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The 2021 Kia Forte5 GT.

Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

We Canadians do get our knickers in a knot when it comes to hatchbacks. We keep buying crossovers and pickups because we need the utility, yet traditionally we look down on hatchback cars because they’re, well, too utilitarian. They’re perceived as harmful to our self-esteem – basic econoboxes for those unable or unwilling to pay for anything better.

Meanwhile, the few automakers who do still offer hatchbacks are mostly pitching them upmarket, with higher specs and higher prices than their sedan siblings. Go figure.

Case in point, Kia’s Civic-challenging compact cars. The Forte sedan starts at around $18,000 for a 2.0-litre LX manual, but the point of entry to the Forte5 hatchback range is the $22,295 EX trim, with a continuously variable automatic transmission paired to the same base engine.

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Three other Forte5 trims all wear GT badges and are propelled by Kia’s familiar 1.6-litre turbo engine rated at 201 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque: There’s the base GT with manual transmission, like the test sample; the GT DCT, which adds a sporty dual-clutch automatic; and the GT Limited DCT, which piles on the bells and whistles, including heated/ventilated front and heated rear seats.

There are also GT versions of the Forte sedan, though DCT only. The hatchbacks cost $1,000 more than their sedan equivalents, but they still present fine value, ranging from $25,595 for the manual to $29,995 for the Limited DCT.

For context, a Honda Civic hatchback (the last of the outgoing 2021 models) starts above $30,400, and the opening bid for the all-new 2022 Golf GTI coming this fall will be $31,495. There are less-expensive hatchback versions of the Mazda3, Subaru Impreza and Toyota Corolla, but none that offers a comparable performance package to the Kia.

That all said, you get what you pay for. The Forte5 GT is best classified as “hot hatchback lite,” occupying a sweet spot between garden-variety base compacts, and giant-killer performance cars like the Civic Type R, Golf R and Impreza WRX STI.

If you walked up to one of these in the street, you might not even know it’s the “hot” version; apart from twin tailpipes and some small red accents, there are few cosmetic cues. Drive one in traffic and you could still be fooled. Yes, the ride has a hard edge at first acquaintance (it smooths out nicely above city speeds) but the engine is muted and tractable, the primary controls all light and user-friendly.

Still, the extra straight-line thrust is there if you want, and it’s easily accessible; there’s minimal turbo lag, and traction-control interventions are seamless. As well, the chassis accommodates clover-leaf heroics with solid grip and nice balance.

But the flip side of the GT’s amiable daily-driver persona is that it misses the finer points of performance that gearheads relish. The engine sound when you wring it out is just “meh,” and while the shifter is light and smooth, its throws are also long and loose. Notably, the steering response feels dumbed down, which is not just disappointing but also surprising: Keen on-centre steering feel is something the Hyundai-Kia group excels at in some of its other products.

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Still, not everybody cares about that stuff. Whether you opt for the base (but still not bare) stick-shift, or a better-equipped DCT, the Forte5 GT offers level-up performance at a very reasonable price in a package that won’t label you as a boy racer.

The flip side of the Kia Forte5 GT's amiable daily-driver persona is that it misses the finer points of performance that gearheads relish.

Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

2021 Kia Forte5 GT

As tested price: $25,595

Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, 201 horsepower

Transmission/drive: Six-speed manual/front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 9.9 city/ 7.6 highway

Alternatives: Mazda3 Sport, Subaru Impreza 5-door, Toyota Corolla Hatchback, Volkswagen Golf GTI

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Looks

As hot hatchbacks go, this one’s a bit of a sleeper, with minimal “go-faster” ornamentation on a basic shape that itself is quite subtle.

Interior

The secondary controls are well thought out, with simple rotary dials to set the temperature on the dual-zone automatic climate control and physical knobs for volume.

Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

On the base GT, the driver gets only six-way manual seat adjustment, so while the seat shape is fine, more people might be able to get more comfortable on the more adjustable power chair in the Limited. Visibility is only fair, but the secondary controls are well thought out, with simple rotary dials to set the temperature on the dual-zone automatic climate control, and physical knobs for volume and radio tuning on the (very) free-standing eight-inch display audio. The Forte5 also has one of the roomier rear cabins among its compact-hatchback peers.

Performance

Turbocharged front-drive cars with manual transmissions are a challenge to launch effectively.

Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

Auto-magazine tests suggest a zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour time in the mid-seven-seconds range for the manual, which is sprightly rather than searing. Still, turbocharged front-drive cars with manual transmissions are a challenge to launch effectively, so the track numbers probably understate how quick the GT can feel on the street. We’d also expect the DCT to be a little quicker still.

Technology

You can’t get adaptive cruise control with the manual transmission, but the driver-assist (DA) kit does include forward collision avoidance and lane-keeping assist, plus blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warnings. Wireless phone charging is standard, along with the usual smartphone connectivity tech. Opting for the DCT trim also brings Kia’s UVO Telematics system and satellite radio. The Limited further adds navigation, and on the DA side, adaptive cruise.

Cargo

The Forte5 is longer than most compact hatchbacks with a class-best 741 litres of storage space.

Jeremy sinek/The Globe and Mail

The Forte5 is longer than most compact hatchbacks, and most of that seems to have been devoted to cargo volume: a class-best 741 litres. The seat backs fold more flat-and-flush than most, and in the absence of a spare wheel (for better or worse, you get an inflator kit instead), there’s lots of hidden space below the cargo deck.

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