Something we read recently asked: "Why are hatchbacks more popular in Europe? Do Americans associate hatchbacks with tiny and cheap?" After all, even Audi has a luxury hatchback. Well, now Kia's Forte comes in a hatch . . . excuse us, "5-door," that could change a few minds.
Appearance: The new-for-2011 Forte 5-door has an appealing — yes, European — look that doesn't scream economy hatchback. Its longish body is almost coupe-like (or is it Koup?) and its panels have subtle lines, especially where hood meets fender. Up front, there's the familiar Kia "tiger nose," but the back of the 5-door may be the most interesting visual: It sits high, like an SUV, with large taillights and visible undercarriage molding. The hatch is topped by a subtle spoiler.
Performance: We drove the Forte sedan when it came out last year and weren't impressed, mainly because of its manual transmission and perhaps the worst clutch we've encountered. (First gear should be renamed "stall." Avoid it.) But the optional 6-speed automatic — with paddle shifters, no less — in our tester is a night-and-day improvement. It smoothly shifts the 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower 4-cylinder, which is lively, if a little noisy, at higher revs. The front-wheel-drive hatchback handles the road well, but there's a bit of body roll if you try to challenge the "sports-tuned suspension." (Want to drive more conservatively? The ECO minder monitor will help you.) That said: Both the steering and the suspension are on the stiff side. Potholes? Steer clear.
Interior: Yes, it's plasticky, but the fit and finish is solid. Both the three-gauge instrument cluster and climate controls on the console are simple and user-friendly. The 12V power outlets, iPod and USB jacks are in the dash console and within easy reach. The cabin noise level isn't luxury-car quiet, especially when the engine revs hard, but it's not unbearable. Our tester, the optioned-out SX, had some features you don't always find in this price range, such as a sunroof, rearview camera, tilt/telescoping steering wheel (Peter found it a bit rough to the touch) and heated front seats. Even though the interior is a monochromatic gray, there are some attractive accents with leather-trimmed cloth seats stitched in red and sporty metallic pedals. The hatch itself is light and closes easily.
Our 3 favorites
Cargo space: The hatch has a spacious cargo area that seems built for your tail-gate needs; 19.4 cubic feet with the rear seats up.
Design: It's a handsome small car.
Features: Whether standard in SX trim or optional, there are a lot.
I'll take the fifth: Door, that is. The hatch makes it versatile. And the opening is low for easy loading.
Simple: Uncluttered design both inside and out.
Fuel economy: 32 on the highway.
The bottom line: With a starting price of $18,100, the Kia Forte 5-door is well worth a look if you need a versatile and stylish daily driver.