First Drive: 2019 Kia Forte

You really can’t go wrong in the compact segment these days. While sedan sales are shrinking by the year as consumers turn to crossovers, the current crop of compact sedans and hatchbacks were designed to compete in one of the most competitive and popular segments of the market. Although every company wants to impress all the shoppers, this is a value-driven segment, so everything has to be delivered at an affordable price point, making it even more impressive how good these vehicles have become.

Refined and sophisticated inside and out.

Stiff Competition

The Kia Forte has never been as popular as the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, but those are the cars everyone is chasing in this segment, and are often default choices when shoppers are looking for a new car. Honestly, neither is a bad way to go. The Toyota Corolla is simple and easy to drive, with a history of reliability – that’s all some people want. The Honda Civic fights back with more variety in body style, sporty models, and throwing in a dash of fun without forgetting about that reliability. With the launch of the 2019 Forte, Kia is trying to blend all of the best parts of the Civic and Corolla’s recipes for success while looking quite a bit better than either of those.

One of the toughest hills to climb for Kia in competing against the Civic and Corolla is name recognition and reliability, which can’t be sold simply with a fancy new grille design and catchy marketing campaign. Kia has been working on it for generations – five generations of compact cars, that is – but the Forte name only first appeared on the 2010 model that replaced the Spectra.

As to reliability, Kia has made great headway, becoming a top-three brand in Consumer Reports’ Brand Rankings (Toyota is still number one, though), and placing fifth in the most recent JD Power Dependability study (Toyota was ninth). Still, they would need to stay on top of these rankings for decades to build up the kind of faith that so many consumers have in the Toyota and Honda brands. Nonetheless, the smart shopper will do their homework and realize the Forte has a good chance of being as reliable and dependable as a Civic. Having said that, the first year of a new generation can bring with it some teething issues, especially when introducing a major new component, like a transmission in the case of this 2019 Forte.

Powertrain

At launch, the Forte will only be available with one engine, and all but the very base model will feature a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which Kia was desperate to call something other than a CVT so that it wouldn’t get disparaged for the bad rep CVTs have gotten. The powerplant is the same basic 2.0L Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder currently in use, designed for efficiency first, but delivering adequate power for this segment and its weight. Making the most of the 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque falls to the CVT, which Kia calls an Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT), as if all the previous versions of this type of transmission were dumb as bricks.

Silly naming hangups aside, it’s a neat little transmission, Kia having had a chance to dissect competitors’ CVTs, study their weaknesses as far as driving and reliability were concerned, and come up with simple and novel engineering solutions to combat them. To improve driving feel and engagement, Kia engineers designed it with eight simulated ratios, and teeth on the side of the steel chain belt so the pulleys get a good grip and feel like they lock in on a gear when they switch ratios. To battle durability issues, Kia added a high-pressure vane-type oil pump to keep it well lubricated and cooled. All that work is well worth it for a transmission that saves weight, space, and complexity over the six-speed automatic it replaces.

Driving Impressions

Out on the road, it’s an acceptable compromise, delivering a bit of that familiar feel of stepped gear ratios, although still moving through ratios with smooth “shifts”. Although the power is sufficient, I say that with the understanding that this is the base powertrain of a small commuter car – it’s nothing special, the engine wheezing and moaning its way up to highway speed quickly enough for highway merges to be uneventful, but taking a good long stretch to pull off passing moves on two-lane highways.

The bigger benefit is fuel consumption, which the 2019 Forte improves over its predecessor with 7.7 L/100 km in the city, 5.9 on the highway, and 6.9 combined rating from Natural Resources Canada.

Better, yes, but not by much, as the 2018 model was already pretty efficient at 8.0 city, 6.1 highway and 7.1 combined. While it’s still short of the 7.4/5.6/6.6 the Civic puts up with its 1.5L turbo, it essentially matches the 7.8/5.9/6.9 posted by the new Corolla LE Eco and it’s close enough that the fuel savings are marginal compared to what you’ll save by making an effort to drive efficiently.

If you’re less interested in driving efficiently than in having a bit of fun behind the wheel, then you’ll have to decide whether to jump across the aisle to the Hyundai Elantra Sport or to go back a generation to the Forte5, which is still on the old Forte platform, though both are powered by the same 201 hp 1.6L turbo four. It’s not that the 2019 Forte isn’t fun to drive, but it’s just not that much fun to drive, if you know what I mean.

Essentially, it doesn’t ruin the fun if you find yourself on some beautiful winding roads as we did, crossing from Ottawa to Montreal by way of Mont Tremblant, but brings little to the experience on its own. The steering is well weighted and precise, and the stiffer frame allows the front McPherson struts and rear torsion-beam suspension to excel, allowing you to push it into fun territory until the tires give in to the expected understeer. The Sport mode and transmission can keep the engine at higher revs for a bit of edge, but it’s not very pleasant to listen to, and its speed isn’t what you’d call thrilling unless it’s the downhill side of the mountain.

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Meandering through Montreal’s suburban streets, it feels every bit the commuter car that it is, but one that rides too stiffly for that purpose, which is what it will spend most of its time doing anyway. If you want to turn every drive into an occasion for fun, I’d suggest the Mini Cooper or Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86, whose hard rides are forgivable considering their level of engagement and other charms.

Pricing and Features

What you won’t get in cars like that are a million features at an affordable price, which is where the Forte sets itself apart from the competition. Although only a handful of drivers will be interested in the base model LX MT with its six-speed manual transmission, it’s the bargain and sets the table with an impressive list of standard features for $16,495 – all models have a $1,635 Delivery and Destination charge as well. The 15-inch wheels are steel and the seats are fabric, but the front seats and steering wheel are heated, and that steering wheel is wrapped in leather. Also standard are popular items like cruise control, air conditioning, keyless entry, Bluetooth, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay phone connectivity, and an 8-inch touchscreen display with rear-view camera. It’s a big $2,500 leap in price to the automatic-equipped LX, but the fuel-saving CVT comes packaged with forward collision alert and braking, active lane-keeping assist, and driver attention alert.

The next step up is the $20,995 EX trim, which rounds out the safety suite with blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert with braking, then dresses up the Forte with 16-inch alloy wheels (and good-looking ones, too), chrome and gloss black trim, LED headlights and DRLs, high-beam assist, and a nifty little wireless charging shelf above a little tray for other pocket fillers.

The next three levels of Forte are EX+, EX Premium, then EX Limited. We’re not sure if there is some reasoning other than to make it more confusing, and although I can forgive the EX+, for the life of me I can’t figure why the EX Premium and EX Limited couldn’t be just Premium and Limited. The EX+ comes in at $22,495, adding 17-inch alloys, LED taillights, sunroof, and interior LED lighting.

Premium adds a lot of tech for $25,095, including Smart Key, a more advanced version of Forward Collision Avoidance Assist, UVO Intelligence, and adaptive cruise. UVO Intelligence Telematics features an app that can remotely lock or unlock the car, plus some maintenance and emergency assistance functions. The Premium also splits the climate control into two zones, gives the driver a power adjustable seat, and swaps the seat fabric for “Sofino” synthetic leather, which is not so fine in my opinion. Although Kia was happy to point out how many more features they have at under $21,000, adaptive cruise is standard on the Toyota Corolla, and you can get navigation for under $26K.

In the 2019 Forte, it takes the $28,065 Limited to get navigation on the touchscreen system, and it’s supported by live traffic to help you avoid major trouble spots on your commute. If you do end up stuck in a traffic jam, the upgraded Harman Kardon sound system and satellite radio should keep you entertained, and ventilated front seats keep front passengers cool, and even rear passengers get heated seats in the Limited.

Interior

That’s a whole lot of features for a pretty reasonable price, but what impressed me more than the sheer feature load was how well executed the interior was, both in usability and in quality. The UVO system is close to flawless in my opinion, with clear graphics, logically organized menus, quick response, and just enough hard-button shortcuts to the system’s main functions to make jumping around easy and painless to learn and set up. Aside from the unconvincing, rubbery synthetic leather (which brands like Mercedes and BMW also do poorly), the materials were as good or better than anything else in the segment, with a design that was modern and appealing but not too flashy.

The 2019 Forte is also about as practical as a small sedan can be, with roomy front and rear seats that are within a centimetre or two of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla in most interior dimensions except for rear legroom. Although it has 10 cm less legroom than the Corolla in the back seat, sitting back there was no problem for me, and neither my knees nor head felt in danger of making contact with the nearest surfaces. Kia even highlighted the various improvements made to the pillars and door shapes for improved entry and exit without bashing heads on the way in or out.

The trunk is generous at 434 L, and the rear seats split 60/40 and fold to create more space if needed, with convenient releases in the trunk. However, Kia reps also made a point of mentioning that they will not be abandoning the hatchback market, so expect a new Forte5 to follow with maximum practicality and probably even better looks.

The 2019 Kia Forte is a well-rounded vehicle that drives well and offers desirable features at affordable price, exactly what a compact car needs to be, elevating the segment beyond mere econobox transportation. It’s not the best in every respect, but it’s not far behind in any category. The Mazda3 and Honda Civic both still find a better balance of comfort and sporty driving, and the Toyota Corolla has that bulletproof reliability record, but the Kia Forte also drives nice and the brand has developed a much better record for reliability, so it’s not a sacrifice in either of those areas to switch to the Forte. Kia doesn’t yet have a high-powered rival to cars like the Civic Si or Elantra Sport, and its modest power is uninspiring but on par for the segment, while the CVT makes good use of what power there is.

Curiously, at a time when all crossovers are beginning to look like the same, inoffensive blob, compact cars keep challenging our tastes with weird grilles, profiles, and interiors, but the Kia Forte seems to be one of the few designs that draws universal praise from all quarters. Aside from the bumpy ride, the 2019 Kia Forte feels refined and sophisticated inside and out, looking good without trying too hard, and lining up the right features at the right prices. For the shopper looking for cool tech that’s easy to use in a sharp, modern and affordable package, the Forte is hard to beat.

Pricing: 2019 Kia Forte

Forte LX MT: $16,495
Forte LX: $18,995
Forte EX: $20,995
Forte EX+: $22,495
Forte EX Premium: $25,095
Forte EX Limited: $28,065

Delivery and Destination: $1,635

Another strong entry 10/15/2018 6:32:00 AM