You know the names: Civic, Elantra, Corolla, Focus, Mazda3. Cruze, Jetta, Sentra, Dart – you know them as the city runabouts Canadians buy in the tens of thousands from Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Mazda, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Nissan and Dodge.
And then there’s that little upstart Kia Forte. It’s a nameplate barely four, five years old, and not one that resonates with Canadians like the Civic. Last year, about 65,000 Canadians bought a Civic, while 15,000 drove home a Forte.
But plucky little Kia has big plans. When the big advertising push begins for the remade 2014 Forte, you’re going to be bombarded with little details that add up, one by one. They’ll punch away at the competition, over and over. They’ll point out that in head-to-head comparisons, Kia is going to give you more for less or, at worst, the same money as those more famous rivals.
Kia isn’t shy about pointing a finger. Go for the base version, the LX – starting around $15,500, though official pricing has yet to be announced – and Kia plans to offer satellite radio, Bluetooth, four-wheel disc brakes, steering-wheel audio controls, air conditioning, heated mirrors, trip computer and body-coloured mirrors. The competition at the same price and trim? With the exception here and there, no.
Yes, it’s true that the outgoing Forte, the 2013, is a bit of a discount darling for the present. When last I looked, Kia Canada had slapped on at least $3,500 in sales sweeteners. If you just need a transportation appliance, you might not want to wait.
On the other hand, the ’13 Forte is an anonymous-looking automobile, a paint-by-numbers entry running in a pack of competitors that for the most part look interesting.
Kia’s design efforts are led by chief designer Peter Schreyer, the 59-year-old German veteran who bolted to Kia after stints atop Volkswagen and Audi. He’s managed a small miracle at Kia. The new Forte is no exception.
The design is low, and wide and sleek. You can get tasty and powerful high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, wraparound LED taillights and big 17-inch alloy wheels. There are so-called “light bar technology” taillights, little pod lights in the door handles to welcome you and chrome accents atop them to catch your eye. Kia has slapped a tasty new grille up front, and a lower character line in the sheetmetal of the side doors is dressy. No one will be embarrassed to drive this Forte.
Nor will they be inconvenienced. The cabin is as roomy as any, pricier models get the full treatment of soft-touch materials end to end, and the instruments and controls are sensible. You can get four sets of golf clubs into the trunk, too. Most of all, though, the switchgear such as the turning signal stalk operates with a satisfying, upscale “click” when used.
Of course, you can also load up on the goodies if you’re willing to pay the price – say, $25,000-$26,000 at the top end. For all that, you should end up with Kia’s UVO infotainment system and navigation, along with a heated steering wheel, heated seats front and rear, a ventilated or cooled driver’s seat and dual zone automatic climate control. Compact, less-than-$30,000 city cars are now equipped like luxury cars of five years ago.
In a nutshell, Kia has pushed the styling, loaded up the technology and, of course, upped the performance.
The two available engines are a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine rated at 148 horsepower, with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission; and a 2.0-litre, direct-injection engine producing 173 horsepower. If you can afford it, the bigger engine is the better choice – and it’s sold with a six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission. You probably won’t bother, because almost no one does, but you will be able to shift that tranny via steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Then there’s this Flex Steer electric power steering business. Kia says it allows the driver to select a steering setting – Comfort, Normal and Sport. The idea is to get steering feel that matches your driving style. It’s more hype than anything else. Something for Kia to brag about. Realistically, the differences in steering feel are small and not particularly useful. If you want great steering feel in a compact car, drive a VW Golf or a Ford Focus.
Kia’s engineers – who work together with Hyundai engineers at the conglomerate’s technical centres – have conjured up a stiffer body, a re-tuned suspension system and the new, wider stance. The drive is pleasant enough, though over hours and hours the ride starts to feel a little busy and noisier than the styling suggests. You’ll want something bigger and more substantial for a long-distance journey, day after day.
What you should not worry about is the safety piece of this story. Kia has loaded up with six airbags, four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS) with Brake Assist Control (BAS), electronic stability control (ESC), Hill Assist Control (HAC) and standard Vehicle Stability Management (VSM) that automatically intervenes when it senses understeer or oversteer. The outgoing Forte was a Top Safety Pick of the U.S. Insurance institute for Highway Safety and this one will be, too.
The point of it all is this: Kia has a pretty, new compact and the sale push is all about the details of what you get with the Forte for this price, that you don’t get from the competition for the same. Frankly, it’s a compelling argument.
2014 Kia Forte LX
Type: Compact sedan
Base price: $15,999 (estimated); $1,455 freight
Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 148 hp/131 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available
Alternatives: Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Jetta, Nissan Sentra, Dodge Dart