The current state of sedans is one of survival. Like frazzled frequent fliers trying desperately to make it to their final destinations, in the end, much of how and when they get there depends largely on other factors. You may make it to the gate, but after that, you’re at the mercy of elements out of your control.
And that’s where I am, sitting at gate C18 in Dulles. I’ve spent more time waiting for the plane, waiting on the plane, and waiting at a new gate than what would entail the entire flight time to Detroit. And the sedan, more specifically the compact car, is going through a similar standstill with regards to time and place.
The U.S. market continues its love affair with the crossover SUV – the flashy, supposedly more practical and utilitarian alternative to the longtime, ever-reliable sedan. According to industry reports, the market share for compacts was down 3.8 percent last year and continues to drop. The first quarter of 2018 has seen sales decline 7.7 percent. But that’s still 2.2 million little guys scurrying about doing their thang.
So, enter Kia doing what Kia does: embracing a challenge. Having grown from nothing – no design, no technology, no top safety picks – the South Korean automaker now easily clears half a million vehicle sales a year and steadily holds a bit more than 3% market share. Not bad for a company which, in 1993, sold only 692 cars during its first year of U.S. sales.
Which brings us to the redesigned 2019 Kia Forte. Thanks to the dynamic duo of performance chief Albert Biermann and design maestro Peter Schreyer, it’s no surprise that the all-new Forte resembles a baby Stinger, Kia’s surprisingly engaging sports sedan.
With its cowl point pushed back five inches and rear deck shortened, the Forte showcases a long, lean hood with a similar fastback profile. The head- and taillight assemblies have been redesigned as well and feature separate turn signal and reverse indicators that are located within new gloss-black lower valances in the front and rear bumpers.
But the suits at Kia are quick to point out that although the Stinger resemblance is unmistakable (especially in that Micro Blue Pearl hero color), the Forte’s performance prowess is more aligned with its segment standard: a non-turbocharged compact car.
In fact, the powertrain remains unchanged in the 2019 Forte, which carries over the previous generation’s 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Output is still 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. However, thanks to a new 6-speed manual and in-house developed continuously variable transmission, fuel economy numbers have increased.
The base FE model is EPA-rated at 27 city, 37 highway, and 31 combined mpg when paired with the stick shift or 31/41/35 mpg with the CVT. Other trim levels receive slightly different mpg numbers (30/40/34) due to their larger wheel-and-tire combinations. The Forte outperforms nearly all segment competitors’ 2.0-liter engines except the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, where continuously variable transmissions offer combined mpg of 40 and 42, respectively.
When testing the Forte during Kia’s media preview, I indeed averaged a cumulative 34 mpg during the 100-mile drive route, maneuvering through traffic-laden downtown Pittsburgh, green-canopied hillsides of north West Virginia, and curvy back roads that traverse between Ohio and Pennsylvania state lines.
I drove the S and then the EX models, both vehicles identical performance-wise. And while I mixed it up between the three available drive modes (Normal, Sport, and Smart), I kept it mostly in Smart, which adjusts shift points and steering stiffness based on driving habits. Although it does help with fuel economy, Smart is less an Eco mode than it is a combination Normal and Sport.
But can a Forte even be sporty, you wonder? A little bit.
Sharing the same platform as the Hyundai Elantra, the 2019 Forte is manufactured at Kia’s Monterrey plant in northern Mexico. The frame is stronger and features 26% more torsional stiffness thanks to its 54% composition of advanced high-strength steel. And starting at 2,707 pounds, the all-new Forte is the lightest of all compact cars. The Civic is next on the scale at 2,742 lbs. with the Subaru Impreza weighing in at 2,974 lbs.
But don’t call this a rebadge as the corporate cousins offer different drive trains, dynamics, and features. My drive featured various road surfaces and a surprising amount of slight but noticeable elevation changes. And the Forte handled everything with aplomb. Handling definitely leans toward sporty but it’s still comfortable.
Unfortunately, the gas-and-go from a dead stop was uninspiring, even with traction and stability controls disabled. But unless you’re looking to drag race at every stoplight, this is hardly an issue. Once the vehicle is securely revving in the low gears, acceleration is perfectly acceptable enough for on-ramps, merging, passing, etc.
And although stiffer, the Forte’s suspension absorbed the roads well. No loose fillings were rattled out when traveling over uneven surfaces or the occasional surprise pothole. Noise, vibration and harshness is improved, too. For example, the front windows now feature 4 mm-thick glass, an increase of 0.5 mm. Sounds small but the noise reduction is 5 decibels from the outgoing Forte.
Kia’s new CVT mimics a 7-speed automatic and shifts without complaints. Should you switch to the manual mode and forget to upshift or downshift (it happens), the vehicle will automatically change or hold gears based on engine needs. Which makes me wonder if it’s really a manual mode, but never mind.
What I can’t stop raving about, however, is, well, stopping. The Forte’s brakes are beyond good. Even with different drivers and some exuberant commuting, the stopping power remained smooth and even throughout the day. The travel length and the amount of force required to brake almost seemed individually tuned. Why can’t every car be like this?
Starting at $18,585 (including $895 destination), one might think the base Forte is equipped with steel wheels, a manual transmission, and basic things like, oh, a steering wheel. But the Forte FE includes some unexpected but everyday standards: manual-adjustable cloth seats; dual-zone automatic climate control; an 8-inch touchscreen display with Android Auto/Apple CarPlay integration; USB/AUX input jacks; Bluetooth; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; cruise control; and power doors, locks, and windows. (Yes, there are still new vehicles out there with manual locks, roll-up windows, and AM/FM-only radios. Gah.)
Additionally, Kia went balls to the wall on safety. Forward collision warning, forward collision avoidance assistance, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and driver attention warning are all standard. The EX trim receives additional advanced driver-assistance systems like lane change assist, blind-spot collision warning, and rear cross-traffic alert as standard. High-beam assist, reverse parking distance warning, and adaptive cruise control are available add-ons.
Although Kia has set base prices for each Forte trim level, window stickers weren’t available for the vehicles I drove. But based on amenities, I estimate the S model with Premium Package to be around $22,285.
Meanwhile, the EX starts at $22,885 and includes 17-inch alloy wheels, heated outside mirrors with LED turn signals, keyless entry, hands-free trunk operation, push-button start, additional USB ports, leatherette upholstery, a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, and heated and ventilated front seats. But my test car also had extras such as projector LED headlights, a 4.2-inch color LCD driver information cluster, navigation, a Harman/Kardon 320-watt premium audio system, a power moonroof, and wireless charging. So figure close to $26,000.
While there is no launch control feature for the Forte, there will be an EX Launch Edition model available later this year that will start at $26,095.
North American buyers are currently focused on the next best crossover of any size, but the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share the same infatuation nor are their roads suited for larger vehicles. And like those anxious passengers finally boarding a much-delayed flight, Kia is playing the long game.
Moving 117,596 units last year, the Forte was the automaker’s best-selling vehicle—a crown usually worn by the ever-popular Soul multi-activity vehicle and followed closely by the Optima midsize sedan. But according to Kia, it’s worth noting that 40% of Forte buyers are first-time car buyers. And as the average new-car transaction continues to creep upwards (Kelley Blue Book pegged it at $36,113 at the end of 2017), how much car do most licensed drivers really need?
By choosing a car like the new Kia Forte, not only could buyers save 10-grand off the average new-car premium and receive some premium-level pampering in return (ventilated seats!), but they’d probably save themselves some gas money and garage space, too. When they eventually come around and realize that their crossover might be more vehicle than they need, the Kia Forte (and the other dozen or so compacts still around) will be waiting for them to board.
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