The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick designation applies only to Forte models produced after October 2009, when Kia made some design changes to the sedan's B-pillar and roof structure for better protection during side impacts and rollovers. Shoppers who want to assure their Forte has the improvements should check the certification label on or near the driver's door.
When the group tested the 2010 Forte the first time, it had earned just an 'acceptable' rating overall for side impact, with 'acceptable' results for driver torso protection and 'marginal' results for passenger torso protection. Driver head protection also ranked 'marginal.'
On the retest, Kia improved all of the Forte's 'marginal' scores to 'acceptable' ones, earning a 'good' overall score for side impact and scoring the Top Safety Pick designation, which requires top overall scores in frontal, side, and rear impact tests, as well as the new roof strength tests. Electronic stability control is also requisite.
The later release of the 2010 Kia Forte, incorporating those changes, also did better in a follow-up of federal crash tests, where it improved its side rear rating from three to four stars. In all other frontal and side categories it's achieved top five-star results.
Either way you look at it, the Forte is a tremendous improvement in safety over the Kia Spectra it replaces. The Spectra was rated just 'acceptable' for frontal impact and only 'marginal' for side crash protection. Front-seat side airbags and curtain airbags were standard on the Spectra, but anti-lock brakes were an option—not at all offered on base models—and electronic stability control wasn't available anywhere in the lineup.
The Forte is only the third model from Hyundai and Kia—a single automaker in its home South Korea, but separately run sales companies in the U.S.—to earn the distinction, after the Kia Soul and Hyundai Sonata.