Soul to the stylish Optima, Kia’s clearly taking aim at the big-name Japanese players of Toyota, Honda and Mazda. And while the Forte’s five-door iteration of the SX has made considerable strides to take on the competition — in this case, the Mazda 3 — it falls just a bit short. On the aesthetic level, there’s little to complain about (or get excited about, for that matter). From the outside, the Forte’s handsome but upright hatchback profile had a few bystanders asking if it was a new mini-SUV. In contrast to the distinctively edgy Optima, the Forte seems to draw its visual inspiration from the likes of Civic and Mazda 3. That said, it comes together as a pleasantly cohesive and inoffensive design.
Step inside, and you’re treated to an interior that tries to mask its economy-car roots with sporty accented touches; a red glow emanating from the speedometer trim, for example, reminds you that this is no ordinary grocery getter. It’s all tastefully done, but the fundamentally generic design of the interior means stylized accoutrements such as red-stitched seats won’t leave a lasting impression. And although the seats themselves are a bit too flat and firm, they do provide adequate lateral support. The rear seats are by no means spacious, but with the additional 4.7 cubic feet of storage space compared to the sedan, it’s a compact yet utilitarian ride.
That utility comes with a sporting character that’s both a hit and miss. In contrast to its un-athletic exterior profile, the Forte holds the road well; sure, understeer rears its head at the limit, but at eight-tenths driving, it handles with a responsiveness that comes as a nice surprise. That said, the steering could be more communicative, and the initial tip-in throttle is a bit touchy.
In spite of the sensitive gas pedal, the powerplant feels subdued relative to the listed 173 horsepower. The six-speed automatic does a great job downshifting whenever extra punch is needed, but even in manu-matic mode the 2.4-liter engine didn’t elicit much excitement at any rpm. The power comes at a sacrifice to fuel economy, too; in mixed but mostly highway driving, the Forte yielded a combined 25.5 mpg.
Considering that the Forte SX weaves in and out of traffic with ease, it does have its practical, real-world upsides. It’s also quiet — at highway speeds the hushed cabin strikes a notable contrast to the more raucous Honda Civic. On a performance and refinement level, it’s no Mazda 3. But considering the six-speed manual version of the Forte SX is more than $1,500 cheaper than the base Mazda 3 (and that the Kia doesn’t have a polarizing, toothy front-end grin), it’s a compelling option to budget-conscious buyers.
Of course, underwhelming predecessors like the Kia Spectra put into perspective just how much the gap has narrowed between Kia’s Forte and the leading compacts from Japan.
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