Long regarded as a "value alternative," the Kia Forte EX goes upscale for 2014. However, it's missing one key ingredient that makes the brand great.
It's got keyless entry and start, puddle lights, and automatic folding side mirrors that illuminate and fold out as you approach. The driver's seat is heated and ventilated with power adjustment and two-position memory; the cabin is bathed in dual-zone automatic climate control. It's got two LCDs on the dash powered by a fantastic infotainment system.
No, this isn't a luxury sedan. It is the 2014 Kia Forte EX and it's come a long way, baby.
Inside and out, fit and finish are quite good all around the Forte. The small sedan manages to be sporty, but not gaudy. The dashboard sports carbon fiber look-alike trim that's paradoxically fake and plastic, but also tastefully done. I'm still scratching my head about that one. You'll find no LED speaker grilles, no chintzy fake metal or glossy black plastic in this Kia's cabin. The Forte is doing its part to show the brand as grown-up.
However, there are places where the cost cutting is evident; where the economy car roots show through. For example, although both front buckets can be heated, only the driver's seat is ventilated and chilled. Likewise, only the driver's seat is power-adjustable with memory. And let's not forget that although the dashboard's plastic trim looks nice, it's still just plastic. I get it; sacrifices must be made to keep the price below $25K.
Overall, though, my first impression of this 2014 Kia model was a good one.
Uvo eServices infotainment
For the first time, you can have both navigation and the Uvo voice command system. Previously, this was a one-or-the-other affair.
The color touch screen and the Uvo-powered infotainment system are standard features, as is the Uvo eServices telematics system that's baked in. Also standard are most of the available audio sources, including Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming, USB for mass storage, iPod, and Zune (yep, Zune), a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, SirusXM satellite radio, and AM/FM radio. There's also a bit of internal storage that's usable as a digital jukebox, allowing music to be copied from USB media for later playback. Kia doesn't list the capacity of this jukebox, but it seemed like less than a gigabyte.
After you pair the system with your Bluetooth-connected smartphone, eServices gives access to features such as remote vehicle diagnostics, roadside assistance, and cloud-based POI syncing of your address book.
What intrigued me the most about the Uvo system was not its connected features -- which don't seem as well fleshed out as those of other telematics systems, like OnStar -- but the extensive voice command options that are baked in. At the touch of a button you can ask the system to change the audio source, play a specific song, artist, or genre of music, call up a podcast or audiobook on a connected iPod, or dial anyone in your phone's address book.
The navigation portion of the system comes as part of a $2,300 EX Tech package that also brings HID headlamps, LED taillights, dual-zone climate control, and HD Radio tuning to the party.
The navigation system is SD card-based, with the card accessible via a slot on the dashboard for updates and upgrades. The maps are still only 2D, like in every other Hyundai/Kia model that I've tested, but the system is very snappy and responsive.
There's a new split-screen interface for navigation that takes advantage of the larger dashboard screen. Personally, I found the default onscreen interface to be a bit too busy, displaying way more data than I needed to get from point A to B and obscuring important turn information. Fortunately, much of this information can be turned off for a simpler view. For example, the system featured traffic data and would present me with an onscreen prompt if delays were reported on my route with options to ignore or reroute. Unfortunately, this is San Francisco, so those prompts came every 10 minutes or so and I elected to simply disable this bit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Model||2014 Kia Forte|
|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|
|Price as tested||$25,515|