driving. Turns out, it doesn't, at least not as well as the Mazda3, or even antiquated Toyota Corolla in some respects. With its Flex Steer in its Sport setting, we paraded to some mountain roads. Where its competitors build weight and feel as you turn the steering wheel in a corner, the Kia offers up virtually zero feel. "I have no idea where the front end of this car is pointed," news director Keith Buglewicz said. That was in its sportiest setting. As I mentioned in my initial review of the car, Normal mode eases up on the heft, while Comfort mode should be destroyed with fire, proving a gooey, imprecise steering sensation without much weight to the steering at all. And we're not going to just blame electrically assisted power steering here; the Mazda3 uses electric steering, but still manages a sporty and fun feel.

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In the same performance vein, the Forte also suffered from a loss of pedal pressure after repeated hard stops. This happens in all cars, but the Corolla and Mazda3 appeared to have less averse results over the same roads.

Granted, most drivers won't take their Fortes to the mountains for spirited driving. However, these kinds of maneuvers provide us with what the car may be like in emergency situations. You always expect your car to able to take whatever you can throw at it. As a commuter car, the Forte is just fine. As a performance vehicle, we're going to say that you shouldn't trade in your Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf quite yet if that's one of your top priorities.

Summary

If you're going into car shopping looking for value for the money and have been possibly eyeing a Hyundai Elantra, the Kia Forte is the same sort of car, only better. It's had two years to refine the formula set forth by the car that shares its same basic platform: Smoother, quieter, more comfortable, and well-sorted among its rivals. Its unique selling point is that it can provide so many features in a package that won't break the bank. And, you're not going to be at all unhappy with driving it back and forth or showing it off to your friends, as it is one of the more stylish vehicles in its class with practicality to boot.

But its driving dynamics are on the lackluster side, which is unfortunate given how much we've seen with Kia entering the motorsports arena these days. We hope the upcoming turbocharged Kia Forte SX 5-door and Koup zero in on the cars flaws, as Kia has had a knack for fixing problems as soon as they're recognized.

Because, when you pare the options, the car doesn't stand out measurably from the competition. It has a somewhat nicer interior than a Civic and drives all right in a straight line, but as a car bandied about as a sporty compact, the Forte should have more replay value. It's an overall good car, but we want to see it become a great car. We want to see it become a car that people flock to and drive over and over again because they want to and not because they have to. Kia has an excellent platform to work with. All it needs to do is finish what it started and fine-tune the details.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $25,400; $20,200
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 24 mpg
EPA Highway: 36 mpg
EPA Combined: 28 mpg
Cargo Space: 16 grocery bags/10 with Britax stroller Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Excellent
Estimated Combined Range: 369.6 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Not rated

Notebook Quotes

"Sure, there's lots of stuff, but it's just frosting on a bland cake. Take the adjustable effort steering, for example. 'Normal' is the usual generic and bland that we expect in this segment; 'Sport' just makes it syrupy, and 'Comfort' turns it into Pole Position, and all three still have a huge dead spot on center. Blah. Just give me one steering setting that actually works, please." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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