Angular Front Exterior View - 2013 Hyundai Elantra Coupe 2-door Auto SEEnlarge Photo
Hyundai and Kia have an interesting relationship. They're separate automakers, with distinct design language and a driving feel all their own. Yet they share the same South Korean parent company, as well as car platforms, powertrains, and other core technologies.
The Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte sedans are a good example of the excellent job the companies have done in differentiating their similar offerings. The compact sedans have common roots, but to us, the Elantra's EPA-rated fuel economy advantage outweighs some minor and very subjective differences in styling and interior comfort.
No doubt, it's the Hyundai Elantra that first turned heads. Introduced as a 2011 model, it stands out from a distance. The "fluidic sculpture" theme is sporty, modern, and dynamic, and we like the mix of its wedgy stance and curvy details. The Forte's redesign for the 2014 model year has seen it grow a little to almost exactly the same proportions, but to an altogether more European-influenced effect. Its crisp details and gently arched roofline are inspired reinterpretations of classic compact-car profiles, with Kia's corporate face carving out its own identity.
Inside, it's the same story for both cars, with the Elantra making waves with its fashion-forward details and distinctive hourglass center console, while the Forte takes a more simplified design direction that's refreshing and easy to navigate. Overall, we rate the Elantra more highly for its brand-resetting look--but we realize it's a matter of taste and opinion.
(The Elantra also comes in a new two-door body style as well as a five-door Elantra GT hatchback version, while the Forte also comes as a two-door Koup and as a five-door hatch, which we haven't yet driven as 2014 models. Here, we're content to stay, er, focused on the most popular four-door versions.)
On the performance front, the Forte finally has gained the more advanced four-cylinder powertrain the Elantra's had since 2011, but it also offers a larger-displacement 2.0-liter four with 173 horsepower. The bump over the 148-hp, 1.8-liter four in the Elantra (and in the base Forte, which hasn't been made available for testing) isn't of a magnitude that will have enthusiasts dropping GTI brochures in the dust. It's a touch more smooth and silent in daily use than the old Forte fours, but it comes with a fuel economy penalty: top Elantras earn up to 32 mpg EPA combined, but the Forte's best effort--with optional stop/start--is 29 mpg combined. In the wider view, we think those numbers are more important to buyers of these cars.
2014 Kia ForteEnlarge Photo
Where the Forte does a little more with standard-issue hardware is in its dynamic feel. Its electric power steering is a step ahead of the Elantra's setup, and overall the Forte's independent front and torsion-beam rear suspension is more firmly tuned, with a more spry driving feel. That somewhat firmer suspension setup doesn't much affect the Forte's ride. It's no more busy than that of the Hyundai, and the Forte seems quieter, too, though these are both relatively quiet cars within their class.
As for interior room, the cars now ride on identical wheelbases and have almost exactly the same interior dimensions, though the Elantra's leg room is biased toward the front seat, the Forte's more evenly split. Neither has great rear-seat head room.
Safety scores are in flux, since the Forte is new and therefore unrated by either the NHTSA or the IIHS. The Elantra has the advantage: it's improved considerably for the latest model year with a new airbag design, and now scores five stars overall from the NHTSA, with a four-star rating for driver-side front impacts. Otherwise, safety equipment is comparable between the two models, with the requisite airbags and stability control complemented by standard Bluetooth and an available rearview camera.