We’ll start in the spring of 1975. I was driving a Fiat 128 which, after making contact (at speed) with a ditch in Brown County, Indiana, was never quite the same. My bride-to-be was driving a Ford Maverick with a straight six, finished in baby blue and topped with white vinyl. With marriage – and but one car – in mind, she couldn’t imagine starting on life’s journey in the Fiat, while I couldn’t imagine driving beneath a white vinyl top (ever). And so it was decided we’d merge the value of hers (higher) with the value of mine (lower) and get one new Opel Manta, for the then-princely sum of roughly $2,400.
I mention this because a couple embarking on life’s journey today might very well pursue similar transport (which I’ll describe as well-appointed entry-level) and find a window sticker some ten times greater than our $2,400 investment. That would certainly be the case if the couple was on a Kia showroom, where a well-appointed Forte EX 4-door can – and does – push $25K. And while any number of credible arguments could be made for spending that much on a very capable Kia, we’d note $25K remains a lot of money, and several viable alternatives – including a couple on Kia’s own showroom – should be considered before writing the check or signing away your next 60 months.
No argument, of course, with the Forte’s capability or amenities. In EX trim you’ll enjoy 173 horses and 154 lb-ft of torque driving through a 6-speed automatic transmission. Sitting on a wheelbase of 106.3 inches, and stretching almost 15 feet, today’s Forte is virtually as large as Honda’s Accord of the mid-‘90s. But it isn’t as large, nor as accommodating, as Kia’s current midsize sedan, the Optima. That car, with a 2.4 liter inline four, more substantial footprint and still-competitive efficiency, can be comfortably equipped for the same $25K you’ll invest(?) on the Kia Forte EX.
Obviously, there’s more in the midsize game than just the Optima (or Sonata, produced by Kia’s corporate cousin Hyundai). We’ve driven Honda’s Accord Sport, with enhanced suspension and 18-inch rubber, offered at that same price point. The all-new Mazda6 is sitting in that same area with a host of upgrades above and beyond its $21K base. The new Fusion, if not a homerun, at least gets Ford solidly on-base in the midsize game. And if you take advantage of the incentives, a modestly equipped Toyota Camry or Nissan Altima can often be purchased in the high teens.
Of course, you need to weigh built-in content (those things engineered into a car’s basic platform and comprising the basic footprint) with add-on features (audio upgrades, navigation, etc.). And although we know it sounds old school, we’re inclined to value built-in content higher than that which is added on. (Of course, what’s left of our hearing won’t value audio upgrades as highly as those of you with hearing.) But the bottom line – at least to this observer – is that today’s midsize cars offer far greater utility and capability than that offered by compacts. And it really doesn’t matter which carmaker we’re discussing when making the argument.
To add to the options, of course, are the $25K compact crossovers. Again, you won’t find them loaded with features in the mid-$20s, but whether you consider the CR-V, RAV4, Forester or Kia’s own Sportage, that $25K figure will certainly get you something nicely equipped and fully capable on-road. Again, the abundance of choices makes shopping – or advising – especially difficult, and you’ll go from a combined figure of over 30 miles per gallon in the Forte to something closer to 25 miles per gallon in the Sportage, but that modest penalty can be discounted when you consider the Sportage’s additional versatility. In a one-car garage the Sportage trumps the Forte in virtually any comparison, save ultimate efficiency.
Were it our Forte, we’d opt for a 5-door and keep the expenditure under $20K. That configuration – we’ll argue – is deserving of a gold. Spend $25K for Kia’s 4-door EX and I’m not sure it even makes the podium.