First Drive: 2017 Kia Forte

Monterrey, Mexico – It’s 43 degrees, the sun is blazing hot, and I’m squealing a 2017 Kia Forte LX+ (A/T) around some pylons in a parking lot at Kia’s spanking new mega factory outside of Monterrey, Mexico. It’s hard to believe this massive 500 hectare complex materialized out of a desert scrubland in only 14½ months – and this with forty days straight of biblical-grade rain.

One thing is for sure – things get done quickly down here when a huge corporation and the Mexican state walk down the aisle hand in hand.

Against all odds, they tell us, but one thing is for sure – things get done quickly down here when a huge corporation and the Mexican state walk down the aisle hand in hand. A $3 billion USD investment ain’t nothing to sneeze at. Since May KMM (Kia Motors Mexico) has been spitting out the refreshed Forte sedan for the Americas, with the Forte5 hatchback about to come on line.

The plant’s eventual production in its current configuration is pegged at 300,000 vehicles annually – about ten percent of Kia’s worldwide production. The Rio subcompact will be tooled up next along with some smaller cars we won’t get. Within a couple of years there will be a major expansion to accommodate SUV production.

With this, Kia joins the roster of auto manufacturers enjoying Mexico’s affordable labour and worldwide free trade agreements that includes among others VW, Audi, Ford, Nissan, BMW, FCA, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors.

As a model of efficiency and integration, KMM is a poster child of modern automotive production. A majority of the suppliers are on-site (if 500 hectares doesn’t mean anything, think 700 soccer fields) and it was built next to an existing steel plant which currently supplies about thirty percent of the steel. As per Kia’s needs, it had to switch from making hot-rolled steel to cold-rolled steel. This is a higher grade and subsequently requires a more complex process. Eventually all the steels, be they cold-rolled or high-strength, will come from this neighbouring facility.

So you get the picture. Think the Koreans are serious about this?

The 2017 Kia Forte sedan, however, is not as spanking new as the factory. We’re looking at an updated version of the current second-gen Forte that came on line as a 2014 model. These improvements pertain mostly to exterior and interior cosmetic changes, some fresh tech, driver’s aids and a new base engine.

LX trims get a standard 147-hp, 132 lb-ft 2.0-litre Atkinson-cycle engine (borrowed from the 2017 Hyundai Elantra) that replaces the outgoing 1.8-litre four that made 148 horsepower and 131 lb-ft. Equipped with a redesigned six-speed auto featuring a new multi-wet-clutch torque converter, the combined fuel consumption number drops from 7.6 L/100 km to 7.2 L/100 km.

Since entering the North American fray in 2010, the Kia Forte has not exactly set the sales charts on fire, but with 11,378 Canadian sales for 2015, it’s not an insignificant player. Still, it can’t be much fun watching from the sidelines as sister Hyundai Elantra nips at the Honda Civic’s heels.

The 2017 Forte sedan will be in Canadian showrooms early August but we’ll be waiting a couple years for an all-new third-gen Forte that will be built on the current Hyundai Elantra’s platform.

This latest-gen Forte, launched as a 2014 model and penned under the watchful eye of star designer Peter Shreyer is a handsome rig. You’ll spot the 2017 Forte by its new corporate “tiger shark” grill flanked by sleeker headlights. Out back we see a new bumper and fresh taillights – LED on upper trim models. New alloy designs too. These tweaks give the 2017 Forte a dash more maturity and presence.

2017 Kia Forte pricing starts at $15,495 for the six-speed manual LX. This rolls on 15-inch steel wheels and gets a 60/40 split rear seat, heated mirrors, SiriusXM radio, USB, Bluetooth and height-adjustable driver’s seat. If you want air conditioning, step up the $18,495 LX (A/T) that also bestows a six-speed automatic transmission, Drive Mode Select (Eco/Normal/Sport), and keyless entry with security system.

The volume trim will be the $19,995 LX+ (A/T) that builds on the LX with auto headlights, fog lights, express front windows, wiper de-icer, cruise, heated front seats, rearview camera, and illuminated vanity mirrors. It also gets a new-for-2017 7-inch multi-media interface (UVO3) with Android Auto plus a central 3.5-inch trip computer display between the major gauges. You’re still be riding on those poverty-spec 15-inch steelies with hubcaps though.

Next up are the EX and SX trims that punch harder with a carry-over direct-injection 2.0-litre GDI four that makes 164 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, hooked only to a six-speed auto. The EX (A/T) at $21,795 gets 16-inch alloys, chrome trim bits, upgraded seat fabric, dual-zone climate control, leather wheel and shift knob, push button start, folding side mirror, auto-dimming interior mirror and Smart Trunk which automatically unlocks the trunk when standing behind with the key fob on your person. Another $1200 adds sunroof and 17-inch alloys.

Moving up the ladder we come to the $24,595 EX Luxury. This brings leather, blind-spot detection (new for 2017), enhanced gauge cluster, 17-inch alloys, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, and 10-way driver’s seat with memory.

The range-topping SX (A/T) at $27,295 layers on paddle shifters, HID headlights that steer into corners, LED taillights, navigation, ventilated seats and a new radar/camera-based safety suite that includes autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and lane keep assist. The latter has two settings – Standard and Active, with the latter allowing for a few seconds of hands-off autonomous steering if conditions allow.

So, back to those parking lot shenanigans in the only six Canadian-spec Fortes on the planet at the time. As these cars were not Mexico legal, we had to stay on the factory grounds. We did get a short “real world” loop in a few Mexican spec cars. All in all, very little seat time.

The Forte’s interior is simple, logical, ergonomically sound and built to a high standard. Nothing flashy in here but the 2017 improvements (new seat fabrics, clearer gauge fonts and redesigned centre fascia) move things up a notch. The seats are reasonably comfortable and back seat room is fine for two adults, if not class leading. The Forte has an exceptionally roomy trunk measuring 422 litres.

For 2017 the Forte’s structure gets reinforced with the addition of some high strength steel. It’s evident Kia engineers have been squirreling away at steering feel and NVH. Both are vastly improved, although this carry-over chassis cannot match the ride compliance and refinement of the 2017 Hyundai Elantra. Out on the Mexican streets the 17-inch wheels clumped over irregularities.

There is a marked difference in urge and handling between the LX+ automatic (147-hp 2.0-litre Atkinson-cycle, 15-inch wheels) and EX Luxury (164-hp GDI 2.0-litre, 17-inch wheels). The fuel-efficient LX is quite “relaxed” in its performance while the EX goes and grips with more authority.

As it stands, the 2017 Kia Forte won’t be putting any pressure on the major players in this segment, but these improvements along with increased value (pricing down $400-$500), higher content and better fuel economy in the LX will likely push this good looking Korean up a few positions on the sales chart.

Think the Koreans are serious about this? 9/20/2016 12:00:00 PM