The test car had the smaller of two engines offered in the Forte, a 2 litre 4 cylinder unit which puts out 156 bhp, a slightly greater figure than that achieved by many of its rivals. Even so, the Forte is no ball of fire. Although this Kia was fine in most driving conditions, face it with a less than gentle incline, or the need for a sudden burst of acceleration and it runs out of steam pretty quickly forcing a downshift or two, at which point the engine gets really very noisy indeed, as speed builds up again. I suspect that this is a consequence of the fact that the engine is ultimately not that powerful or even more the case that the gearing of sixth gear has been chosen to address previous concerns about noise levels. Driven gently, noise levels are generally quite low, with just a trace of wind noise, and some road noise, which was notably worse on some surfaces than others. A manual gearbox is standard, but like all US rental cars, this one had the optional automatic. The six speed automatic gearbox is pretty smooth, and it is only the change in noise levels and the upward swing of the rev counter that really puts you on notice that you are no longer in top gear. Indeed, it was only by pushing the lever sideways into Tiptronic mode that I could see there were indeed six gears in this car (unlike the four that featured in previous year models), as counting the upchanges was quite difficult to be sure you had got them all.
During my time with the Kia, I had a day of mostly freeway cruising, and a day up in the canyons. Over the 516 test miles, it consumed 16 gallons of regular, which means 32.25 mpg US, or 38.5 mpg in Imperial measures, which is not as good as some of competitors (in particular the Corolla, despite its antiquated 4 speed transmission) would likely have achieved. What I was not expecting was that when I took the Forte up on to the canyon roads, was that it would actually prove fun to hustle around the swooping bends. The steering has far more feel than many cars of this class (or any class, come to that), and the handling, although clearly from the school of front wheel drive meant that I could take the various curves and bends at far greater speed than I had done a few days earlier, and enjoy the experience far more. For sure, a European spec Focus would score far higher than this Kia, but even so I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun such an ordinary car could prove to be on these roads. The brakes were fine, and they took the punishment of the long and steady curvy downhill of the Angeles Crest Highway with no problems at all. A pull up handbrake is fitted between the seats. With a generous glass area, and relatively short overhangs, positioning the Forte on the road was easy and there were no problems in judging the extremities when manoeuvering it, though I did think that the door mirrors could usefully have been larger as there was a significant blind spot to remember when looking to pull out on the freeway.
There are two ways of looking at the cabin of this Forte., You could take a quick peek, and poke a couple of the surfaces and conclude that it is all rather grey and hard plastics, in other words rather old school Korean, or you could declare that it is refreshingly simple and unfussy. Both views are largely correct. The seats on the EX spec of the test car were covered in a mixture of grey cloth materials, and the dashboard and door casings were a mixture of grey and black, with a dark grey insert down the centre of the dash, and indeed the plastics used did feel rather hard and not look to be particularly appealing, and the plastic moulded steering wheel does little to dispel this impression. However, after the complicated mess of buttons that Ford (the worst, but not the only culprits) seem to think make us believe we are getting an upscale interior, the fact that there is an refreshing simplicity to the Forte was quite welcome. There are three large dials, under a single cowl, all deeply recessed and with chrome finisher rings, with central speedometer flanked by rev counter and a fuel gauge. Anything else you need to know is conveyed by warning lights in the middle of the instrument cluster. Twin column stalks operate the lights and indicators on the left and wipers on the right. The centre of the dash contains two vertically arranged air vents which straddle the integrated audio unit, and below this are the rotary knobs for the air conditioning system. There are some small and rather discrete repeater buttons on the steering wheel hub for the audio unit and cruise control. And that is it. Everything that you need is there, but there are no extras and no fripperies. The audio unit included XM satellite radio, which was a bit of a surprise in a car of this specification and price point, as well as USB and auxiliary ports mounted positioned in front of the gear lever. It was particularly easy to use, and sound quality was good.
Unsurprisingly, seat adjustment was all manual, with ratchet levers on the side of the seat for height and backrest angle and a bar under the seat for fore/aft movement. With an adjustable column, getting the ideal driving position was easy, and the seat proved comfortable for the time I spent sitting on it. Access to the rear seat is easy thanks to large door openings, and once there, there is a decent amount space for a couple of adults, with ample head room, as well as sufficient leg room even when the front seats are set well back. Three adults could squeeze in, though this is not a particularly wide car, so they would not want to stay there for long. There is a drop down central armrest with a pair of cup holders in its upper surface. There is no external release for the boot, with access gained either by pressing the button on the remote or by pulling a lever down by the left of the driver’s seat. With the lid raised, I was pleased to discover that the boot is surprisingly commodious, especially given the short tail. It is particularly deep from top to bottom, and official figures suggest that it is among the roomiest in the class. More space can be created by folding down the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests. Inside the cabin there is quite a generously sized drop down glove box, and door bins on the front doors only, and a split level cubby under the central armrest. There is a useful area in front of the gear lever which easily accommodated two cameras and my phone, and there is a very small dash mounted cubby recess above the driver’s knee. Rear seat passengers do not fare so well, with no door bins and a map pocket only on the back of the passenger seat.
Kia offer three different versions of the Forte, a four door Sedan like the test car, a five door hatchback and the rather neatly style 2 door coupe, called the Koup. Sedan models come in basic LX, mid-spec EX and top of the range SX models. The hatch and Koup are not available as an LX. Standard equipment on the LX includes air conditioning, a tilt steering wheel, split-folding rear seat backs, and a Bluetooth wireless cell-phone link. Features such as power windows, locks, mirrors, cruise control, keyless entry, and a telescopic steering wheel are standard on the EX and SX, but aren’t available on the LX. SX models come with the larger and more powerful 2.4 litre 4 cylinder engine and a sport suspension. EX sedan models with automatic transmission are available with an Eco Package that includes a “smart” alternator and low-rolling resistance tyres that are meant to increase fuel efficiency. A power sunroof is optional on the EX and SX. The SX is available with leather upholstery and heated front seats, but these features are only available on models equipped with the sunroof. A Technology Package for the automatic-transmission EX and SX includes a navigation system, rearview camera, automatic climate control, and keyless access/engine start. Remote engine start is also optional on these models. Neither of these optional Packages featured on the test car, unsurprisingly. List price for an EX Automatic such as the one I drove is $17,800.
This Forte struck me as an honest and unpretentious car that would serve well those who wanted a mid-sized family saloon that eschews the gimmicky styling and features that are permeating some of its competitors and yet which has no significant weaknesses. The only thing counting against it that I could discern was the rather breathless and noisy engine, and I suspect that these problems are easily overcome by the more potent 2.4 SX version. So, I quite liked the Forte and would happily rent one again. However, I probably won’t get the chance, as although this car was first available in the US as a 2010 model, such is the pace of change and new models chez Kia that this generation of Forte is already obsolete. A new model, once again called K3 in its home market, and retaining the Forte name for the Americans was premiered in the second half of 2012 and is just becoming available in the US, although it has yet to hit the rental fleets and I have not yet seen one on US roads. Motor Trend recently compared it with five rivals – the recently refreshed Sentra, the emergency facelifted Civic, the all new Dart and their previous class favourite the Mazda 3, and declared the Kia to be the easy winner of the group.