Until recently, Kia automobiles stood out about as much as a 12-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert — which is to say, not at all. Now the automaker is getting noticed in a big way with a fresh portfolio of vehicles boasting bold styling, solid performance and impressive overall quality. And one of the standouts among this group is the 2011 Kia Forte.
Thanks to stewardship by a former Audi designer, the Forte wears crisp, tasteful lines that help it get noticed in a segment seldom known for distinctive styling. There’s more than just good looks, too, including a 156-horsepower base engine, impressive fuel economy, solid build quality and many thoughtful standard features. Of course there is also Kia’s confidence-inspiring 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Unlike many of its competitors, the Forte is also available as a coupe (dubbed the “Koup”), which provides an extra dollop of style for those shopping this economy-minded segment. And this year brings another body style, a four-door hatchback offering greater practicality. The 2011 Forte also receives a standard six-speed manual transmission on all models and a new six-speed automatic. The latter features improvements in both performance and fuel efficiency over its precursor, a tall-geared unit that had but four speeds to work with.
Our only real gripe with the Forte is that the LX and EX prove rather uninspiring to drive. But the SX’s sport-tuned suspension and more powerful engine make it another animal entirely, and one that should satisfy those seeking some driving kicks in their affordable compact. All things considered, the 2011 Kia Forte presents a legitimate choice for a small sedan, hatchback or coupe alongside mainstays like the 2011 Honda Civic, 2011 Mazda 3, 2011 Scion tC and 2011 Toyota Corolla.
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Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Kia Forte is available in three body styles: four-door sedan, four-door hatchback and two-door coupe (“Koup”). The sedan is available in LX, EX and SX trims, while the hatchback and Koup come in EX and SX trims only.
Standard equipment on the base LX includes 15-inch steel wheels, a six-way-adjustable driver seat, a tilt steering column, 60/40-split-folding rear seat, Bluetooth connectivity and a four-speaker CD/MP3 audio system (with satellite radio and USB/auxiliary audio jacks). The EX adds keyless entry, air-conditioning, full power accessories, a six-speaker audio system and cruise control, while the EX Koup adds 16-inch alloy wheels, firmer suspension tuning, sport front seats and a sportier exhaust note.
The SX trim comes equipped with a more powerful 2.4-liter engine, a sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, wider tires, foglights, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, an enhanced gauge cluster, a trip computer, unique cloth upholstery and metallic interior trim. In addition to the above, the SX Koup also gets unique 17-inch alloys, a sportier version of the SX sedan’s suspension, and illuminated red speaker surrounds that can blink in time to the beat.
Options on the LX include air-conditioning and the split-folding rear seat, but no power accessories. The EX has an expanded range of options, including a sunroof, 16-inch alloy wheels (sedan only) and leather upholstery with heated front seats. A Fuel Economy package for the EX sedan adds electric power steering, low-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic enhancements. SX options include a sunroof and heated leather seats, while a Technology package offering keyless ignition/entry, a navigation system, automatic climate control and chrome exterior door handles is available on the EX and SX.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2011 Kia Forte LX and EX get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 156 hp and 144 pound-feet of torque. The SX uses a 2.4-liter that delivers 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on all but the hatchbacks, which come with a six-speed automatic (the latter is an option on all models).
The EPA estimates for the LX and EX with the manual transmission are 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined. The numbers edge up to an impressive 26/36/29 with the automatic. Opting for the Fuel Economy package bumps the EX sedan figures to 27/37/30.
Kia estimates the more powerful Forte SX at 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway with the manual and 23/32 (23/31 for the Koup) with the automatic.
Standard Forte safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, front side airbags, side curtain airbags and active front head restraints.
The Kia Forte has not been rated using the government’s new, more strenuous 2011 crash testing procedures. However, its 2010 ratings (which aren’t comparable to the new tests) for the sedan were five stars (out of five) in frontal-impact tests for driver and passenger. In the side-impact tests, the Forte earned five stars for the driver and four stars for rear passengers. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Forte sedan received the top score of “Good” in that agency’s frontal-offset, side-impact and roof strength tests.
In Edmunds brake testing, a Forte Koup came to a stop from 60 mph in a very respectable 118 feet.
Interior Design and Special Features
The Kia Forte’s dashboard design doesn’t raise the bar aesthetically — frankly, it’s pretty boring — but it includes gauges that are easy to read, a clean layout and generally intuitive audio and climate controls. Standard Bluetooth connectivity across the lineup is also a nice touch. Materials quality is on par with the rest of this segment. Unfortunately, a telescoping steering column is only available on the SX, meaning taller drivers might have a hard time getting comfortable in the LX and EX.
Rear legroom is good for this class, though the Koup’s rear quarters are predictably tighter and lack the sedan’s center armrest. Cargo space is plentiful in the coupe and sedan, measuring 12.6 cubic feet and 14.7 cubic feet, respectively. The hatchback offers 19.4 cubic feet with the rear seats up and more if needed when they’re folded.
The 2011 Kia Forte isn’t exactly a driver’s car in LX or EX guise. It’s prone to body roll during enthusiastic cornering and the steering is rather numb. The SX model’s sport-tuned suspension, however, makes for a night-and-day difference. It lacks the precision of a Honda Civic Si, for example, but the SX’s overall driving dynamics put it at the head of the economy class.
In any trim, the ride is comfortable enough, and with the exception of intrusive road noise on some surfaces, the Forte is a confident highway cruiser. With either of the new six-speed transmissions, the Forte’s performance satisfies; the automatic even offers a manual-shift feature for those who occasionally enjoy changing gears themselves.