I still remember the day my dad bought a brand new car for my oldest brother who was about to enter college. We walked across the Nissan lot passing by the “four-door sports car” Maximas and rear-wheel drive 240SXs, to my dismay stopping at a base-model Sentra, which he purchased for about $8,000. The coupe’s scarlet-red paint job betrayed its humble accouterments: with its wafer-thin door panels, floppy four-speed manual, non-assisted steering and no air, it was austere enough to make Pope Francis proud.
With that experience emblazoned into memory, I take for granted that compacts should feel as cheap as housewares from the Dollar Tree. Yet in the past couple years, they’ve gone more upscale, adding touches like (faux) dash stitching traditionally found in more premium segments. Kia’s all-new 2014 Forte has especially blurred the lines between the luxury and working class.
It’s not just the design, which thanks to former Audi designer Peter Schreyer no longer looks like an ersatz Honda Civic. The matte-black plastic and the carbon fiber-esque accents impart a clean, Germanic look to the dash (save for the weird, gill-like frills above the glove box), and the panels don’t creak or flex when pushed. Unlike a typical daylong press event, I had this Kia for a week, and every day I jumped in I’d forget I’m in a budget ride — much more so than entry-level luxury cars like an Acura ILX or Buick Verano.
Part of that upscale feel comes from the quick steering and greatly improved suspension and chassis, which are firmer than the still-floaty Civic. That said, the Honda’s multi-link rear suspension proves superior over rough roads; the Forte skips and jitters when trundling over big bumps and potholes, thanks to its torsion beam rear suspension.
Also helping differentiate the Kia from a Sentra or Corolla is the 173-hp, 2.0 inline-four found in the EX trim, which above 2,000 rpm gives plenty of power for murderously short freeway on ramp merges. As with other Kia cars, the automatic transmission is quick to find the right gear, especially when romping on the gas pedal. In mixed city and highway driving, I averaged about 28 mpg, which is consistent with its EPA estimated 24/36 city/hwy mpg.
The specs compare favorably to most of the competition — except for the Mazda3, which in higher trims has a more powerful 2.5-liter engine and a better dialed-in suspension. Then again, the Mazda also has a $1,000 premium for the base model price, and a fully equipped $25,400 Forte (including the $2,300 navigation/Xenon headlight package and the $2,600 premium package with leather) still ends up being $500 cheaper than the S Grand Touring trim.
That price difference may be enough for bargain-hunting dads — for a car with far more teen-pleasing amenities than the barebones economy cars of yore.