South Korean automaker Kia is trying to increase its visibility in the minds of consumers — think offbeat commercials and life-size sock monkeys. So, quick, name a Kia model. Still thinking? Then maybe the Forte small sedan (there's also a two-door "Koup") will be the name that sticks in your mind.
Appearance: When Lyra first saw a Forte on the road, she did a double-take. That's a Kia? Unlike its previous small sedan, the Spectra, the Forte has a more European-influenced design, and it looks edgier than some other Asian compact sedans in its class.
Interior: The Forte has an attractive, if generic, interior with a mix of hard plastics and textured vinyl befitting a car in its price range. The cockpit features simple, easy-to-read gauges — except for a too-small radio display — and black leather seats and red-stitched door panels that reminded Peter of the last Pontiac he drove. The Forte has ample headroom, but it can be slightly cramped for taller passengers in an otherwise spacious backseat. Something else that's nice: a long list of standard features in the sporty SX model that includes Bluetooth, auto-dim rearview mirror and Sirius satellite radio. Our tester had optional heated front seats. There also are four cup holders up front.
Performance: The good news is that the Forte SX's 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower four-cylinder has surprising pull — we had to double-check that it wasn't a six- cylinder mill. Combine that with its light weight and a sport-tuned suspension, and we both found the Forte to be a more-than-able interstate cruiser with plenty of passing power. Then there's the mileage, which is rated at 22 in the city and 32 on the highway. Now the bad news: We drove a Forte equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. We normally love us some shifting, but this one frustrated us in a way that none of the performance cars we've driven ever did. The clutch action is so light that the car is ridiculously easy to stall. Peter drove the Forte on a couple of spring-training trips, to Port Charlotte and Kissimmee, and it took him all weekend to figure out exactly how the car liked to get out of first gear. Better give it plenty of gas before you even think of letting out that third pedal. And when you do, let it out slowly.
Our 3 favorites
Trunk space: It's really roomy for this class — 14.7 cubic feet.
Safety: Standard features include air bags, curtains, stability controls and ABS.
Price: The base LX starts at $13,695.
MPG: 22 city, 32 highway. Not bad.
Sporty ride: 173 horsepower on a lightweight car, along with the sport-tuned suspension, give you lots of pep.
European look: Design team led by Peter Schreyer (formerly of Audi/VW).
The bottom line: The Forte should help establish Kia in a competitive class of small sedans. But the manual transmission leaves a lot to be desired. Although we haven't driven the automatic, we'd be inclined to go with that option.