2019 Kia Forte first drive: Compact car blues wiped away

August 30, 2018

Even though they are divisions of the same company, the divide between Kia and Hyundai has never been wider than with the 2019 Kia Forte.

Under its clean styling suite of standard active safety tech sits the automaker’s first continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Don’t go looking for such a transmission in the Hyundai lineup because you won't find one.

MORE: 2019 Kia Forte tops 40 mpg highway

The transmission costs $900 on the base Forte FE that'll be rarer than hen's teeth on dealer lots and it’s standard on LXS, S, and EX trims.

The knock against CVTs has been that in their search for the optimum gear ratio they can leave the driver feeling like the engine is revving excessively. And to ears accustomed to hearing distinct changes in engine pitch on upshifts, the CVT’s slurring of ratios can sound disconcerting.

So Kia’s CVT is programmed to move among pre-selected ratios, simulating the sound and feel of an automatic transmission. And when the shift lever is moved to the left, engaging Sport mode, the driver can even shift up and down among these simulated gears.

2019 Kia Forte

2019 Kia Forte

This worked surprisingly well, although the shifter’s push-forward-to-upshift, pull-back to downshift feels opposite the way it should be. Regardless, Kia’s continued use of a shifter that slides through discrete positions for Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive is commendable in an age of needlessly unfamiliar and complex shifters. Kudos to Kia for preserving a simple, clear shifter design.

At 30 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined, the Forte delivers on its fuel-efficient promise and easily bests the 6-speed automatic in the Elantra. Although some rivals such as the Honda Civic are more miserly, the Forte's mpg game is on point and the Forte FE notches those numbers up 1 mpg all around thanks to its low rolling-resistance tires.

The Forte earns those figures thanks to a 147-horsepower, 132 pound-feet of torque 2.0-liter inline-4 that propels the compact with enough vigor. Surprisingly, Kia eschews direct fuel injection for more established (and less costly) port injection. Unlike the related Hyundai Elantra, which offers a turbo-4 rated at 201 hp, there’s no sportier version of the Forte.

Firmer steering that provides more driver feedback than the outgoing model’s over-boosted, video game-synthetic setup provides the Forte with pleasing handling, though it's not particularly athletic.

Accordingly, the base 6-speed manual transmission is restricted to the entry-level Forte FE. All other trims use Kia’s first CVT, meaning the Forte’s sporty story is a short one. The Forte’s Elantra cousin uses a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission, but Kia says that the CVT alone is worth a 5 percent improvement in efficiency compared to the automatic.

2019 Kia Forte

2019 Kia Forte

2019 Kia Forte styling and comfort

Ever since former Audi designer Peter Schreyer took over Kia styling in 2006 the brand has been a consistent design leader, with crisply contemporary sheetmetal. It is no surprise that the 2019 Forte is a looker.

The company sought to echo the design cues of the Stinger full-size sedan, at least as much as is possible when the Forte is front-wheel drive and has the resulting constraints on its proportions. To achieve that, the Forte’s designers pushed the base of the windshield back several inches compared to the outgoing model and shortened the trunk lid correspondingly, cultivating that sought after long-hood, short-deck look that is shorthand for sporty performance.

Kia especially excels at wheel design, and the Forte is available with various great-looking aluminum wheels in 16- and 17-inch diameters, depending on the exact trim level. Only the base Forte FE rolls on 15-inch steel wheels with plastic hubcaps.

Compact cars can seem to cut corners on comfort, but as these become the main car for many families, they are also becoming more comfortable. To that end, Kia has developed a progressively firmer seat foam that keeps occupants happy for even long stints in the saddle, as we learned following some wrong turns through the countryside near Pittsburgh.

2019 Kia Forte

2019 Kia Forte

Dual-zone automatic climate control is standard equipment on even the base Forte FE, so forget about those days of sweating in an econobox with manual roll-down windows during the dog days of summer. Even the most affordable Forte will keep both the driver and front seat passenger at the temperature of their own choosing.

The 2019 Forte is 3.2 inches longer than the outgoing model and almost an inch wider, at 70.9 inches. This added space contributes to a cabin that lets a 6-foot passenger comfortably sit behind a 6-foot driver with a couple inches of knee and head room to spare.

Touches such as thicker side glass and noise insulation on the transmission contribute to a placid cabin 5 decibels quieter than last year’s model.

We don’t yet know how the Forte will fare in the various crash tests. But we do know that the new car’s structure is 16 percent stiffer than before thanks to 54 percent high-strength steel. Further, the ring of steel around the door frame is now a single piece, for extra strength in case of a side impact.

But hopefully none of this reinforcement will be needed, because Kia has made a slew of collision-avoidance tech standard on the 2019 Forte, so owners should be less likely to crash at all.

Kia calls its suite of protective systems Drive Wise, and critical protective technologies such as forward collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, and active lane control are all standard equipment. Higher trim levels addadaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alerts.

2019 Kia Forte

2019 Kia Forte

2019 Kia Forte features

The base Forte FE costs $18,585, including a mandatory destination charge. For that money, buyers get power windows and locks, cruise control, 15-inch wheels with hubacps, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Kudos to Kia for continuing with simple, easy-to-use controls for its system, with the conventional rotary volume knob on the left and tuning knob on the right, with clear, obvious touchscreen functions on the display.

The Forte LXS adds 16-inch alloy wheels, a few exterior appearance tweaks, a split-folding rear seat (instead of a single-piece folding unit), and upgraded interior trim for just under $20,000. That puts it about $500 well-spent dollars more than a Forte FE with the automatic.

We'd probably be fine with the LXS rather than upgrading to the Forte S for about $1,100 more. It adds a rear-seat armrest, leather-wrapped steering wheel, satellite radio, and the option to spend $1,200 more on a power moonroof, and LED headlights with automatic high-beams.

Our money would either be on the base model or the range-topping Forte EX that costs about $23,000. For that money, buyers get heated and cooled front seats covered in synthetic leather, a power driver's seat, keyless ignition, and a host of small convenience upgrades such as LED turn signals integrated into the side mirrors, a glove box light, and a pair of USB ports.

What's missing is a zippier Forte, something Hyundai offers in its Elantra GT. Kia might be the style and efficiency leader, but Hyundai is ready for more fun.

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