Tuesday, July 21, 2009

All-new 2010 Kia Forte meets high standards of performance, design at a low price

"It's the economy, stupid" was the unspoken theme of the 1992 presidential campaign. Then Gov. Bill Clinton got it and won. The first president Bush was retired to Texas because he didn't get it.

Well, in the automotive world, "it's the design, stupid." The cars and SUVs that are thriving in the U.S., for the most part, have great designs. GM for the past five years have mostly been designed by committee. Hello, bankruptcy. Chrysler has had one winning design in that same time frame, the Chrysler 300 (not counting a couple of retro designs).

On the other hand, we have distinctive designs and good sales from companies like Audi, Mazda, Ford, Hyundai and now, believe it or not, Kia. The Korean carmaker has heard the word and ditched its bland drawings. I present as proof the 2010 Kia Forte sedan.

Kia gathered media from all over the country (including me for some reason) in Seattle to introduce the sedan. I've been around large packs of automotive journalists before and after a couple of drinks you usually hear some muttering about a car's faults. It just wasn't happening with the Forte.

Executives touted the Forte's fun-to-drive factor. That may be pushing things just a bit. In the compact market, probably 90 percent of the cars are bought for practical reasons like fuel economy or cost. The Forte does well on both counts but practically nobody is going to buy this car because it's fun to drive. A real estate agent in a down market may trade in his Porsche Boxster for a Forte, but it's not because it's fun to drive.

However, the Forte will never make you regret the decision to buy one. During the test drive in Seattle, I spent time behind the wheel of the LX trim model with the 2.0-liter, 156 horsepower engine with 144 lb. ft. of torque and the SX trim model with the 2.4-liter, 174 horsepower engine that puts out 168 lb. ft. of torque. The 2.0-liter with two adults on board (one husky, one not) did emit some minor complaints under hard acceleration. The 2.4-liter handled everything thrown at it with nary a peep.

Let's not kid ourselves. Handling was not spirited by any means, but the Forte in the SX trim had nothing to be ashamed of on some moderately twisting roads. Every now and then my co-pilot and I would throw the Forte hard around a corner and while not maintaining a flat horizon, it didn't tip on two wheels either.

Kia made the claim that the Forte's noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) qualities have been improved. It's almost impossible for a writer to verify that claim without sophisticated testing equipment and comparable models. However, it did seem to be a quieter car, especially as I remember other Kias that I have driven.

There is one point worth quibbling about. The Forte's trunk is larger than its predecessor, the Spectra, but it still has an opening that is small for its size. By the way, funniest question heard at the press conference: "Why didn't Kia continue with the Spectra name?" The questioner said a lot of money had been invested in it, after all. Kudos to the Kia executive who admitted there was no brand loyalty to the Spectra name and very few people would miss it. Next time I hear a query like that I'm going to call it the Studebaker question.

What's going to make the Forte a huge winner, though, is its standard safety equipment, even on the most inexpensive models. It comes with anti-lock braking, electronic brake force distribution, stability control, traction control, active front headrests and six airbags. Stability control alone is worth the price of admission, especially because this is a car that is likely going to be driven by less experienced drivers.

When it comes to fuel economy, the 2.0-liter engine offers a competitive 25/34 mpg (city/highway) when mated to either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions, while the 2.4-liter engine turns out 22/32 mpg when paired with the six-speed manual and 23/31 with the five-speed automatic. The optional Fuel Economy Package, available on the EX model with the 2.0-liter powerplant, includes the five-speed automatic transmission, Motor Drive Power Steering (MPDS), "smart" alternator, silica tires and aero enhancements. These improvements result in 27/36 mpg and a class-leading combined fuel economy of 30 mpg.

Available in three trims, LX, EX and SX, pricing for the all-new compact sedan will start at $13,695 for the LX trim, while the Forte EX begins at $15,795. Moving up to the SX trim, pricing begins at $17,195. While these are affordable prices, the highest praise I can give the Forte is it doesn't feel cheap at all. The interior materials are of a good quality for the price point. It's a good looking car by my subjective standards. Plus, as mentioned above, you'll never regret buying the Forte when weighed against its competitors like the Toyota Corolla or the Honda Civic.

For more information, go to the Kia website.

Keith Griffin

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