Review and photos by
Peter Bleakney, CanadianDriver.com
With the world’s automakers scrambling to meet ever more stringent fuel economy and emission targets, the compact sedan game is moving along at a pretty decent clip.
The current darling of the bunch here in North America is the Chevy Cruze, garnering praise for its quality interior and big-car demeanour. It is in the final running for AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year. Soon to enter the fray are the all-new Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra, the former which promises engaging Euro-dynamics and the latter which looks to kick serious butt with its mini-Sonata good looks in conjunction with class leading power and fuel economy.
And then there is that trio of 800-pound gorillas: the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3.
As I gaze out at the snow covered 2011 Kia Forte Sedan EX automatic in my driveway ($19,695), I can’t help but feel a wisp of compassion for this Korean upstart. Not an easy row to hoe.
Yet it is a fetching little rig, looking a bit like a scaled downed Audi A4. Not surprising, as it was penned by ex-Audi stylist Peter Schreyer.
Kia is not sitting on its laurels when it comes to this compact car. Only introduced last year as a 2010 model, all 2011 Forte models get new transmissions in the form of a standard six-speed manual and optional six-speed auto (up one and two gears respectively), new front grille and fascia, advanced front airbags and seatbelt pretensioners, upgraded centre console and monotube shock absorbers.
This is on top of the Forte’s all ready extensive standard kit list that includes voice-activated Bluetooth, four-wheel disc brakes, audio with aux and USB inputs, heated mirrors, electronic stability control, anti-whiplash headrests, 60/40 split rear seat and steering wheel mounted audio controls.
Yes, even the base LX model at $15,995 has all this, although there is no air conditioning. Moving up to the $18,595 LX “Plus” gives you air, auto transmission and keyless entry.
Ante up another $1,100 and you arrive at my tester, which seems like a smart move as the EX model adds 16-inch alloys (versus 15-inch steel wheels), heated front seats, cruise with steering wheel mounted controls, outside temp display, windshield wiper de-icer, integrated signal lights in the mirrors, telescoping steering wheel, a pair of front tweeters (no, not the teenage kind), and exterior chromed door handles.
Suffice to say, this sedan is following the Korean script to the letter: load ‘em up and price ‘em to move.
The LX and EX models are motivated by a 2.0-litre four that puts out a class-leading 156 hp and 144 lb.-ft. of torque. Move up to the SX model (starting at $21,795) and you get leather, more luxury goodies and a 173-hp 2.4-litre four.
While this 2.0-litre four is not as smooth as Toyota’s or Honda’s efforts, it pulls strongly across the rev range, giving this little sedan some satisfying punch.
Fuel economy is rated at 8.0 L/100 km city and 5.5 L/100 km highway with the automatic transmission. Real world driving during a few days of arctic-like temperatures returned a sobering 11.0 L/100 km.
Having tested a 2010 Forte Koup EX last year fitted with the then-standard four-speed auto, I can say this six-cog unit makes a world of difference. It shifts smoothly, and at 100 km/h the four spins at a relaxed 1,900 r.p.m.. There’s no undue “hunting” between gears, and unlike most manumatic trannys, this one responds to manual shift requests with reasonable alacrity.
There is also evidence of some dynamic fine-tuning. The 2010 Forte had unnaturally aggressive throttle tip in. Not the case here. I also wasn’t crazy about the 2010 car’s steering feel – it was wooden and artificial. This 2011 Forte has a nicely weighted and linear helm that provides a real connection to the car.
My other major gripe with the Forte hasn’t been addressed. Despite the new mono-tube shock absorbers, the 2011 Forte is let down by a noisy and choppy ride. You feel every ripple, bump and pitch in the road, and big disturbances send nasty crashes through the structure. The underpinnings declare, “We haven’t figured out how to make a sporty chassis without undue harshness.” This is a criticism you could level at most Kia products.
Shame, because the rest of the car so good. It handle’s well, it’s fun to drive, the interior looks a class above its price and the seats are comfy and supportive.
Many will overlook the Forte’s foibles to get the crisp style, strong performance and high feature content. Be sure to drive the Chevy Cruze first if you value comfort over sport.
The closest Cruze to this Forte EX tester is the LT Turbo + at $20,870. This car isn’t as spritely with its 136-hp 1.4-litre turbo engine (and an extra 120 kg to haul around) and fuel economy is marginally worse (8.5 city, 5.5 highway). A six-speed auto, Bluetooth and 16-inch alloys are standard, but there are no heated seats (big oversight).
And what about the Honda Civic, the Canadian sales champ? A comparable model would be a five-speed auto-equipped SE at $20,780. Again, less juice from the 1.8-litre four (140 hp), and with the auto transmission, fuel economy is comparable (8.2 L/100 city, 5.2 highway). But no Bluetooth, windshield wiper de-icer, illuminated vanity mirrors, integrated turn signals… it’s that same old Korean song that competitors hate to hear.
Despite the Forte’s compact looks, it trumps all its major competitors (save the new VW Jetta) in interior dimensions and trunk space – it even edges out the close-to-mid-size Cruze. And few can argue with Hyundai/Kia’s basic 60 month/100,000 km warranty.
Now all Kia has to do is hire some European suspension engineers to smooth out those rough edges.
Pricing: 2011 Kia Forte EX automatic
Base price: $19,695
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $21,240
Crash test results