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The 2014 Kia Forte impresses in most ways that matter for budget-conscious small-car shoppers. And with decent performance, an excellent feature set, three body styles, and plenty of style inside and out, it sounds like the right formula to battle best-in-class offerings from Ford and Mazda. But with the Forte's poor crash-test scores, we just can't recommend it.The Forte's grown in most ways except height, and that plays out handsomely in its four-door shape. (A new two-door Kia Forte Koup and sleek five-door Forte hatchbackjoin the lineup later this year.) It has more in common than ever with the Hyundai Elantra, but kinship in styling is looser. Picture the relationship between the Optima and Sonata family sedans, and you'll have a better gauge for the distance between the Forte and its confident stance, smart detailing, and distinctive cockpit, compared to the Elantra's adventurous curves. The reworked cockpit in the Forte works better than ever, too--it's simple and straightforward, especially when it's compared to some of the screen-driven competition, and the finishes applied are universally better than before.
Since it's longer, with a lower roofline, the Forte has a little less user space than before. It's not noticeable in front, where the Forte has good passenger space. The seats could use more bottom bolstering, though. In back, the tallest passengers won't be happy, but the majority of adults and everyone smaller will find enough room in the outboard seats, and the doors are cut in a more passenger-friendly way. The cockpit's finished with higher-grade plastics, and the details are nicely underplayed throughout, from the round climate control knobs to the tambour-covered console storage.
A pair of drivetrains gives Forte shoppers a choice between a 1.8-liter, 148-horsepower four and a 2.0-liter, 173-hp four. We've just driven the stronger Forte EX, which comes only with a six-speed automatic, and not the five-speed manual alternative offered on the lower-output LX. If nothing else, the Forte's drivetrain reminds us of the better 1990s-era compacts, with a high-winding, mostly vibration-free four delivering moderate acceleration to the front wheels with an easy-shifting transmission interpreting the results. Not quick, the Forte's doesn't lag too far behind the faster Focuses, at least until you factor in the high-performance models.
Ride and handling strike a balance between the cushy responses of a Corolla and the firm resolve of the Focus. The Forte's gotten better at absorbing roads gone wrong, an effect of a longer wheelbase that lingers even when bigger 17-inch wheels and tires are chosen. The electric steering's lifted from the Hyundai Elantra GT, and comes up with three driver-selectable modes; normally we think of these setups as frills, but the sport setting helps the Forte track better on highways, though we'd leave it in lighter modes for everyday work.
The 2014 Forte is a newly redesigned vehicle, yet that doesn't add up to top-notch occupant protection here if you go by U.S. crash tests. The NHTSA gives the Forte four-door four stars overall; three stars for front-impact protection isn't great, but five-star side-impact protection is. Factor in the Forte's 'poor' rating in the new small overlap frontal test, and this likely isn't one of the small cars we'd recommend for the most safety-conscious shoppers.
Every Forte comes with power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; satellite radio (with three months' free trial service); and steering-wheel audio controls. The EX gets a rearview camera and a new version of UVO that ditches Microsoft's software for smartphone-connected links to Google maps--a light, forward-thinking solution we hope becomes the norm. On the Forte EX, you'll even find options for leather trim, a ventilated driver seat, pushbutton start, and LED taillamps. It's a new layer of refinement to a car that has made steady progress against our best-rated compact sedans. It doesn't have the sharp handling of the Focus or its lavish list of options, but now the Kia Forte has more well-rounded performance, as well as proof--proof that good looks do run in families.
- One of the best-looking compact cars
- A well-finished, smartly laid out interior
- Better road manners
- Smoother drivetrain (2.0)
- New UVO points to the future
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- Front seats need more support
- Back seat head room is slim
- Three-mode steering is more for show
- Acceleration is moderate
- Safety ratings are lower than expected