2011 Kia Forte Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
November 20, 2010

The 2011 Kia Forte exemplifies the new direction of Kia, with a simple, elegant style, unexpected levels of refinement, and lots of value for the money.

Kia gave its core compact sedan and coupe a completely new model name when they introduced them last year, and it's easy to see why. It's a really good-looking car. While the Spectra that preceded the Forte certainly wasn't a bad car, its anonymous styling didn't win many friends and its feature set was far from exciting.

Like the fashionable Soul wagon, the 2011 Kia Forte merits a new trip to the Kia dealership and perhaps a new look at Kia, which is quickly shedding its old reputation for cheap dowdy vehicles and replacing it with hints of on-a-budget enthusiast flavor. The Forte has many of the elements of much more expensive cars, yet it's still one of the least expensive small sedans.

The 2011 Kia Forte is smooth, clean, and uncluttered on the outside, with proportions that feel just right either up close or from a distance, a stance that's assertive and attractive, and a flowing, gently arced roofline. The svelte Forte doesn't have any awkward angles, and the sleek coupe looks even better with its simple, swept-back appearance. This year, a five-door Forte hatchback joins the lineup, with a more truncated roofline in back. Inside, the look in any of the models is simple, in a good way. It's not particularly trendsetting, but with a smoother, more organic version of the teardrop center stack used in the Soul, the look is no-nonsense yet stylish.

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Forte shoppers have a choice of two different engines: a 156-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder in LX and EX models or a 173-hp, 2.4-liter four in the sportier SX. The Forte Koup is only offered in EX or SX trims. LX models have a standard six-speed manual; newly offered for 2011 is a six-speed automatic. With either of the engines, the 2011 Kia Forte delivers a lot more driving satisfaction (and sophistication) than most value-minded buyers will expect. Both engines deliver more than adequate acceleration, and they function just fine with the automatics as they both are happiest in the mid-rev ranges. We actually recommend the automatic with the Forte, as it works well with the engine, and clutch-throttle coordination on manual cars was frustrating. The standard hydraulic power steering responds well, outward visibility is good, and the ride is firm but absorbent—a nice compromise for daily driving.

The rather tall roof and wider body works wonders for passenger space in the Forte. Front seats aren't generously proportioned, but there's adequate headroom even with the sunroof for a 6'6" driver, with lots of legroom, and the backseat has plenty of space for two adults, three in a pinch—though legroom is limited. The 2011 Kia Forte Koup is an exception to those observations, though; the slightly different seating position makes headroom challenging with the sunroof especially. The trunk is huge. Overall, Kia has done a great job damping the noise and vibration that usually accompanies the cheapest small cars, and even over the coarsest road surfaces the cabin boom isn't excessive. Seat materials are unremarkable, and while there's definitely some hard plastic around the cabin, we couldn't find any ragged edges.

All safety features are standard across the entire 2011 Kia Forte line; that includes dual seat-mounted side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, front active headrests, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, and electronic stability control.

You won't be missing out on key features in going with one of the most affordable 2011 Kia Forte models. Although air conditioning remains optional on the base Forte LX, all Forte trims get Bluetooth, Sirius Satellite Radio, and an auxiliary input jack for the audio system, plus steering wheel controls and voice activation. 2011 Kia Forte Koup models come only in EX and SX trims. The EX model adds A/C and power accessories—and larger 16-inch alloys, for Koup models—while the SX adds fog lamps, plus upgraded upholstery and trim. The SX model is the "image leader" of the lineup; in addition to those details and the stronger engine, it gets a sport-tuned suspension, larger brakes, and showy 17-inch alloy wheels. Steering-wheel paddle-shifters are now included on all SX models for 2011. About the only thing missing is a full-featured nav system.

8

2011 Kia Forte

Styling

The 2011 Kia Forte is attractive and looks good inside and out, but it isn't entirely charismatic.

Like the fashionable Soul wagon, the 2011 Kia Forte merits a new trip to the Kia dealership and perhaps a new look at Kia, which is quickly shedding its old reputation for cheap dowdy vehicles and replacing it with hints of on-a-budget enthusiast flavor. The Forte has many of the elements of much more expensive cars, yet it's still one of the least expensive small sedans.

The 2011 Kia Forte is smooth, clean, and uncluttered on the outside, with proportions that feel just right either up close or from a distance, a stance that's assertive and attractive, and a flowing, gently arced roofline. The svelte Forte doesn't have any awkward angles, and the sleek coupe looks even better with its simple, swept-back appearance. This year, a five-door Forte hatchback joins the lineup, with a more truncated roofline in back.

Inside, the look in any of the models is simple, in a good way. It's not particularly trendsetting, but with a smoother, more organic version of the teardrop center stack used in the Soul, the look is no-nonsense yet stylish.

7

2011 Kia Forte

Performance

The 2011 Kia Forte performs better overall than most small on-a-budget cars, though its handling is unremarkable.

In a crowded class of compact sedans, the 2011 Kia Forte manages to take position near the head of the pack with respect to acceleration and refinement, though it's not the sort of car that will encourage you to be enthusiastic on a curvy road.

Forte shoppers have a choice of two different engines: a 156-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder in LX and EX models or a 173-hp, 2.4-liter four in the sportier SX. The Forte Koup is only offered in EX or SX trims. LX and EX models have a standard six-speed manual, while SX models get a six-speed manual; newly offered (and not yet experienced by The Car Connection editors at the time of publication is a six-speed automatic transmission, replacing last year's four- and five-speed automatics). With either of the engines, the 2011 Kia Forte delivers a lot more driving satisfaction (and sophistication) than most value-minded buyers will expect. Both engines deliver more than adequate acceleration, and they function just fine with the automatics as they both are flexible yet happiest in the mid-rev ranges. We actually recommend the automatic with the Forte, as it works well with the engine, and clutch-throttle coordination on manual cars was frustrating.

The standard hydraulic power steering in the Forte responds well, and the ride is firm but absorbent—a nice compromise for daily driving. While the setup will be confidence-inspiring for most commuters, it's not at all a sport sedan; the suspension shows an underlying softness when pushed hard, and the standard hydraulic steering in the 2011 Kia Forte is oddly stiff at lower speeds but lighter at higher speeds.

8

2011 Kia Forte

Comfort & Quality

With a quiet, smooth ride, along with a roomy interior—in all except the Koup (headroom)—the 2011 Kia Forte delivers a bit more comfort than class stalwarts like the Toyota Corolla.

Passenger space is abundant in the 2011 Kia Forte, thanks to a rather tall roof and wide body. Front seats aren't generously proportioned, but there's adequate headroom even with the sunroof for a 6'6" driver, with lots of legroom, and the backseat has plenty of space for two adults, three in a pinch—though legroom is limited. The 2011 Kia Forte Koup is an exception to that, though; the slightly different seating position makes headroom challenging with the sunroof especially. In either case, the trunk is huge.

Overall, Kia has done a great job damping the noise and vibration that usually accompanies the cheapest small cars, and even over the coarsest road surfaces the cabin boom isn't excessive. Seat materials are unremarkable, and while there's definitely some hard plastic around the cabin, we couldn't find any ragged edges. One criticism: the engine can get a little thrashy when pushed into its upper revs, for a highway pass, for example.

8

2011 Kia Forte

Safety

With a reputation for good occupant-protection scores and a complete set of safety features, the 2011 Kia Forte is one of the safer small-car picks.

Safety ratings for the Kia Forte have been very good but not quite perfect. The IIHS has given the Kia Forte top 'good' ratings in frontal offset, side impact, and rood strength, along with rear impact; the Forte also earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick designation. The federal government hasn't yet tested the 2011 Kia Forte under its new 2011 testing and rating system, however the 2010 Forte earned five stars for frontal impact but four- and five-star ratings for side impact—not the best, but respectable versus other vehicles in its class.

All safety features are standard across the entire 2011 Kia Forte line; that includes dual seat-mounted side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, front active headrests, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, and electronic stability control.

9

2011 Kia Forte

Features

Bluetooth connectivity, steering-wheel controls, and satellite radio—extras on many other small cars—won't cost extra in the 2011 Kia Forte, though a few upscale features like a nav system are missing.

You won't be missing out on key features in going with one of the most affordable 2011 Kia Forte models. Although air conditioning remains optional on the base Forte LX, all Forte trims get Bluetooth, Sirius Satellite Radio, and an auxiliary input jack for the audio system, plus steering wheel controls and voice activation. The EX model adds A/C and power accessories, while the SX adds fog lamps, plus upgraded upholstery and trim. The SX model is the "image leader" of the lineup; in addition to those details and the stronger engine, it gets a sport-tuned suspension, larger brakes, and showy 17-inch alloy wheels.

2011 Kia Forte Koup models come only in EX and SX trims, and while equipment is virtually the same as for sedans, they do include a few features that spice up their appearance; for instance, Koup EX models include 16-inch alloys, instead of the 15-inch steel wheels of their Forte EX sedan counterparts.

Other options on the 2010 Kia Forte are limited to a power sunroof, leather seat packages (heated in front), and a Convenience Package that adds A/C and other upgrades to the LX.

One noteworthy omission is that there is original-equipment screen-based nav system on the options list. While that was perfectly normal for that class even a year or two ago, nav systems are rapidly becoming available even in affordable small cars.

8

2011 Kia Forte

Fuel Economy

The 2011 Kia Forte remains one of the more fuel-efficient cars on the market, but it's not the stuff to wow in this rapidly ascending class of small cars that hit 40 mpg.

Some small cars in this class have been returning disappointing fuel economy; the 2011 Kia Forte isn't one of those, but it's not class-leading either at this time when 40 mpg seems to be the new EPA highway standard for compacts to beat.

According to the official EPA estimates, the Forte should return 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway with the 2.0-liter engine and the six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. As part of the Fuel Economy Package, the Forte gets 27 mpg city and 37 mpg on the highway and includes electric power steering, low-rolling-resistance tires, and aerodynamic improvements. For the higher-output 2.4-liter engine, the automatic will return 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.

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