Both were given full redesigns for this year—the 2014 Kia Forte becoming swoopier, more stylish and refined, and better equipped than ever; and the 2014 Mazda 3 lineup taking a more premium yet refined direction, with far more attention paid to technology.
While no longer niche offerings, these two models are both picks for new-car shoppers who want something a little bit outside the compact-car norm set by the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, and Volkswagen Jetta. There's no doubt that these are two of the best-looking models on the market. And that holds true whether you go for the sedan or hatchback versions of each.
We were fortunate to visit each of these models—in respective builds that could be compared quite well—back-to-back a few weeks ago.
Both around $25k, very well equipped
The two models we drove were remarkably close in equipment and price, and both are very strong values for the money. The Mazda 3i Grand Touring model we drove, at an MSRP of $24,340. Equipping the Mazda 3i with the optional automatic transmission would have resulted in a $25,090 price. In any case, the 'i' Grand Touring includes dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, leatherette upholstery, heated front seats, remote keyless entry, navigation, and Bose Centerpoint audio.
Meanwhile, our 2014 Kia Forte EX, with a bottom-line price of $25,515, arrived with quite a few options, including the Premium Package (sunroof, leather upholstery, power driver's seat, ventilated driver's seat, heated front seats, heated outboard rear seats, a heated steering wheel, push-button start, and additional lighting), as well as the Technology Package (dual-zone climate control, HID headlamps, LED taillamps, an upgraded gauge cluster, navigation with Sirius Traffic data, and HD Radio), and a 17-inch alloy wheel upgrade.The Forte we tested came with the six-speed automatic transmission, while the Mazda 3i arrived with the six-speed manual. The 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine in the Mazda makes 155 horsepower, while the Forte's 2.0-liter direct-injection four makes 173 hp. Both are smooth engines as they're pushed up the rev band, but from inside the cabin, the Mazda's is definitely more distant from the driver's seat, while the Kia's engine can be boomy when pressed. Both cars were plenty quick, with the six-speed automatic downshifting eagerly and smoothly, and the six-speed manual in the Mazda offering some of the neatest, most satisfying shift action in an affordable new car.
Big personality differences in ride and handling
In terms of steering, the Forte has three different steering weights, selectable via a steering-wheel button. We tried them all, but then ended up keeping it on the lightest Comfort setting for most of the week; in any of the modes, this steering system feels artificial and disconnected on center, leaving you to make many uncertain small adjustments when the road has an unusual slope or when there are tramlines or crosswinds.
On the other hand, the Mazda has just one steering setting that seems to work just fine; likewise, while the Mazda is easy to drive smoothly, we found the need to click the Kia into its Eco setting, as its default setup feels calibrated toward feeling artificially perky on the test drive.
First impressions on ride and handling for both of these models don't necessarily hold true. In the Forte you tend to feel bumps and potholes more in the cabin, suggesting at lower speeds that it's a rather stiff suspension; then it leans and skitters when pushed around tight corners. Once you push the Mazda 3 hard into a corner it reveals itself as the firmer, perhaps better controlled of the two; that's again a surprise as it manages to soak up more of the coarseness and smaller bumps.
Road noise is an issue in both of these cars, but on the relatively coarse road surfaces around Portland, Oregon, the Forte was definitely the loudest of the two. We should note that the Mazda 3i Grand Touring we drove this time was noticeably quieter than the 3s Grand Touring (the 2.5-liter model) we drove months ago—probably due to the lower-profile tires in the 3s.
Seats are also a solid step better in the Mazda3. Simply put, they're better sculpted for the corners, and the lower cushions are longer, giving you more thigh support for longer trips. But adult passengers are likely to prefer the Kia, as there's significantly more legroom; the interior feels wider, too—perhaps because it doesn't taper somewhat in width like the Mazda.The Mazda's Bose Centerpoint sound system, with its nine speakers, seemed to trounce the system in the Forte for ordinary sound quality. The Grand Touring also includes the so-called Command Controller, which is an alternate (rather gimmicky) way of making selections on the seven-inch color touch screen atop the dash; it includes a rearview camera system, navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, SMS text capability, and apps for Pandora and Stitcher, among others.
Both in line with MPG expectations
We did about 130 miles in the Mazda 3i and averaged an indicated 33 mpg according to the trip computer, while its EPA ratings were 29 mpg city, 40 highway. As for the Kia Forte, we saw an indicated 27 mpg by the end of the week, over about 110 miles, which also placed it more or less in line with its 28-mpg Combined number and its 24/36 mpg city/highway ratings. Both were roughly the same kind of driving—about a third of the mileage going to shorter around-town trips and two thirds going to longer boulevard-and-freeway errands.
All this aside, there's one other thing that might be a deal-breaker to some shoppers: The Forte earns a low three-star federal crash-test score for frontal impact, as well as a 'poor' rating from the IIHS in the small overlap frontal category. On the other hand, the Mazda's earned five stars in all categories of federal testing, as well as a top 'good' rating in small overlap. The Mazda also offers a host of active-safety options like Adaptive Front Lighting, Smart City Brake Support, Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and Lane Departure Warning.
Overall, the Mazda 3 has a nuanced driving feel and a sense of precision that we don't normally expect to find in such an affordable vehicle; meanwhile the Forte provides a driving experience that's just a little sportier than the compact-car norm but rough around the edges when you take it up on that suggestion. It also constantly reminds us of that, with road noise and a somewhat busier ride.
Mazda 3: Add it to your list. Definitely.
Without question, the Mazda 3 is the winner in this match-up. If space is your priority, and some of the Forte's added features, like ventilated front seats and heated rear seats (and a heated steering wheel) make a difference, then we do concede that the Kia is an unquestionably strong value. But if stylish and fun, yet frugal, motoring is something you want in your next compact car, the Mazda 3 i is one that can't be beat.