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2019 Kia Forte Test Drive Review
The 2019 Kia Forte proves compact cars can still be significant. It offers tremendous value and requires minimal compromise when used as a daily driver.
Highways are increasingly full of crossovers and small SUVs, but not too long ago sedans ruled the road. The simple three-box design made for a vehicle that was, and still is, an effective daily driver. It has enough trunk space for several bags and room for 4 (or even 5) passengers. They are often more fuel-efficient than their heavier SUV counterparts and almost always less expensive.
Maybe this explains why Kia’s best-selling vehicle last year wasn’t any of its SUVs or crossovers. It was the Forte, which has been completely redesigned for 2019.
Even when limited to small cars, the Forte's competition is quite stiff. But the Honda Civic has been generally heralded as the gold standard. The Civic is just a bit larger and a bit more upscale than other cars in its segment, but its higher price tag reflects that status.
The Forte previously operated only in the “value” end of this spectrum, with a dash of sporty styling thrown in (but generally lacking the performance to back it up). The new Forte is certainly sportier and more upscale, yet it still keeps value as one of its core principles. After a week driving it, we can say it is absolutely one of the standout small cars of this year, but does it have the goods to outgun the Civic?
Look and Feel
You'd be forgiven if you didn’t realize the Forte was all-new for 2019. At first glance, it might look like a facelift or a mid-cycle refresh, but it’s actually an all-new generation for the car. It maintains the same general jellybean-like shape, as well as the plucky, yet somewhat menacing, front-end design, and the subtle “swoop” along the side of the vehicle. The only design element I don’t like is the taillight “band” that connects each side with a strip above the license plate. It looks cheap and tacked-on. But overall, the new Forte has a more grown-up design than past generations.
This new Forte also has additional small rear quarter windows that frame the rear doors. It also has flatter, lower windowsills compared to the angular lower sills of the previous model. The Forte also takes some styling cues from the sporty Kia Stinger, including the grille's powerful shape, the futuristic headlights, and the aggressive lower-grille design.
Moving inside, the Forte’s contemporary, high-tech cabin packs a lot of substance into a simple layout. The Stinger's influence is present in here as well, with a sport steering wheel and floating touchscreen. The big circular HVAC vents found in the center of the Stinger’s dash are actually pushed out to the corners of the Forte’s.
But you could also mistake the Forte's cabin for that of the Audi A3. The instrument panel's crisp look and general layout definitely have hints of Audi’s small car. And that Audi connection isn’t without context, as the current head of design at Hyundai and Kia, Peter Schreyer, was previously a designer at Audi—he had a hand in some memorable designs, including the Audi TT.
Trims for the Forte are FE, LXS, S, and EX. The base FE trim comes with plenty of content for an entry-level trim. Standard features include electric power side mirrors, remote keyless entry, and, impressively, forward-collision avoidance and lane-keeping assist.
The FE also comes with a 3.5-inch TFT information center in the instrument panel, a single-piece rear folding bench seat, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and an 8-inch touchscreen that runs Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Moving up to the LXS adds 16-inch alloy wheels and a chrome exhaust tip and swaps out the fixed folding rear bench seat for a 60/40 split-fold rear bench. The LXS also adds soft-touch materials to the dash and door panels and an automatic unlock function when shifted into Park.
The S trim adds LED head- and taillights, fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, and gloss black bumper accents with a white chrome grille. It also features a rear center fold-down armrest with cupholders, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, an auto de-fog system, navigation, and UVO e-services.
Our test vehicle was a range-topping EX, which has all the features of the other trims, plus power heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals, puddle lamps, and chrome window sills. Other EX features include push-button start, dual USB ports, rear air-conditioning vents, leatherette upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, and a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat with power adjustable lumbar support.
The EX is also available with the EX Launch Package, which was included on our test vehicle. At $3,200, it provides a host of additional upgraded equipment such as a Harman Kardon premium stereo, a power sunroof, LED cabin lighting, and wireless phone charging. This package also adds a rear spoiler, smart cruise control, and pedestrian detection for the forward-collision avoidance system.
Regardless of trim selected, all Fortes come with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive (FWD). The engine makes 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque, sent to the front wheels through either a 6-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The FE comes standard with the manual but is available with the CVT. All other trims come standard with the CVT.
Kia calls its CVT an iVT, for intelligently variable transmission, but we’re sticking with CVT, because that's the more common term. These types of transmissions typically have a “rubber band” effect when attempting to accelerate, but Kia’s version manages power well. It provides an immediate response when you step on the throttle—something CVTs are not known for doing.
As a result, the Forte is quick off the line and has more than enough power for passing at highway speeds. That feeling of power is as good as, if not better than, that of the Honda Civic. Like the acceleration, the Forte’s handling is quite impressive, taking corners with confidence and displaying minimal body roll. The steering wheel actually has a performance-like weight to it, and turn-in is precise.
One trend I’ve noticed among new cars is the ability to provide refined handling without being too harsh over bumps in the road, and the Forte is no different. It displays all of the aforementioned cornering skills while also being able to endure some of New England's nastier potholes.
When equipped with the CVT, the Forte also features a Drive Mode Selector. This button next to the shifter has Normal, Sport, and Smart modes. Normal is geared toward optimal comfort and efficiency, while Sport keeps the revs higher for quicker acceleration. Smart Mode actually monitors your driving behavior and switches between more economical and sportier throttle and CVT responses.
With the CVT, the 2019 Forte returns fuel economy of 30 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined. With the 6-speed manual, the FE trim’s fuel economy is 27/37/31. The most efficient configuration is the FE with the CVT, returning 31/41/35 combined. In a week of combined city and highway driving in our EX trim, I observed fuel economy of 29.7 mpg.
Form and Function
Crossovers have been outselling sedans for plenty of reasons. More are available with all-wheel drive (AWD), they often offer more cargo space, and their raised ride heights make people feel safer (even though their four-door counterparts also have respectable safety records).
But even among compact sedans, interior dimensions are starting to grow. What was once a squeeze for taller and larger occupants is now a very comfortable place to make the commute, as a driver or passenger.
The 2019 Forte's exterior length has grown 3.2 inches, and it's just under an inch wider. These might sound like incremental gains, but they've translated into a noticeably larger interior. The front seat is still a little tight on headroom for occupants over 6 feet tall, but it has plenty of legroom, and the front seat can slide exceptionally far back. The cupholders in the doors are deep enough for large water bottles, and the center console is decently sized for the class.
The backseat has adequate headroom as well, and as long as the front seats are not all the way back, taller occupants will be fine in the backseat for drives of more than an hour.
Thanks to its new dimensions, the Forte now has 15.3 cubic feet of trunk space, making it one of the largest trunks in the class. The EX is the only trim to come with Kia’s smart trunk system. Unlike other hands-free trunks, this one doesn't require kicking your leg under the rear bumper. You simply walk up to the rear of the car and stand there for a few seconds, and the trunk automatically deploys. Think about it: When your arms are filled with bags and gear, standing on one leg while you swing the other under the bumper does look kind of silly.
The Forte comes standard with an 8-inch UVO touchscreen, which features a very intuitive layout. The combination of vivid colors and fonts makes for crisp visuals, and combined with the logical menu layout, it keeps the experience pretty straightforward. When all else fails, you can fall back on the physical buttons that line the bottom of the screen.
Kia also had the sense to keep conventional tuning and volume dials. Several automakers got the bright idea to remove these in some of their latest vehicles, thus removing one of the driver's core tactile interactions with a car in daily life.
Our test model also featured Kia’s UVO e-services, which provide additional features like enhanced roadside assistance, in-depth vehicle diagnostics from the touchscreen, and a smartphone app that can remind you where you parked your car.
The Forte joins the Toyota Corolla in being one of the few small cars to offer standard forward-collision avoidance, and it also offers standard lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and driver-attention warning.
It joins the list of more conventional standard safety equipment, such as a reversing camera, traction control, and front- and side-impact airbags. Buyers can also opt for additional driver-assistance features, such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, and adaptive cruise control.
The lane-keeping assist that comes standard on the Forte is similar to systems from other automakers. It senses the lines in the road, including the curb line and the double-yellow line (or lane lines on the highway), and uses minor steering inputs to keep the car centered in the lane.
Across the automotive landscape, buyers and critics are pretty divided on such driver-assistance systems. But Kia’s system may make a believer out of you. It is so active that you can lightly keep your fingertips on the wheel while the Forte turns with the curves of the highway.
The 2019 Kia Forte starts at $17,690 for an FE with the 6-speed manual. That’s less than the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Jetta, or Honda Civic. And it offers as much content (if not more in some cases) than all of these rivals. For the Civic, you’re paying $1,200 more—and you still don’t get the driver-assistance systems as standard equipment.
Moving up, the LXS trim starts at $19,090, and the S starts at $20,190. The range-topping EX starts at $21,990, and our EX test model with the EX Launch Package came in at $26,220.
In previous generations, the Forte’s selling points were simply its price and its attractive styling. But this new generation raises the stakes, undercutting the competition while offering the latest infotainment and driver-assistance features as well as impressive performance. Considering what you’re getting for the money, this is a serious leap forward for Kia and small cars.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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