Car Reviews First Drives

2019 Kia Forte First Drive: The Unusual Leader

Third-generation compact car gets a dose of refinement

Third-generation compact car gets a dose of refinement

When you think of the Kia brand, the hamster-hauling Soul or the powerful Stinger may be the first vehicle that comes to mind. But it’s the humble Forte that has been wielding the most influence over the brand as of late. While the rest of the industry is thriving on crossovers, Kia sold more Fortes than any other vehicle last year. The compact also draws in more first-time car buyers than any other Kia vehicle, making it the unwitting face of the brand.

And it’s a pretty pleasant face. Although it’s far from the Stinger’s twin, the Forte adopts some of the most prominent features from the sporty hatch, such as the long hood, fastback profile, and sweptback headlights. It’s not as in-your-face as the Honda Civic or the new Hyundai Elantra or Volkswagen Jetta, but it’s not plain like the Nissan Sentra or Subaru Impreza.

Now entering its third generation, the Kia Forte rolls into 2019 with changes that are more than skin deep. Some of the highlights: It sits on the Hyundai Elantra’s platform, which Kia has made more rigid for a better drive experience. The Forte still has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque, but Kia added Atkinson cycle technology and a cooled EGR system in an attempt to improve efficiency. This engine comes paired with a six-speed manual or Kia’s first CVT, which uses a chain-type belt instead of a push belt to reduce the rubber-band effect. To curb noise, vibration, and harshness, Kia added more adhesive and thicker glass for the front side windows.

Equally important, the Forte improves upon what Kia already does best: offering tons of features for the money. The base model, costing $18,585 USD, receives a standard 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as dual-zone automatic climate control. You won’t find those features standard on the current Honda Civic. We should also mention the Forte comes standard with a host of safety features: forward collision avoidance assist, forward collision warning, and lane keeping assist. The Forte also boasts 15.3 cubic feet of cargo space and what feels like a generous back seat.

Faithful execution will determine whether these promised updates make a competitive car, or if they just look good on paper. Fortunately, we had the chance to take the Forte through Pittsburgh, which happens to be a popular playground for autonomous vehicle testing, known for its windy roads and befuddling streets. The Forte didn’t shield occupants from the feel of potholes and bumps as much as we’d like, and we noticed some body roll, but generally, the often rough roads didn’t intimidate this small car.

As we mentioned earlier, the new Forte has the same output as the previous-gen model, and the car feels a little slow accelerating from a standstill to highway speeds. This slowness is accompanied by an engine that growls, but not necessarily in a good way. The CVT routed the power smoothly, and fake gear shifts make it feel like a conventional automatic. At any speed, the Forte did a good job limiting wind noise during our drive, so Kia’s efforts at sound insulation prove a success. Road noise levels seem reasonable for a car in this segment, at least from what we could tell from this short drive, and unlike in some economy cars, you can most definitely hold a conversation inside without having to raise your voice. The steering wheel seems properly weighted, but it doesn’t have the same light, casual feel as the Honda Civic’s. The Sport driving mode adjusts rpms and sharpens the Forte’s steering in a small way, but it doesn’t change the suspension.

We tested the loaded EX trim, which starts at $22,885 USD and comes standard with heated and ventilated front seats as well as leatherette upholstery. Up front, small storage cubbies provide the perfect place to hold a couple of phones. Right below is the shifter, which is smooth and easy to use. Our tester came with comfortable red and black seats, providing a pop of personality that complements the exterior. The touchscreen and row of buttons just below provide some redundancy, but overall the look is refreshingly clean. Old-school temperature readouts are the only thing that betray modernity.

In terms of fuel economy, the 2019 Forte is up there with the best. It tops out at an EPA-estimated 31/41 mpg (7.6/5.7 L/100km) city/highway on the FE trim with the CVT. Other trims with the CVT get 30/40 mpg (7.8/5.9 L/100km), and manual-equipped models return 27/37 mpg (8.7/6.4 L/100km). Of course, we’ll run our own EQUA Real MPG tests on the Forte at some point to confirm these numbers.

When we last drove the second-generation Forte, we deemed it a middling performer in its class. Mediocre acceleration, an overly firm ride, and a plain interior hindered its ability to capture our hearts in the same way as other competitors in the segment. We’ll have to get behind the wheel of the Forte again to make any final comparisons, but we think the Forte has stepped up its game and has a chance at competing with the big guns.

The 2019 Kia Forte is on sale now, and this isn’t the last we’ll hear of the small sedan. Stay tuned for more on the Forte coming at the 2018 SEMA show, Kia says.