Review and photos by
Chris Chase, CanadianDriver.com
It doesn’t look it, but the 2011 Kia Forte5 is a little bit retro. The prevailing trend is for new cars to be more refined and more grown up than the ones they replace, so it’s easy to get used to the concept of a compact that drives more like a mid-sized car.
I’ve driven the Kia Forte before. In fact, with this test drive, I’ve spent time behind the wheel of all three Forte variants: sedan, coupe and hatchback. But I noticed something new in the Forte5, and that something is how much it reminds me of small cars from a couple of generations ago, when a small car was basic transportation, instead of being a small car trying to act like a bigger one.
Naturally, that aspirational reach up to the next size class isn’t a bad thing. It usually adds refinement, and tends to add safety, with compacts now featuring standard anti-lock brakes, (at least) six airbags and a pile of convenience upgrades the likes of which were just a dream for anyone looking to spend less than $20,000 on a car about 10 years ago.
That ten-year timeline is apropos, because this Kia brings to my mind the Mazda Protege5, one of the cars that led the North American hatchback renaissance when it was introduced in 2001. The comparison looks-wise is an obvious one, with the Forte’s taut lines and clipped rear end, but there are parallels to be made, too, in how the Forte5 drives.
My tester was a mid-level EX model, an impressive package that includes a long list of standard kit such as air conditioning, heated cloth front seats, windshield wiper de-icer, cruise control, stability/traction control and a great sounding six-speaker stereo. The base LX and EX models use a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that makes 156 horsepower and 144 lb-ft of torque, and the top-trim SX has a 2.4-litre engine with 173 hp/168 lb-ft. All Forte transmissions are six-speeds this year, replacing last year’s five-speed manual (in the LX and EX), and four- and five-speed automatics. The EX I drove paired the 2.0-litre with the six-speed automatic.
Despite its class-average displacement, the smaller engine is an impressive performer, to the point that I was sure I was driving the bigger motor. The car moves smartly from a stop, but never seems to run out of breath, generating plenty of punch even at highway speeds. It’s there that you’ll discover the first of those parallels to compact hatchbacks past, however. The engine is an eager performer, but generates plenty of noise, not much of it refined to the ears. Things get buzzy and boomy between 2,500 and 3,000 rpm, where the motor spends a lot of its time in normal acceleration.
You can be grateful, then, for the long-gearing in this new six-speed automatic, which keeps the motor spinning at a leisurely 2,000 rpm in top gear at 110 km/h, which does wonders to lower noise levels on long-distance drives. The transmission is a smooth operator, shifting well and promptly in upshifts and responding dutifully with downshifts to throttle inputs. The expected manual shift mode is here, but doesn’t respond quickly enough to add to the driving experience for anything but holding lower gears for engine braking. On the plus side, it’s a true manual shift mode, and won’t downshift automatically under full throttle. In an experiment on a highway drive, the engine generated enough torque at that 2,000 rpm to accelerate uphill in sixth gear.
Natural Resources Canada’s ratings for the Forte are 9.0/6.2 L/100 km with the 2.4-litre engine and automatic transmission, and 8.0/5.5 with the 2.0-litre and automatic. My two-litre tester averaged 10.2 L/100 km in a little more than 400 km split evenly between city and highway.
While you won’t hear much from the engine room at highway cruising speeds, you will hear significant amounts of road and wind noise. Some of that can be attributed to my tester’s winter tires, but there’s a general lack of sound deadening in the Forte5, particularly around the rear wheel wheels: rocks and snow getting tossed around by the back wheels make an unholy racket as they ricochet inside the fenders.
Whether the Forte5’s soundtrack will bother you depends on what kind of driver you are. If you enjoy being involved in your A-to-B, you might not mind what you hear inside this car, but it could be a deal-breaker if you prefer relaxing to rallying; I got into this car directly after a week in the Chevrolet Cruze, a car that’s significantly quieter inside.
The Forte5 might please a more involved driver, as the aural feedback makes it more obvious what’s happening under the hood and contact patches. Like that Protege5 mentioned near the top, the Forte hatch feels eager to play along when being tossed around on a winding road. The steering is nicely weighted and linear in its response, the firm suspension keeps body roll to a minimum, and the chassis feels well-balanced. It also translates into a harsh ride and lots of clomping noises over rough roads, where the suspension has a tough time keep the tires in contact with the road. It’s particularly unsettling in corners, where the car will shuffle sideways when it hits a bump.
Like its sedan line-mates, the Forte5’s interior is comfortably roomy, especially up front, where the cabin feels airy. The rear seat offers good head and legroom: you’d have to be pretty tall to feel squished back here. Cargo space is more generous than the car’s truncated tail suggests, with 550 litres (19.4 cu. ft.) available with the rear seat in place. Naturally, it folds, and flat at that, though the bottom seat cushions have to be flipped forward and the headrests removed first.
The front seats lack lateral support, but are very comfortable otherwise, as I discovered during 18 hours of driving from Ottawa to Windsor and back. As a man of average height, I’d have asked for more downward travel in the height adjustment, especially with the sunroof eating into my headspace, but the standard six-way manual adjustability for both front seats is a welcome touch all the same.
Forte5 pricing starts at $16,695 for an LX with manual transmission. An EX comes in at $19,195 with a stickshift; the automatic adds $1,200 to that, and the sunroof in my tester adds another $900, for a total of $21,295, plus freight.
Like its sedan and coupe line-mates, the Forte5 is a decent small car that lacks the sophistication most of its rivals bring to the table. While the driving experience might make you pine for cars you owned a decade ago, it will also remind you that you can get a number of today’s more refined small hatchbacks for about the same money. In this case, your mileage, and memories, may vary.
Pricing: 2011 Kia Forte5 EX
Base price: $$19,195 (LX: $16, 695)
Options: $2,100 (Six-speed automatic transmission, $1,200; power sunroof, $900)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $22,850
Crash test results
Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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