It's no secret that the Kia Forte has proven to be a key cog in Kia's long term plan of revising its image. Once known for being an offering that thrived on being cheap and cheerful when it was released nearly a decade ago, the Forte has morphed into an intriguing compact sedan offering. When we last met the Forte, it was late last year, and while it had some good things going for it, the car was aging quickly against entries like the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus.
Kia plans to reverse all that with the 2019 Forte, but can a new platform and more expressive exterior styling help the third generation Kia Forte seize the opportunity generated by the departure of the Focus from U.S. dealerships? Or is the Forte still a step or two behind other benchmarks in a slowly shrinking segment of the market?
"Stinger Effect" Breathes New Life Into Forte's Vibe:
The exterior styling of the 2019 Kia Forte is a massive improvement over the last generation model, with Kia claiming that alot of inspiration came from the recently released, and highly acclaimed Stinger performance sedan. Kia boldly calls this the "Stinger Effect" and after spending time with the Kia on the winding roads of Pittsburgh, we are firm believers of this interesting phenomenon. The front fascia is arguably where the bulk of this DNA transplant is found with an all new lower front bumper, revised headlights, and a tweaked hood offering more infusions of boldness and performance. The lower front valence in particular has shades of Infiniti Q50 in it, and is arguably our favorite styling highlight.
Kia designers extended this theme to the rear fascia which features all new tail lights, and has a decidedly more modern look to it thanks to an Audi-esque red reflector element that connects the two tail lights together for a more cohesive look that also makes the Forte appear bigger than it really is.
While observers will have to look very hard to spot the Stinger connection, the Forte is still an attractive compact sedan that is certainly a welcome alternative to the aesthetically impaired Honda Civic, as well as the dull Chevrolet Cruze.
New wheel choices also help enhance the Forte's "Play it Loud" attitude, and while the base FE model arrives with 15-inch steel wheels, expect the majority of Kia buyers to opt for either the 16-inch or 17-inch alloy wheel offerings for a decidedly modern look.
Sportiness and Refinement Amp Up Forte's Value Quotient:
The interior of the 2019 Forte has been revamped, and aims to deliver more comfort, refinement, and technology to buyers. When we had the opportunity to nestle into the front seats of our tester, we immediately noticed just how much more comfort has been engineered into these impressive thrones. During our last encounter with the Forte, our 2017 grade tester dubiously became the only car to formally injure this author due to inadequate lower cushion support, which caused my back to be thrown out of commission for several days.
Thankfully, that did NOT happen with the 2019 model, which features better side bolstering, upper back support, and finally beefs up lumbar support to eliminate that back-breaking flaw. The front center console is taller and longer which helps enhance comfort on long term jaunts. Even the rear seats embrace the new-found push towards comfort, with the bottom cushion being raised by 5mm to enhance view out the rear, and create more space at the same time. This helps create more headroom, and is proof that every millimeter does indeed matter in the grander scheme of things.
The rest of the cabin is ergonomically sound, with the Stinger's circular air vents being grafted in to help enhance the sporty vibes generated by the red on black interior. Keen observers will notice that the 2019 Forte is more expensive than the outgoing model. This is mainly due to the new standard features that have been baked into this iteration of Forte (some of which may surprise you.)
For instance, every Forte comes standard with an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation being an optional extra. All models also feature standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability with Kia openly admitting that these features are needed to cater to younger buyers. Each Forte also arrives with a suite of driving assistance aides with included goodies such as forward collision avoidance, driver attention warning, lane keep/warning assistance, and so much more.
Within all this standard fare, Kia still managed to find room for several compelling pieces of optional equipment. In addition to the fore-mentioned navigation capability, Forte buyers can also install a 320-watt Harmon Kardon premium audio system in top level EX models, as well as heated and ventilated front seats. There was a time where such options would be unheard of in a Kia model, but with Kia embracing its role as a provider of the unexpected, it is refreshing to see Kia boldly going outside its comfort zone to enhance its overall appeal to new buyers.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll, But Where's The Beef?
However, the biggest improvement here is noticed when you have a chance to get behind the wheel, and take the Forte through twistier sections of pavement. While it is not a sport sedan, the Forte is still a fun car to push hard. It did a relatively good job staying composed in high speed corners, with reduced levels of understeer when compared to its outgoing predecessor.
The steering has been re-calibrated, and while Normal mode felt too over-boosted for our tastes, our tester was truly in its element when placed into Sport mode. The Stinger's vibes are evident here, and the steering was direct and playful in Pennysilvania's mountain roads, which cannot be said for many of its rivals.
A key trait that helps enhance this composed feeling is the chassis that underpins the Forte. The body structure is very similar to the Hyundai Elantra, but Kia claims that the Forte stands out by offering several improvements, including 26% more stiffness as well as adding 54% more advanced high strength steel.
Kia claims that the resulting tweaks helped improve noise, harshness, and vibration characteristics. These improvements were noticeable, with the interior being quieter than before, this is mainly due to the 4 mm thick glass that helps drown out unwanted wind noise.
Wheelbase is unchanged at 106.3 inches, but the revised suspension geometry allows the Forte to better cope with rough roads, and improve handling behavior at the same time. A nod to its budget oriented mission can be found in the rear suspension, with the Forte adopting a coupled torsion beam axle rear suspension versus the independent rear suspension that is commonplace in more sporting entries.
With all these handling upgrades, it's a pity that our lone complaint with the 2019 Forte centers on what lurks under the hood. For now, all 2019 Forte's are powered by a revised version of the outgoing car's 2.0 liter naturally aspirated four cylinder engine. An all new cooled Exhaust Gas Recirculation system and oil-cooled pistons help enhance fuel efficiency but do little to enhance the spunky Kia's fun factor.
Power and torque remain unchanged at 147 and 132 lb-ft respectively. While these figures are commendable for the segment, the superb chassis practically screams for more power, and we think that if Kia made a model that incorporates the Soul's 1.6 liter turbocharged four cylinder, it could help deliver a more complete driving experience, and be a neat Civic Si competitor at the same time.
A six speed manual transmission is standard issue, but higher trims get access to Kia's newest CVT automatic. Just don't call it a CVT in front of Kia reps who prefer to call it the "IVT" (Intelligent Variable Transmission.)
Kia claims that the IVT was designed to behave like a traditional automatic, but in Normal mode, we noticed some typical CVT traits including a slight delay in full throttle response, as well as a slight delay after you get off the throttle (we actually caught our tester occasionally accelerating for a split second when we took our foot off the gas.)
The IVT succeeds in its mission in Sport mode, especially by allowing realistic shift behavior via the gear lever. It behaves like an 8-speed automatic this way, and it does a good job holding gears the driver selects (even near the red line.) It's just a pity that Kia engineers chose to not equip the Forte with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, otherwise, Sport mode would've been much more enjoyable, especially with all the magic wielded by the chassis.
Braking is smooth and linear, but we have to dock a point for Kia engineers switching the rear disc brakes with decidedly more basic solid drum brakes.
Vale Still The Name of the Game:
As mentioned, pricing has gone up for the 2019 model year with the base Forte MT model starting at $17,690 and the fuel efficient IVT FE wielding a $18,590 MSRP. Choose to opt for the LXS and S models and this is where some of the Forte's features start to become a factor. These two models also help the Forte break the $20,000 barrier with both starting at $19,090 and $20,190 respectively.
Lastly EX models like our tester start at $21,990, with the first year EX Launch Edition pumping up the volume to $25,200.
These figures are a bit steep for a vehicle in its class, especially in the face of rivals such as the Nissan Sentra and Chevrolet Cruze, but Launch Edition models feature trim exclusive Fire Orange paint, as well as other minor differences to set them apart from other Fortes and bring a spicier sizzle to the ownership experience.
At the end of the day, it is ultimately the whole package that buyers will look at when they are shopping for their next car, and the 2019 Kia Forte certainly has the right equipment for the job. Its exterior styling is bolder and much more expressive than ever before, while its underpinnings can finally live up to the Forte's visual appeal.
Hopefully a timely infusion of extra horsepower can transform the Forte into a true all rounder, and we look forward to sampling it again when that indeed happens.