I’ll begin with a confession: I’ve been a fan of value since, well, forever. One of my earliest automotive memories is riding in a friend’s ’62 (or ’63?) Beetle on roads in and around Lincoln, Nebraska. My first car was a ’66 VW missing only a 4th gear, creating its own kind of parent-mandated cruise control. And my first new car purchase was a Fiat 128, a tasteful 2-door with 1100cc of willing 4-cylinder driving the front wheels. (It’s the car – we were told – Enzo Ferrari drove. Of course, Enzo didn’t buy his…) Later, my wife and I enjoyed several Civics, beginning with a ’79 2-door and ending with a ’94 sedan. In short, I fully understand – and appreciate – the appeal of inexpensive pricing affixed to inexpensive nameplates.
Regrettably, at some $27K our test Kia Forte5 checks only one of those boxes; it’s an inexpensive nameplate saddled with a price that will get you both a bigger name and a better car. We won’t, however, blame Kia for trying. Since its debut in the U.S. some twenty years ago Kia has grown from its Sportage/Sephia roots to an import juggernaut, selling some 500,000 units annually. And those ‘units’ run the gamut, from the infectious Soul and efficient Rio to its K900 flagship, Sorento SUV and Sedona maxivan. With the exception of a pickup (and no, I don’t think they need one) Kia has become a full-service OEM, with credible quality supported by a better-than-average dealer network.
As Kia is quick to claim, the Forte5 hatch provides “eye-catching European-inspired hatchback design.” And like a small SUV, its hatchback supplies the owner with far more versatility than you’ll find in a comparable sedan. We’re impressed by the Forte5’s almost elegant simplicity, especially when coming off the regional intro of Nissan’s new Maxima. The Forte5 offers a clean, minimalistic visual, not too dissimilar from what Mazda provides with its ‘3’, or Lexus supplies in the CT 200h. The front fascia flows into the hood, which flows into the windscreen, which flows into the roof. It all sort of flows, and to these eyes it represents one of the more tasteful design statements in the small car category.
Its standard list of amenities offered at the SX model’s $22K base is commendable, as is the SX powertrain – a turbocharged (its Monroney supplies a hyphen: turbo-charged!) 1.6 liter four connected to a 6-speed automatic. Notably, you can also opt for a 6-speed manual, allowing the Forte5 to be mentioned in a rapidly shrinking list of cars with three pedals. For those wanting to save $2K (and in this category, who wouldn’t?) the EX-level Forte5 comes with a normally aspirated 2.0 liter and standard 6-speed automatic, and is priced at just under $20K.
The Forte5’s build quality impresses. Panel fit is consistent, paint is evenly applied and the doors close with a solidity Benz would do well to imitate in their CLA. Inside, the leather-covered seats are a nice blend of comfort and support, and almost Teutonic in their construction. Given the hatch’s low roof the seats deliver a similarly low hip point, and that will be a problem for those accustomed to a compact SUV – or the chronically arthritic. But once in the seat – driver, front passenger or rear bench – know that the accommodation doesn’t scream econobox. Were it not for a kinda’ coarse drivetrain you’d not hear anything.
The Forte5’s dashboard and control layout provide (thankfully) no surprises. While the wheel is nicely shaped its leather touchpoints are a bit too slick for our tastes, but then, those are our tastes. The gauge cluster is generous, as is the touchscreen, and all of it is fairly intuitive. Outward visibility is generally good, compromised only by the low hip point, tapering roofline and stylized D-pillars.
In back, the hatch delivers just over 23 cubic feet of well-finished interior space. This isn’t your roughed-in, cardboard environment you might remember from the ’79 Civic. Instead, the area is generously carpeted, with concealed storage beneath the shelf and tie-downs to secure whatever (toddlers?) you might have stowed. The rear seats fold in a 60/40 split; we only wish the ‘40’ was on the passenger side, where we find ourselves more easily putting the child seat. With that mod, you needn’t extract the seat to carry a bike – or your semi-prone drinking dude.
On the road, the Kia’s 1.6 liter turbocharged four delivers the expected performance (with 201 horsepower under foot supplemented by almost 200 lb-ft of torque), but not the hoped-for refinement. Its 24 (combined) EPA won’t win any awards, but relative to my wife’s Grand Cherokee it might as well be an electric bike; we averaged over 28 miles per gallon in a mix of freeway with stop-and-go. The ride/handling balance is eminently composed, but doesn’t deliver the frolic factor evident in the Mazda3 or VW’s Golf. And therein, kids, is the rub…
For the same $27K as Kia asks for their (admittedly well-spec’d) Forte5, you can shop Mazda and VW showrooms ‘til the cows come home. Admittedly, a similar spec on the Golf GTI will cost you $30K, but that’s probably the best 10% you’ll ever spend. And while you can get positively stupid with Mazda3 pricing, at the very least you can sit in a Miata while getting your Mazda3’s oil changed. If the Kia product team was to include the Forte5’s Premium and Technology packages within the hatch’s $22K base it’d be a very good deal. At $27K we’d be inclined to shop something else, including Kia’s own Sportage and Optima. Sometimes less is more, but in this case – for a sticker in excess of an Accord Sport or GTI – more may be less.
Price and specifications follow…