* Model: Kia Forte EX
* Exterior color: Blue
* Interior color: Gray
* Engine: 2.0-liter direct injection
* Horsepower: 173
* Transmission: six-speed automatic
* Fuel economy: 36 mpg highway, 28 mpg city
* Dealer: Pye Kia (Dalton, Ga.)
* Price (as tested): $20,840
Kia, the feisty South Korean car company, needs its redesigned Forte compact car to be a hit in order to continue its climb as one of the fastest-growing nameplates in America.
With the Optima midsized sedan and the crossover SUV Sorento driving Kia sales (now over a half-million units a year in the U.S.), the Forte would help complete the auto-maker's portfolio of new products.
A few days ago we zipped down to Pye Kia in Dalton, Ga., to sample both the new Kia and the new Cadenza full-size luxury sedan reviewed in this space last week.
It's always dangerous to drive an economy car just after you step out of a vehicle costing twice as much. Oddly, jumping in the little Forte was in no way a let down. Part of this is the striking family resemblance among all modern Kias, the handiwork of former Audi designer Peter Schreyer who has transformed the Kia brand from a fleet of Bland Bettys into, for my money, the best-looking family of autos on the block.
With its good looks, punchy 2.0-liter direct-injection engine, and suite of upscale features, the Forte will immediately vault into the top tier of modern compact cars.
In a head-to-head test of performance and styling organized recently by USA Today, Cars.com and MotorWeek, the Forte took top honors in a field that included the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Impreza, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla. Granted, in such tests there's sometimes a new-kid-on-the-block bias, but the point is that leading car critics have given the Forte a nice little halo to wear as it enters the market.
The Forte slots comfortably in the sweet spot of compact car pricing with the base LX sedan starting at $15,900 and the nicely-equipped EX beginning at $19,400. Two new styles: a two-door coup and a hatchback are in the pipeline.
STYLING AND FEATURES
Our test car, a blue EX with gray interior, looks like a sculpted bullet with a coup-like roof-line and an aggressive stance that screams Baby Optima. Fitted with 17-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels with black spokes the Forte looks both sporty and sophisticated - which is tough to pull off. Any more, it's hard to tell an upper-end compact from a luxury car. Case in point: the Forte has available puddle lamps - little spotlights that shine down from the side mirrors to show you the ground beneath your car. Only a couple of years ago, this was an option seen only on exotic luxury cars. For crying out loud, you can get a Forte with a driver's seat that's both heated and ventilated.
Our test car was equipped with remote keyless entry, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lights, carbon fiber inlays in the dash and chrome accents on the door pulls. Pinstriping in the cloth seats gives the cabin a youthful, hip appearance. Automotive journalists who have spent lots of drive time in the new Forte says it has one of the best infotainment interfaces in the industry - by contrast some of today's luxury cars are so complicated that they are essentially useless you're an IT specialist.
Outside, the Forte's stand is low and muscular. The honeycomb grille looks like a junior version of the Optima's gorgeous mug, character lines bisect the door handles and unify the design front to back.
On a test drive on the bypasses around Dalton, the Forte was nimble, even eager. With the 2.0-liter directed injection powerplant, the Forte makes 173 horsepower, more than enough to inject a little fun into the proceedings. There are three steering modes that dial in different weights, depending on your mood and whether you're climbing a twisty mountain road or roaring down a freeway. The less-expensive LX comes with a 1.8 liter engine.
Gas mileage in the EX is a respectable 36 mpg highway and 28 mpg city.
For the money, the Forte is quite a package, with equal measures of fun and refinement. Our EX test car has an MSRP of $20,840 and comes with Kia's outstanding 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty. Perhaps more importantly the Forte has a five-year/60,000-mile basic bumper-to-bumper warranty; which means for the term of most car loans the Forte is a bulletproof investment. For good measure, Kia throws in a five-year/60,000-mile roadside assistance plan.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.