Compacts represent the largest part of the Canadian automotive sales pie and provide a chance for a car company to prove itself. If the customer has been happy with the product and experience, he or she is likely to stay with that manufacturer when they move up to a more expensive vehicle.
The Forte is Kia's player in the segment, competing with the Civic, Mazda3, Corolla and more than a dozen others. With the addition of a five-door hatchback for 2011, Kia has expanded the lineup beyond the four-door sedan and two-door Koup, which were introduced less than a year ago.
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The Forte 5 will appeal to singles and families alike because it is effectively a four-door that can be converted to a bulky item carrier with a large access hatch. The roof, side and rear glass, tailgate, rear bumper and taillights are different, but virtually everything forward of the rear seat backs is the same as the sedan, including all critical interior dimensions as they relate to passengers, i.e. head, leg, hip and shoulder room.
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Converting from people to package space is as easy as tugging a strap beneath the bottom seat cushion and flipping it forward against the front seat back. Then pull a lever atop the seat back and it folds flat to the floor - after you have taken the head restraint off. It would have been nice if the interior team had figured a way to flip/fold the restraints so you don't have to take them off, find a place to put them and then fit them back when you need seats again. There is a good-sized, waterproof, removable tray beneath the cargo floor on the upper two trim levels.
When in place, the rear seats provide a good level of comfort and leg room for two adults, three if smaller or very friendly. Front-seat occupants get wide buckets covered in a grippy cloth on the LX and EX trim levels and slippery leather on the SX. The driver's seat can be adjusted for height and the steering wheel for both rake and reach on the EX and SX, tilt only on the LX.
The dash is logically laid out with no weird features or surprises. There are controls for both the audio and cruise control systems on the steering wheel through which you can readily monitor a trio of legible analogue instruments. A clock rests atop the centre stack and HVAC and audio systems feature large buttons and knobs.
There are two small open storage bins, a pair of 12-volt outlets, aux and USB audio inputs, a large covered bin and two cup holders in the centre console. Each front door also contains storage bins and provisions for carrying water or other beverage containers.
Standard safety features include ABS, electronic stability control, six airbags and active front-seat head restraints.
The 2011 Forte 5 is available in LX ($16,995), EX ($19,195) and SX ($22,495) trim levels. Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes, power windows and locks, four-speaker audio with MP3, aux and USB, voice-activated wireless connectivity, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and power heated mirrors. An automatic transmission hikes the tab by $1,200.
I tested what will likely be the volume model - a mid-level with automatic transmission priced at $20,395. This included 16-inch alloy wheels instead of 15-inch steel, air conditioning, heated front seats, remote keyless entry, cruise control, telescoping steering wheel, audio upgrade and windshield wiper de-icers.
You can add a sunroof to this trim level or move up to the SX with the larger engine, bigger wheels, automatic climate control, leather seats and even add a navigation system, but the $26,195 plus freight tariff puts you in another league. It also means you get a larger and more powerful engine and fancy 17-inch wheels. The latter are wrapped in low-profile tires resulting in a rather harsh ride, especially over less-than-perfect surfaces.
This is a case of less is more. The larger engine does warrant consideration if you regularly carry loads or several passengers, but the 2.0-litre unit in the EX, thanks to the well-programmed six-speed automatic transmission, is a model of civility, smooth and quiet under all but sustained wide-open throttle use and providing enough power to stay with the pack.
The steering is light and the brakes progressive. Kia seems to have cured the excessive throttle tip-in that has been common to this point where a slight prod of the throttle results in an inordinate and unexpected amount of acceleration. The cabin is quiet at all legal speeds.
This is a well-sorted compact that can go head-to-head with the big guys.
2011 Kia Forte 5-door
Type: Compact hatchback
Base price: $16,995 for LX; as tested, $21,840 for EX automatic (including freight)
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four (LX and EX)/2.4-litre, DOHC, inline-four (SX)
Horsepower/torque: 156 hp/144 lb-ft for 2.0L; 173 hp/168 lb-ft for 2.4L
Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/5.7 highway (2.0L with manual); 9.0 city/6.2 highway (2.4L with automatic); regular gas
Alternatives: Mazda3, Toyota Matrix
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