2014 Kia Forte EX review:

Compact Kia makes a strong tech showing

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The audio is pumped through a standard stereo system that is merely OK. I counted six speakers during my testing, the output of which tended to overemphasize the high-to-middle range of the audible spectrum, lacking where the deeper bass tones are concerned. About the best thing that I can say about this rig is that it at least has the good sense not to sound bad, since this lack of bass output probably saves the setup from sounding like a distorted mess -- as many car stereos in this price class do. No premium audio option is available.

Driving dynamics
Our Kia Forte EX looked pretty sporty and was powered by the more potent of the two available engines, but the driving dynamics skewed more toward relaxed.

One of the coolest features is the adjustable steering system that lets you toggle between Normal, Sport, and Comfort programs for the electronic power-steering system. The Sport setting did feel a bit heavier than the light-effort Comfort mode, but I couldn't really feel much of a difference in feedback or vehicle responsiveness between the three settings.

Under the hood, you'll find a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that uses gasoline direct injection (GDI) to output 173 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque. Most of the competition use 1.8-liter engines (the Forte does as well at the entry level), so apples-to-apples comparisons can be difficult. Kia's 2.0 liter does boast more power than the Ford Focus or the Dodge Dart.

The only gearbox available at the EX trim level is a six-speed automatic deal with a manual shift mode. (The entry-point 1.8L LX is available with a six-speed manual.) Unfortunately, there's no sport program and no paddle shifters, so you're basically stuck with either the transmission default program or reaching down to faux-row your gears with the lever.

Kia Forte EX engine bay
With 173 horsepower on tap, the Forte's 2.0-liter is one of the most powerful in its class. Josh Miller/CNET

Here's where things fall apart for the sporting driver behind the wheel of the Forte. The combination of a shift program that leans more toward economy than amusement and oddly tall gearing meant that I always felt like I was in either too high a gear or too low when piloting the sedan on my favorite testing roads. The Kia's 2.0L may boast more power on paper than the Ford's or the Dodge's engine, but the car didn't feel faster. It's possible to enjoy the Forte's well-sorted suspension round a bendy road, but it becomes more of an exercise of conservation of inertia rather than power.

Take it easy and activate the Forte's Active Eco mode, which adjusts the mapping of the throttle for even more efficiency, and your estimated fuel economy will be 28 mpg combined, according to the EPA. That breaks down to 24 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. That's about on par with the 2013 Toyota Corolla with its 1.8L engine and 4-speed automatic gearbox, and short of that holy-grail 40 mpg highway high watermark.

In sum
The Kia Forte has grown into a much more mature ride for the 2014 model year. Fit and finish have improved, reaching Honda Civic levels of refinement. The Uvo tech package, on the other hand, in many ways exceeds the Japanese competition. If it's tech you're after, the Forte is in fact a strong choice. Though, I'd still like to see some sort of premium audio offering and app integration -- for example, Pandora -- before I can declare it a winner.

And though it may tackle a corner as well as a Civic or rocket out as well as a Focus or even a Golf, the Forte manages to hold its own and deliver a blend of performance and efficiency that feels about on a level with the competition. Sort of.

2014 Kia Forte EX
Yes, the 2014 Forte is a fine ride, but its value advantage has all but disappeared. Josh Miller/CNET

Up until now, I've been comparing the Forte EX with the midtier offerings, the entry-level engines of the competition, but when I look at the price, I realize that perhaps I've been aiming a bit low.

The 2014 Forte EX starts at $19,400. Fully loaded with options, packages, and destination charges, our as-tested bottom line sits at $25,515.

At that price, you could be cross-shopping against the Honda Civic Si, which will drive circles around the Kia. There's also the Kia's own cousin, the 200-hp Veloster Turbo, which boasts both better performance and similar tech. You're also within $1,000 of the Volkswagen Jetta GLI or Beetle, both of which are available with the amazing Fender audio system and more premium interior appointments. The point is that competition gets fierce at around the $25,000 mark and I fear that Kia may have priced the 2014 Forte EX outside of its "value alternative" comfort zone.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Kia Forte
Trim EX sedan
Power train 2.0L GDI inline 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode, FWD
EPA fuel economy 24 city, 36 highway, 28 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy n/a
Navigation Optional with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard for hands-free calling and audio streaming
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection for mass storage and iPod, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audio SiriusXM satellite radio, jukebox media storage, HD Radio
Audio system 6-speaker standard stereo
Driver aids Standard rear camera
Base price $19,400
Price as tested $25,515

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