The notion of high-value small cars has slowly been catching on here, where small used to mean cheap, and bigger was always better.
At one time, a fancy VW Rabbit would have been an oxymoron right up there with “airline food,” but today an entire generation of Americans lusts after the Golf GTI.
Some of these small cars are fairly expensive right out of the box—the Mini, Audi’s A3—but most, like the GTI, are tarted-up models of cars that first established their bona fides in the economy class. This all-new 2014 Kia Forte EX Sedan is a good example of the latter.
It’s a capital-S Sedan because there are two other versions: the hatchback 5-Door and the fetchingly named Forte Koup, with two doors and a sloping roof. The first hint that something was different—besides the sleeker, less-frumpy styling—came when I approached the car and its wing mirrors unfolded themselves with a whirr, as if to say, “Hi, boss!”
Then, when I sat down and stabbed the ignition button, the seat motored ahead into the ready position (like a Lexus). So, with the Monroney sticker in hand, I took a good look around.
There are plenty more goodies: Power sunroof. Leather seats, heated in front, and the driver’s adjusts electrically (and can remember two settings) and has a cooling feature as well.
Dual-zone automatic climate control. Two 12-volt outlets. Heated outside mirrors. AM/FM/CD/MP3/satellite audio with six speakers and Bluetooth. Satnav and a 7-inch screen, on which we can see the tricycle we’re about to back over.
A smaller digital screen just for the driver, with crisp graphics. LED taillights and high-intensity headlights. One-touch signaling. (I like that.) A steering-wheel heater. Lots of controls in the steering wheel.
None of these features is new, but we’re not used to finding all of them (and more) on such an inexpensive car. A base Forte LX starts at $15,900; an EX starts at $19,400; ours was equipped with 17-inch wheels ($350) and both option packages, Premium and Technology, but the total was still just $24,600.
The interior isn’t as upscale as a GTI’s or a Mini’s, but it isn’t a slum, either. And if the new Forte’s rear seats are not as commodious as those cars’—a better comparo here would be to the Forte 5-Door, with similarly roomy hindquarters—they’re still comfortable, and behind them lies a trunk that is bigger than expected.
Driving this Forte Sedan was something of a pleasant surprise too. The EX’s 4-cylinder engine is rated at 173 horsepower (LX models get a smaller 145HP four), which is sent through a 6-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting.
As RPM climbs, the motor sounds more and more thrashy, but there’s enough acceleration, and at cruising speed the noise level is fine. All Fortes have front-wheel drive, with the usual trade-off in ultimate cornering versus traction, and the balance between ride comfort and handling seems well-thought-out also.
The EX has Kia’s Flex Steering, which lets the driver choose between Normal, Comfort and Sport settings, to vary the quickness of the steering. We might select Comfort for a long drone down the interstate, then Sport for a blast through a mountain pass. It’s a unique feature at this price, but the differences are subtle and I forgot about it.
At an average of 65 MPH, we achieved 33.4 miles per gallon on the highway. In town, the averages dropped to 22 MPH and 23.3 MPG. Had I discovered Active ECO mode sooner, the city number might have been higher.
The Forte EX mixes economy of ownership and operation with some of the comforts and conveniences of much more expensive cars. If Kia added a bit more refinement (quieter engine, a cabin color other than flat black), this car would feel almost luxurious. As it is, after a few hundred miles, a horrifying thought creeps into the brain: Isn’t this really all the car any sane person truly needs?
Quite possibly. I have to go lie down now, and hum Tantric chants till my mind clears. And pray that some bahn-burning, insanely expensive supercar arrives soon to restore my mental balance.