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Kia Forte: Raising expectations

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I was prepared for a letdown the first time I drove the 2014 Kia Forte. It was not my fault. I’d been set up, first by an afternoon in the $285,000 Rolls-Royce Wraith and then a week in the Cadillac CTS ($39,990 base/$66,000 as-tested). 

Forget for a moment that Kia will launch its own $50,000 K900 luxury sedan next year; the brand is known not for mind-bending lux but for entry-level value. How could the humble Kia ($16,700) hope to measure up?

A funny thing happened, though. Perhaps it was because I knew that the Kia was the only one of the three cars I might ever own. Maybe I was relieved that I could make the navigation and infotainment systems work without effort. Or maybe it was the Forte’s lack of pretension. In any case, the Forte quickly won me over. 

Actually, the Forte surprised me — largely, I suppose, because the first-gen Forte had been a mid-pack underachiever. Nice sheet metal; otherwise just a car.

Since that car debuted in 2009, the compact class has exploded with strong new entries. Being left behind is not an option, so Kia reengineered the Forte from the ground up. It’s now longer, lower and wider. Overall interior quality is vastly improved and new insulation reduces cabin noise to unexpectedly low levels.

Cabin space is largely unchanged, but remains plenty roomy for four adults. Despite the stylish sloping roofline, there’s even decent rear-seat headroom.

Though it was a massive step down from my previous rides, nothing about the Forte seemed haphazard, cheesy or off-putting. 

The base LX trim is powered by a 148-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder that can be mated with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. The EX ($20,200) gets a 173-hp four-cylinder that can be had only with the automatic.

All the engine/transmission combos produce city mileage in the mid-20s and highway mileage in the mid-30s. Kia could likely eke out another mile or two with a continuously variable transmission, but the existing automatic is so good it would be a shame to see it go.

A sizable standard features list includes air, full power accessories, Bluetooth phone connectivity and USB/iPod/auxiliary input jack. My loaded EX tester, complete with the Premium Package (leather seats, push-button start, heated and ventilated front seats) and Technology Package (xenon headlights, navigation, electroluminescent gauges, heated rear seats) rang the bell at $25,515.

There’s nothing remotely sporty about the Forte. Its MacPherson-strut front and twist-beam rear suspension provides a decent balance ride and handling, with a bias toward comfort. The EX features a three-setting electric power-assisted steering system, but it’s essentially meaningless. 

Two new models are more likely to interest enthusiasts, one a hatchback, the other a coupe. Due at dealers any day, they will be offered with a 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter engine, sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch wheels.

I don’t expect that either one will let me down.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Kia Forte EX sedan
Vehicle base price: $15,900
Trim level base price: $19,400
As tested: $25,515
Optional equipment included 17-inch allow wheels; sunroof; leather seats; driver’s seat memory; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; push-button start; heated steering wheel; auto-dimming mirror with Homelink; front-door-handle pocket lights; puddle lights; engine immobilizer; xenon HID headlights; dual-zone automatic climate control; navigation with Sirius Traffic; electroluminescent gauges; LED taillights; carpeted floor mats.
EPA ratings: 24 city/36 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified