Kia, official automotive partner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), is really upping its game lately.
Fresh off the launch of the boxy, youth-oriented Soul, Kia now sends a fresh draft pick out to face the mighty, long-established Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Although their Spectra model put out 100 percent on the floor, the Forte appears to have all the right stuff.
It's one of the best looking Kias to come along. Developing an attractive contender on a 104.3-inch wheelbase is a real challenge, but the Kia team has delivered. And, with the Koup two-door arriving now, it just gets better.
The car's precisely rendered contours give it a confident, strong look, with a sweeping grille and face that's keeping its eye on the ball. The scooped-out body sides are a nod to BMW, and convey solidity and strength. The front fender line runs up into the front pillars, a unique and distinctive touch.
Inside, the surfaces are hard plastic, but beautifully rendered, and the shapes are world class. The convex, upturned dash, door and console forms match the exterior's positive, healthy physique. Fit and finish are impeccable, which is especially noteworthy in a car in the lower price range.
Fortes come in three ascending levels: LS, EX and SX. The LS offers such things as a six-way driver's seat adjustment, tilt steering column, rear window defroster and two 12-volt power outlets in the console.
Step up to the EX and you get power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, map lights, steering wheel-mounted controls and more.
You can add the Premium Package, which includes a power moonroof and 16-inch alloy wheels. My test car, a Bright Silver EX, had the Leather Package, featuring leather-trimmed seats (the fronts are heated), a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and metal-finish trim. It's amazing how leather adds to the ambiance of a relatively modest car.
The SX is, unsurprisingly, the "sporty" model. That means it gets a serious black interior with a special fabric featuring red stitching, a telescoping steering column, Supervision™ gauge cluster, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and metal-finish trim and pedals.
More importantly, the SX gets a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 173 horsepower. The LS and EX models make do with a 2.0-liter, 156-horsepower four. The SX also receives an additional cog in both the manual transmission (five to six gears) and the automatic (four to five gears). Stir in a sport-tuned suspension and larger front brakes, too.
Fuel economy is one of the benefits of a light car (2,700-2,800 lbs.). The LS and EX earn 25 City, 34 Highway with either the manual or automatic; the SX drops to 22/32 with the manual and 23/31 with the automatic.
The optional Fuel Economy Package, available on the EX model with the 2.0-liter engine, includes a five-speed automatic transmission, Motor Drive Power Steering (MPDS), a special "smart" alternator, special tires and aerodynamic tweaks. These improvements push the fuel mileage numbers up to 27/36 mpg and a class-leading combined fuel economy figure of 30 mpg.
Check out the Forte's stats in the EPA Green Vehicle Guide. Some automatic-equipped models earn a stellar 9.5 in the Air Pollution score and the rest earn a 7. All versions get either a 7 or an 8 for the Greenhouse Gas score.
What's the Forte like to live with on a day-to-day basis? Well, it comes to play. My EX felt peppy around town, took well to freeway entrances and hummed along as a commute vehicle without a whimper. Surely the SX, with its greater power, 17-inch tires and rims and firmer suspension would be even more fun.
Aiming the car at young folks, Kia's planners equipped each car with a standard four-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with satellite radio and more importantly, a USB port for an iPod or other electronic music device. The EX and SX models gets standard surround sound and six speakers.
Prices start at just $14,390 for the LS, including shipping charges. The EX jumps to $16,670 and the SX begins at $17,890. The automatic transmission adds $800. My EX, with the Leather Package, sunroof and 16-inch alloy wheels, came to $19,290.
With its now-famous 10-year, 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty and five-year limited basic warranty, Kia is guarding against trouble, and if you have any, its five-year, 60,000-mile roadside assistance plan's got your back. You probably won't need it.
Kia has increased its market share in the U.S. for 14 straight years. How? By offering continually improving products and a greater variety of models. And there's more to come.