2011 Kia Forte 5-Door SX: First Drive

April 5, 2011

The Kia Forte replaced the compact Spectra a few years ago, bringing style to and dare I say flair to the Kia showroom. But the market is changing and Kia recognizes this. For 2011 Kia is introducing a 5-Door model to the Forte line-up. Last week we had the opportunity to drive the Forte 5-Door SX outside Phoenix, AZ.

The main question we had was how much of a difference does a hatch make? We can start out by just putting it all on the table: The Forte 5-Door doesn't drive all that different from the Forte sedan.

Clean lines, never over the top

From the A-pillar forward you wont be able to tell that the Forte 5-door is hiding a rear hatch. It has the same clean design as the sedan--that while not overly aggressive, is definitely striking in its own way. Moving towards the rear you see the sculpted line trailing off the A-pillar flows into the rear taillights. Two small details at the rear of our SX tester--a diffuser and chrome exhaust tip--gave it a somewhat more aggressive look. Overall the exterior has a clean design just like the sedan, but it will never be mistaken for edgy or taking risks.

More junk in the trunk--er, hatch

Of course the main feature inside any hatchback is more space, and the Forte 5-Door is no different. The Forte sedan has 14.7 cubic feet of cargo room in its trunk, while the Forte 5-Door grows that to a nice 19.4 cubic feet, which is directly on top of the 5-door competition.

Aside from the extra cargo capacity, the Forte 5-Door is essentially the same inside the cabin as the Forte Sedan. That isn't a bad thing, with comfortable seats and available hard drive based navigation, the Forte is a real contender. The cabin is filled with hard plastics, but that's to be expected in this class; the plastics are nicely grained and have good fit and finish.

Good power, harsh suspension

The Forte is available with two powertrains, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder and 2.4-liter four-cylinder in the sportier SX model. We were in the SX, which had the 2.4-liter four-cylinder good for 173-horsepower and 168 lb-ft sent to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic. It's worth noting that you can get the SX model with a six-speed manual transmission.

Like other Kia SX models, the Forte 5-Door SX features unique suspension tuning and SX specific bushings. While the ride is controlled, it can get overly harsh and unsettled rather quickly. We noticed over rough roads the suspension seemed to lack travel and the ride became jittery. Over large bumps and potholes the suspension made loud crashing noises that might make even the seasoned driver uncomfortable. Though over smooth roads the SX remained composed and rather flat through the corners.

Along with the larger engine and unique suspension tuning, the SX also features larger front brakes. In stop-and-go traffic the brakes were very twitchy. It was almost like an full-on or full-off affair, with little in-between. This makes it hard to drive smoothly and could easily make a passenger nauseous.

Quibbles aside, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder in the SX does get up and move. Passing power is in full supply and you will have no issues getting up to speed on the highway on-ramp. The transmission is not lazy and shifts are crisp.

The Forte 5-Door SX is rated by the EPA at 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. We did not have the opportunity to drive on the highway long enough to record an accurate rating, but we saw an average of 24 mpg in the city.

We drove a Forte 5-door in SX trim with all the goodies such as navigation, heated seats (didn't need those in Phoenix, AZ), and Bluetooth. Loaded with nearly all the options our tester had a sticker price of $23,685. That price doesn't scream out the value that Kia is known for. In fact, that price is right next the rest of the competition as optioned. Kia is clearly no longer going after top spot as the cheapest ride on the block, and that's not necessary anymore. Kia is finally a real contender.

When we first drove the Kia Forte sedan back in 2009, we concluded that it was a one of the best small cars out there. But times have changed, and most of the competition have rebooted their models. There's no question that Forte is aging well, but it is clearly not in the top of its class anymore. With more refined value leaders like the new Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, and Chevrolet Cruze, the Forte will have to step up its game when it comes time for a mid-cycle refresh.

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