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2020 Kia Forte Test Drive Review
Priced like a compact car but providing nearly as much room as a midsize sedan and the performance typical of an entry-level sport sedan, the turbocharged 2020 Kia Forte GT is one of the best-kept secrets on the market.
Hyundai owns nearly 40% of Kia, and when both companies decided to get serious about building world-class cars, they went to Germany to find design and engineering talent. Today, a decade later, that German influence is blatantly obvious in the 2020 Kia Forte GT, an affordable turbocharged sport sedan that is terrific fun to drive. Driving enthusiasts who love small, fun, cheap cars need to give this one a chance.
Look and Feel
New for 2020 and topping the Forte lineup, the GT includes a turbocharged engine, a dual-clutch transmission (DCT), a sport-tuned suspension and active exhaust, larger front brakes, and bigger machined-finish 18-inch wheels. Styling modifications separate it from other Fortes, and the interior boasts a few modifications to cement its sport-sedan credentials.
The end result is what once was known as a “sleeper.” The Forte GT doesn’t look particularly potent, but key details like the revised bumpers, black lip spoiler, and dual exhaust outlets bookending a racy valence panel signal the car’s potential. It’s a tasteful and grown-up approach, and in one of the less vibrant paint colors, a Forte GT could go virtually unnoticed by law enforcement.
Inside, complimentary surface tones and textures combine with soft-touch materials in all of the right places to give the Forte a substantial look and feel. Red seat piping and interior stitching, a flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters, and gloss black trim with polished metallic accents coalesce into a thoroughly modern look. And, as I always like to point out about Kias, the transmission shifter feels solid in your hand when used, imparting a sense of quality every time you drive the car.
If you don’t care about any of the information in the previous four paragraphs and you’re simply seeking a good small car to drive, keep the 2020 Kia Forte on the list. In addition to its industry-standard warranty program, the Forte boasts one of the lowest base prices in its segment, at $17,890.
Of course, to benefit from that price, you’ll need to know how to drive a car with a manual transmission. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) runs another $900. Or, you can upgrade to the Forte LXS with a standard CVT, much nicer wheels, and a few extras for $19,290. Topping the standard Forte lineup, the EX costs $22,090.
For a sporty look without a sporty driving character, the Forte GT-Line is $20,490. From there, the Forte GT backs up the styling with actual performance, beginning at $22,490. For $600 more, you can delete the Forte GT's DCT and replace it with a 6-speed manual transmission.
My GT test car had the DCT and all of the extras, including the Michelin Pilot Sport summer performance tires and the GT2 Package which, at just $2,200, provides far more in value than its cost. Add carpeted floor mats and a trunk mat, and the test car ran $26,085, including its destination charge.
Equipped with the same turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that Kia uses in the Optima, Soul, and Seltos, the Forte GT supplies 201 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 195 pound-feet of torque between 1,500 rpm and 4,500 rpm. That’s a big step up from the 147-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder used in other Fortes.
A 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT) delivers the power to the front wheels. A DCT is an automated manual gearbox instead of a traditional automatic with a torque converter, so historically, they have felt different, often exhibiting some hesitation especially when starting off in first gear. Here, in the Forte GT, the DCT is exceptionally well behaved.
The Forte GT with a 6-speed manual gearbox costs more, but that’s because Kia also throws in many of the GT2 option package goodies when you elect to row your own gears.
All Forte GT models come with a sport-tuned suspension, a sport-tuned active exhaust system, bigger front brakes, and 18-inch aluminum wheels. Michelin Pilot Sport summer performance tires are an affordable upgrade. Driving modes include Normal, Sport, and Smart, the latter automatically adjusting depending on your driving behavior.
The turbocharged engine provides exactly the right amount of power to make the Forte GT gratifying to drive, and the perfectly calibrated DCT represents a big improvement over previous Kias equipped with this powertrain. I didn’t find the paddle shifters inspiring to use, but that’s OK given the DCT’s telepathic gear selection talents.
Around town, the Forte GT offers a firm, connected ride quality, but most of the time it isn’t bothersome. The sport exhaust burbles with each transmission upshift, a subtle reminder that you’re not driving a garden-variety economy car. Brake response is immediate, making it hard to smoothly creep along at low speed, but otherwise this is an agreeable characteristic. In Normal mode, steering effort feels perfectly natural, while in Sport it weights up in a somewhat unnatural way.
That impression fades once the road ahead gets curvy. Tearing up and across the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles, the Forte GT earned both my respect and trust. It’s the kind of car that begs you to scream down a straight and then stab deep into the brakes before chucking it into a corner. You can place this car exactly where you want it, and regardless of surface imperfections it simply remains glued to the pavement, the suspension virtually eliminating all excess body motion while conveying critical data to the driver.
There’s no getting around the Forte GT’s nose-heavy weight bias, though. After my run, the tops of both front sidewalls exhibited some scrub. And due to the way the car encourages hard driving, the brakes displayed a hint of fade during a rapid descent from elevation.
I have no doubt that the Kia Forte GT’s serious, buttoned-down, business-like driving character is ultimately due to Albert Biermann’s influence. Who is that? He ran BMW’s M division for 34 years. Now he heads Hyundai and Kia performance vehicle development.
Form and Function
Front sport seats with cloth inserts and Sofino simulated leather bolsters are standard in the Forte GT. When you get the GT2 Package or the manual transmission, they’re full Sofino leatherette, and they're heated and ventilated.
Between the added bolstering and the sticky Sofino upholstery, the test car’s 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat held me in place while I whipped the car around corners, and on chilly mornings the heated front seats came in handy. Miracle of miracles, the front passenger’s seat also had a height adjuster, albeit a manual lever.
Comfort is excellent thanks to proper thigh support, a leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel that’s thick in all of the right places, and the soft armrest pads and upper door panel trim. When pitching the car into right-hand corners, the spot on the door panel where I braced my leg was hard plastic, and it creaked under the pressure, a bad sign in a car with just 1,000 miles on it.
Backseat comfort is good, with a tall cushion and a comfortable backrest angle supplying proper support. The GT also has air conditioning vents, which help since Sofino tends to trap sweat in hot weather. The front seatback panels are trimmed in hard plastic, which is unfriendly to knees, but my legs fit without a problem.
Kia equips the Forte GT with its Smart Trunk technology. It’s a hands-free system that recognizes the key fob, beeps three times, and pops the trunk. This is great if your arms are full of groceries and its icy out, because you won’t need to worry about slipping as you attempt to wave your foot under the bumper. It’s not great, though, when you and a friend exit the coffee shop and continue your conversation near the back of the Forte. The trunk will open whether you want it to or not.
Once the lid pops, open it to reveal a roomy 15.3 cubic-foot cargo area. That’s midsize car territory. And once you’ve loaded the trunk, Kia thoughtfully provides a grab handle to use to swing it shut without getting your fingertips dirty on the exterior paint.
Interior storage is generous, too. The available wireless smartphone charging pad is easily accessible yet out of the way, and Kia supplies storage in the door panels and center console as well as the large glovebox.
Every 2020 Forte has an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system perched atop the dashboard. This location makes it easy to reference at a glance, and thanks to the stereo knobs and the row of menu shortcut buttons, you don’t need to interact with it much.
Standard features include Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a reversing camera. The Forte EX and GT also include SiriusXM satellite radio and connected services through Kia’s Your Voice (UVO) technology. You can’t get an embedded navigation system in this car, but with smartphone projection, you don’t need it.
As part of the GT2 Package, my test car also had an 8-speaker Harman Kardon premium sound system. It sounded better than the standard 6-speaker setup, but it didn’t meet expectations based on previous experience with the company’s components. Although, to be fair, this car is loud inside so it had plenty of ambient noise to overcome.
A Top Safety Pick according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2020 Kia Forte comes with numerous advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). And when you get the GT with the GT2 Package, the Forte includes all of them.
With that said, the automatic emergency braking system works at only lower speeds, and the adaptive cruise control does not bring the car to a full stop. The lane-keeping and lane-centering assist systems work well. But if you don’t keep your hands on the steering wheel, it shuts off rather abruptly. And that’s why they’re called driving assistance instead of driver-replacement systems.
As a part of the UVO eServices technology, the Forte GT includes 911 Connect, an automatic collision notification system. Owners can also program alerts related to speed, curfew, and geographical boundaries, which is helpful to parents of teenaged drivers. You can also find your car using a smartphone app, just in case you’ve forgotten where it’s parked.
Buying a Kia Forte is cost-effective due to competitive prices and a warranty offering 10 years or 100,000 miles of powertrain protection combined with 5 years or 60,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage and roadside assistance. Add top safety ratings, effective ADAS systems, and a useful array of infotainment features, and you can’t possibly argue that a Forte is a lousy value.
If you’re not interested in driving fast, stick with a Forte EX, which is loaded with everything our test car offers except for the GT’s performance hardware. But if you do enjoy the journey as much as, or more than, the destination, you owe it to yourself to consider the excellent new Forte GT.
Considering that some of BMW’s secret sauce has made it into the Forte GT, and its fully loaded price tag amounts to the base price of a Volkswagen Jetta GLI, it offers plenty of performance value in addition to practical value.
Growing up as a car-obsessed kid, Car and Driver magazine was my bible, and the legendary David E. Davis, Jr. was my prophet. Not only did David E. and his staff of writers teach me how to write, but they also strongly influenced my preferences in cars. A lover of small, nimble, and fun machines (preferably engineered and tuned in Europe), David E. would’ve approved of the 2020 Kia Forte GT. And if not, well, I certainly do.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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