Kia's new 2010 Forte didn't beat the Mazda3 Sport or the Volkswagen Golf in this year's Canadian Car of The Year category for Best New Small Cars over $21,000, but it did finish third - and that must have been worth ripping the roof off a bottle, raising some glasses and shouting "gun-bae" at the company's Canadian headquarters.
It's hard to imagine a toast ever being raised to the Forte's dull-as-dishwater predecessor, the Spectra sedan. It's more likely any drinking being done in its connection would be to forget that replacement for the equally soporific Sephia in 2002, Kia's original compact offering in Canada.
But finishing third behind products from those two long-established brands is indicative of a shuffling of the place cards that moves Kia up the table into rather more august company.
In fact, the Forte helps mark something of a coming of age for this one-time bicycle maker, which didn't build its first motorized vehicle until 1969, but which now, as part of the Hyundai-Kia automotive group, finds itself the fifth-largest manufacturer in the world.
And while Kia may not quite yet rate head-table status - the Forte isn't a breakthrough design, just a worthwhile improvement on its predecessor - like its partner Hyundai, which has successfully social-climbed the status rungs in recent years, it's making no bones about its own market aspirations.
The 2010 Forte, with very pretty bodywork designed in California, a new interior and improved road manners, may still lack finesse in some areas, but as always, makes up for this with plenty of equipment at a competitive price.
The Forte comes in three variants. The base LX is priced at $15,695 or $16,895 with automatic transmission and has ABS brakes, power windows and locks, power/heated outside mirrors, cabin air filter, voice-activated Bluetooth connectivity, six airbags and steering wheel audio controls. The $18,195 LX Plus adds air conditioning.
The step-up EX, with five-speed manual gearbox, goes for $17,995 and gives you a stability control system, 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise control, wiper de-icers, telescoping steering wheel, outside mirrors that incorporate turn signals, an audio speaker upgrade and chrome door handles.
The line-topping SX gets a bigger, 2.4-litre, 173-hp engine and a six-speed manual gearbox, plus 17-inch wheels, automatic climate control, a classier instrument cluster, leather upholstery and wheel, alloy sport pedals and a trip computer - a lot of stuff for $20,995.
The test car was an EX with automatic and a power sunroof that was priced at $19,995.
The Forte's mechanical basics remain much the same. The four-cylinder engine is a 2.0-litre, twin-cam with continuously variable valve timing that delivers 156 hp and 144 lb-ft of torque. Reasonable numbers for the class.
But the automatic transmission, which you can shift yourself, still has only four speeds. Not a big deal, but another ratio would increase the sophistication level and further improve acceleration, drivability and fuel economy. The latter is actually quite good with ratings of 8.1 L/100 km city and 5.8 highway.
The Forte's front suspension is still by MacPherson struts with a torsion-beam axle at the rear. This suspension has benefited from being firmed up to improve handling, but its dampers don't deal well with sharp bumps.
Over all, the feel is much more confident and responsive, though, and a track test during the Car of The Year judging, which involved some high-speed swerves and tighter curves, proved it's stable and vice-free. In fact, more than competent enough, although the steering is a little uncommunicative. Brakes, which operate via a firm pedal, held up to some repeated hard usage as well.
The interior designers have done a nice job with the style of the interior but unfortunately everything you see or touch is made of shiny or flat finished hard black plastic.
The centre stack flows up into the dash top and neatly integrates the audio and climate control button-and-knobbery. The three-pod instrument array looks neat and there's not much cause for complaint with the front seats. The rear bench splits 60/40 to extend the usefulness of the already generous 415-litre trunk.
There's some wind and motor noise evident at cruise, but it's quiet enough and the ride is comfortable and stable at highway speeds. Outside mirrors are fine, headlights just okay and the climate control and audio systems work effectively.
The Forte is a much more-refined car than its predecessor in many ways, but I guess in order to offer the high level of standard equipment at the prices it does, Kia had to stint on some of the basics. But to compete on an equal footing with the best in the class it needs to raise the whole package to a higher level.
Still, this is a stylish compact sedan that's well worth a look and undoubtedly good value. Particularly if you ponied up an extra grand and bought the SX, with more motor, some nicer interior trim and likely (I haven't driven it) improved suspension.
2010 KIA FORTE EX
Type: Compact sedan
Base Price: $15,695; as tested, $19,995
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 156 hp/ 144 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/5.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Chevrolet Cobalt, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Dodge Caliber
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