Kia has experienced a resurgence of sorts in the past few years, and is working hard to shed the label of entry-level automaker with entry-level quality. The younger sibling of Korean giant Hyundai, Kia has worked hard to separate itself from the parent company to forge an identity all on its own. When it announced the hiring of Peter Schreyer as Chief Design Officer in 2006, the company started its path to individuality and expression. He is, after all, the man responsible for some of the most heralded designs in the automotive world, including the Audi TT and its bubbly cousin, the (new) Volkswagen Beetle, as well as luxury vehicles like the full size A6 and compact A3. He was promoted as one of Kia’s three presidents and, mere weeks later, became the Chief Design Officer of both Kia and Hyundai with a vision that design would lead Kia into the future.
With the future in mind, the automaker has developed an entirely new lineup that is focused on attacking the naysayers with vehicles that showcase Kia’s clear direction. The Cadenza was a major turning point when it was unveiled at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show as a luxury full size sedan. Then came word of the K900, a larger V8-powered luxury model with more bells and whistles and an appearance that from afar, could be mistaken for a high-end saloon.
My experience with Kia predates this, when the company was purely entry level. During my time working at a rental car shop in 2005, the Rio hatchback and Rondo were staples in our revolving fleet, but if we didn’t need to keep them around, we didn’t. They worked well as inexpensive fuel savers, but when it came to drivability, they weren’t anywhere near the top of the list.
So suffice to say, when Kia invited me to attend a rigorous test drive in California for its newest Forte5 hatch, I was excited at the prospect of the drive, partly because I was eager to see if momentum from last year’s impressive Cadenza launch would carry forward. I was excited for the opportunity to escape a seemingly never-ending winter back home, but more than anything else, I wanted to see if Kia had actually transformed itself.
The 5 is one of three Forte offerings from Kia, which also includes a sedan, and a two-door Koup, introduced last year. The Forte5 is the latest and arguably most refined of the three, but most important is the addition of a new 1.6-litre turbocharged powerplant on the SX model. Together, the three models offer buyers a wide range of choices that few competing automakers in the segment can.
Focusing on the Forte5 and the SX in particular, it signifies the dawn of a new era for Kia. The styling of the car is plain striking; it’s well-weighted, has a beautiful rear hatch, it’s aggressive but not overbearing, with tasteful touches that are otherwise reserved for vehicles of a different price bracket, notably the front and rear LED lamps, mirror-mounted LED turn signal indicators and subtle chrome on the front and rear door handles. It’s Schreyer’s theory of leading with design put into practice.
On the base LX, the car comes with 16-inch alloys, but the SX tester I’m driving comes equipped with a stunning set of 18-inch black, machined alloys wrapped in 225/40R18 rubber, just the right size for optimal styling and handling.
The SX ($23,795 MT / $24,995 AT) and SX Luxury ($28,395) push out a generous 201 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque all the way from 1,750 to 4,700 rpm. That puts its 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel above competitors like the Hyundai Elantra GT GLS and SE, the Mazda3 GT and the Ford Focus Titanium. It’s an impressive starting point if numbers are your thing, but what about the meat and potatoes?
Inside, the Forte5 SX impresses. The package throughout is a stark change from the old: push-button start, alloy pedals, soft textures, a stitched leather instrument cluster cowl and carbon fiber dash trim are is just enough to keep things tidy and sporty. The bolstered seats are extremely comfortable, which, after winding through tight California single track for nearly four hours, I can easily say with confidence. The instrumentation is clear and user-friendly without any gimmicks, but it still offers many of the things you’d expect from a modern system, including hands-free calling and Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming. With minor adjustments, the audio is also some of the better that I’ve heard from vehicles in the category.
Where buyers might be caught off guard is the navigation option. You’ll have to step up from the SX to the SX Luxury to get it, and it comes with a not-so paltry $4,600.
Thankfully, if you are making that jump, there are a myriad of features beyond the navi that make it worth your while, the most Canadian of which is heated rear seats, which the Forte5 is the only car in its class to offer such a feature. On top of that, the SX-L is fully loaded with leather front seats and carbon-pattern bolsters and fabric inserts to keep you planted, a powered memory and cooled driver seat, heated steering wheel, LCD/TFT Supervision instrument cluster, sunroof and Xenon HID headlamps. It also comes with a standard six-speed paddle shift automatic, which after a brief test, proves to be surprisingly responsive on both loaded upshifts and downshifts.
These tangibles all make for a wonderful car on paper, but it’s when I finally sit behind the wheel that the real test begins.
For starters, there is no better place for a test drive, or a drive in general, than California. It's been the focal point of countless classic films and phenomenal cars scenes, and it has to be experienced to be fully understood. Admittedly, the last car I would've chosen for my first drive on these roads is the Kia Forte, but if anything, we put it through the ultimate test.
Our driving route was planned by Kia to put each part of the vehicle under considerable duress. We start in Huntington Beach along a four-lane ocean-side drive, an excellent opportunity to examine start and stop performance and road noise. Piloting my six-speed manual through the hilly terrain, it can handle considerable torque loads from a standstill with ease and the hill assist control is a very welcome addition. The gearbox is nicely ratioed from a performance perspective, especially through the first three gears, although takeoff, clutch actuation and the shift box could be sharper. Numerous times I find myself hunting for the proper left foot balance, which is typically an easy task among unfamiliar vehicles, but in California it is especially noticeable. What is impressive however is the road noise, or lack of. Once we escape civilization toward Cleveland National Park for some open asphalt and accelerating inclines, it is very quiet. Music and conversation can be listened to at comfortable levels without much droning – an extra plus in a segment where this is typically problematic.
But what is the most surprising aspect of the car is perhaps also the most important. The Forte5’s handling was able to attack and release consistently throughout numerous switchbacks, rises, falls and hard braking points; the 1.6-litre twin-scroll turbo and four-wheel disc brakes working in perfect tandem. Undoubtedly, the vehicle stability management (VSM) and electronic stability control (ESC) systems had much to do with this, helping to counteract strong, high-elevation crosswinds and the constantly-changing driving environment.
Nowhere was this more evident then my 3,000-foot descent on the mountains edge into Borrego Springs, where I was continuously tempted to hustle the car and reel it in. The car was being pushed, pulled, banked and swayed, and yet it still carried the confidence of a much more expensive car.
I actually had to remind myself that I was driving a sub-$25,000 car with a guardrail as my only protection from a long descent. After regaining my bearings, I resumed pace, though it’s something I would be hesitant to do with many similarly-priced cars.
The subsequent drive through the flat and convoluted single-lane roads in Julian provided an excellent opportunity to test the driver-selectable FlexSteer system, which in ‘comfort’ and ‘normal’ mode, works effortlessly in the city, and tightens up in ‘sport’ to provide excellent response with less wheel turning. It was yet another feather in the Forte5’s handling cap.
What strikes me about this new Kia Forte5 is how much the brand has grown since my last experience with it. There are simply massive changes throughout.
For the price, the Forte5 is a great option for those who want a fuel-efficient performer that is sporty and handles well. The drive is fun and extremely capable, there’s category-leading style inside and out, and plenty of cabin and trunk space for weekend trips with family or friends. The Forte5 offers consumers plenty of bang for their bucks, and we’re glad to have it as our first Kia feature in Ignition.
2014 Kia Forte5
Base Price: $19,495 (LX+)
Price as Tested (Before Taxes): $23,795 (SX)
Engine: 1.6L turbocharged 4-cyl.
Horsepower / Torque: 201 hp @ 6,000 rpm / 195 lb-ft @ 1,750 – 4,500 rpm
Engine & Drivetrain Layout: FF
Transmission: 6-speed manual (6-speed automatic +$1,200)
Fuel Economy Ratings: 9.7/6.9 L/100km (city/hwy)
Basic Warranty: 60 month/100,000 km