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Kia Forte5 (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
Kia Forte5 (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive 2014 Kia Forte5

Compact Kia holds its own in a competitive segment Add to ...

Highway 78/79 is a serpentine two-lane mountain route that wiggles through California's Anza-Borrego state park. Originally carved through the hills as a stagecoach route, it's made up of switchbacks and dogleg turns and doubles back on itself like a dog trying to catch its tail. What's intriguing about this road is that you climb from the lushness of the southern California coastal region, through highland scrub and mesquite, up across the San Jacinto mountains and into the Colorado Desert. Three distinct climate zones, with all the tight turns you can handle.

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In advance of testing the 2014 Kia Forte5 on this route, popular consensus among the assembled auto scribes seemed to be was that the a car is nicely put together and well-rounded, but has vague steering and an unco-operative transmission linkage with the manual gearbox version. Having spent a full day driving to Borrego Springs, Calif., I can say there is nothing wrong with the steering in this car – especially since Kia’s FlexSteer is standard equipment on all but the base model. This intriguing feature basically alters the steering geometry of the car while it’s in motion, and you can go from a light feel for around town to a heavier setting for spirited driving. Vague steering? Nonsense.

That said, the manual shift linkage could be better. Time and time again, I found myself trying to pull away from a stop light in third gear when I was sure I’d put it into first. Kia needs to clean this up and make the gate between first and third less ambiguous. Compared to a Honda Civic, the Forte’s linkage is crude.

This is a modestly priced car, but even at the base level, it’s well equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, tilt/telescoping steering, air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise control, a electronic stability control and hill start assist. The Forte5 is available in three different trims: LX, EX and SX, and the options list seems to go on forever.

Move up to the SX models and you can choose from 18-inch wheels and tires, ventilated driver’s seat, heated rear seats, leather interior and a cooled glove box. A six-speed automatic adds $1,200 to the price tag.

The Forte5 is aimed at buyers between ages 25 and 54, with an emphasis on younger consumers – who tend to be careful with their money – and, says Maria Soklis, Kia Canada vice-president, one in four of these buyers are first timers. Maximum bang for the buck is paramount and the higher the standard equipment list, the better.

Plus, the Forte5 is in an incredibly competitive segment. Think Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus, and you get an idea of what Kia has to contend with. In Canada, this is the heart of the market and only the strong survive.

Helping the Forte5 duke it out are two new engines: a normally-aspirated 2.0 litre and turbocharged 1.6 litre (making this the first turbocharged compact in this company’s history in Canada). These develop 173 and 201 horsepower, respectively, and to put things into perspective, Volkswagen’s famed GTi develops just nine horsepower more than the turbo Forte5, and Honda’s Civic Si with the larger engine has the same horsepower output but less torque. The normally aspirated version, meanwhile, is more powerful than any of its rivals.

Like so many Kia products these days, it seems, the Forte5 has a built-in sense of balance and poise that handles a route like 78/79 with ease. As long as you don't get carried away with yourself, it provides a linear power delivery, predictable steering, and prompt braking without the harshness of a sports car. This is a mainstream automobile, remember, and the word that comes to mind is "unremarkable"....in a good way. The turbo version in particular, is about as subtle as these types of drivetrains come.

The usual drawbacks of forced air induction – no bottom-end grunt, throttle lag or understeer – are non-existent, even when you're giving it some welly. The Forte5 does not feel like a front-drive turbocharged automobile, and all the usual attributes of a good handling car – predictability, balance, power delivery and braking – make for a surprisingly civilized driving experience. There are tauter, more toss-able models on the market, but not at this price.

Of the two, my vote goes to the turbo version. It’s about $4,000 pricier and slightly thirstier, but offers better performance and comes with FlexSteer as standard equipment.

Tech Specs

2014 Kia Forte5

Type: Compact hatchback

Price range: $19,495 - $28,395

Engine: 2.0-litre normally-aspirated and 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 173 hp/154 lb-ft; 201 hp/195 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual/six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.7 city; 6.9 highway

Alternatives: Mazda3 Sport, Ford Focus Hatchback, Hyundai Elantra GT, VW Golf, Nissan Versa, Toyota Matrix

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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