Kia follows up its stylish, boxy Soul model with the all new 2010 Kia Forte, further evidence of Kia rebranding itself as a maker of practical, well-built, and economical cars. Whereas the Soul stands out for its unique body style, the Forte hides behind a relatively plain exterior. And that plainness extends to the driving character, as well. The Forte will get you where you want to go, but don't expect a lot of fun behind the wheel.
The Kia Forte doesn't stand out from the crowd of econoboxes, but still manages to look good.
The 2010 Kia Forte comes in three trims: LX, EX, and SX. The SX comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, while the lower trims come with a 2-liter engine. All can be had with an automatic or manual transmission. We had the top trim model, a Kia Forte SX, with a five-speed automatic. With its 173 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque, the Forte SX rolls out quickly from a stop. Initially, it feels very zippy, even with the automatic transmission in normal drive mode, and proves effortless to drive around the city.
Tuned for fuel economy, that automatic transmission upshifts quickly, keeping the engine speed below 2,500rpm. As environmentalism is in vogue now, the Forte SX has a green Eco light on the instrument cluster that turns on when the car is being driven economically. Unlike other cars we've driven with this type of economy indicator, the one in the Forte SX is relatively easy to keep lit, as it seems to turn on whenever the engine is running below 2,500rpm. The only times it turned off during normal driving were during hill climbs or passing maneuvers.
Bluetooth and iPod
Next to the instrument cluster is the stereo head unit, which looks similar to the one found in the Kia Soul, with a business card-size monochrome screen topped by a single CD slot. Kia goes with the traditional two dials, plus a few buttons for audio source and presets. Unfortunately, there is no navigation option for the Kia Forte at any trim level--you will have to make do with a portable navigation device.
The standard iPod integration allows full browsing of music libraries on the car's screen.
But what the Forte SX does offer is standard iPod integration and Bluetooth cell phone support. iPods and iPhones can be plugged in to a special cable at the bottom of the console. That cable plugs into a USB port and an auxiliary jack, so you can also use a USB thumb drive loaded with MP3s in this system. With an iPod plugged in, you get full library-browsing capabilities, and the options to select music by artist, album, or genre. When browsing a USB drive or MP3 CD, you merely get a file and folder listing. Satellite radio is also included in the Forte SX, and we found it easy to find stations with the clearly marked category button and tuning knob.
The audio system is pretty basic in the Forte SX, but has enough amplification to sound good. Along with A pillar tweeters, there are four door woofers. The sound quality isn't bad; we noted good stereo separation in our testing and crisp highs. But the amp is a bit too powerful for the speakers, as we heard plenty of rattle in tracks with a bass focus.
The Bluetooth phone system supports making calls by name with voice command.
The Forte's Bluetooth phone system is the same as the one we saw in the Soul, and it's one of the best in the business. Similar to Ford's Sync system, it ingests the contact list of any paired phone and makes it possible to dial any number by name. The voice recognition is very good, and the system will ask which number to use for contacts with multiple numbers. Although it uses a voice command interface, there is visual feedback on the car's screen. The only quirk we found was that, with an iPhone, we had to say names with the last name first.
Highways and byways
With a phone paired to the car and music playing from an iPod, we put the Forte SX on the freeway. During an aggressive run up a freeway on ramp, we noted the engine losing steam over 30 mph. It puts everything it's worth into low-speed acceleration. While cruising, the five-speed automatic kept the engine speed at a comfortable 2,000 to 2,500rpm, and again the green Eco light stayed on, even at 75 mph. The Forte SX felt stable and comfortable at freeway speeds, and blended into the herd of economy cars on the road.
The green Eco light supposedly teaches you to drive more efficiently, but it sets a fairly low bar.
Considering the type of car, we didn't push it hard on any twisty mountain routes, but did take it out on some two lane highways. For the curves we did negotiate, the Forte SX showed the kind of understeer we had been expecting. For passing maneuvers, the car left us slightly less than confident. Running at 50 mph or so, it couldn't get up enough extra push to really rip past slower traffic before oncoming traffic started closing in, forcing us to wait for the really safe passing spots.
The automatic transmission also has a manual mode, mostly useful for negotiating hills. It shows typical automatic slushiness when forced up or down a gear. Climbing a hill, the transmission wanted to stay in fourth, but we pushed it down to third with the manual mode, getting a little extra power to keep speed up the hill.
The EPA puts the fuel economy of the 2010 Kia Forte SX at 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, good numbers for a roomy car like this. During our driving, we achieved a few tenths above 26 mpg, approaching the middle of the EPA range.
The 2010 Kia Forte SX feels like a good-quality car, and for the price makes a good value. But it's not a big tech car. The engine and transmission are fairly run-of-the-mill, amounting to fairly average-performance tech. Cabin tech has a couple of very good highlights, giving its score a boost, but lack of navigation hurts it. As for design, it is a good-looking little car, but it doesn't distinguish itself. It will quickly be lost in the herds of Corollas and Civics out there. However, the interface design helps it out a bit, as we found it easy to browse music on an iPod or satellite radio.
|Model||2010 Kia Forte|
|Powertrain||2.4-liter four cylinder engine|
|EPA fuel economy||23 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||26.2 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Single CD, MP3 compatible|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio, USB drive, auxiliary jack|
|Audio system||Six speakers standard|
|Price as tested||$19,795|