2014 Kia Forte proves ready to compete with market-leading Civic

The redesigned 2014 Kia Forte is a complete

The redesigned 2014 Kia Forte is a complete turnaround from the old car, now oozing style, and Kia's best driving refinement to date. (Credit: Cars.com / Kia)

The compact-car segment has been revitalized in as little as three years, adding value, style and new features in a segment previously filled with ho-hum commuter cars. Kia's previous-generation Forte is a competent car, but "competent" is the romantic equivalent of a woman referring to a guy as "nice." The old Forte was outshined immediately after its introduction by more stylish and refined cars like the Chevrolet Cruze, Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra, which bested the Forte in Cars.com's comparison of 2012 compact cars.

The redesigned 2014 Kia Forte is a complete turnaround from the old car, now oozing style, and Kia's best driving refinement to date.

Fortes are available in base LX and higher-optioned EX models for 2014. I drove a fully loaded 2014 Forte EX at a Kia event in Arizona; the LX wasn't available. Pricing is said to start at less than $16,000 for LX models with a manual transmission, though the Forte can be optioned with flashy upscale features uncommon to the segment that could jack up the price considerably.


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Unfortunately, full pricing and fuel-economy ratings aren't available at the time of this writing.

Styling

The new styling exhibits a smart, attractive blend of curves and angular lines, and not too much of either. A lower roofline and additional overall length and width give the new Forte a less frumpy appearance. Some of the Forte's look may seem familiar, such as the grille design used in other Kia products, though I'm having a hard time not seeing the Ford Focus sedan's rear end on the 2014 Forte. Regardless, the bright taillights give the rear a unique flash with 81 LEDs in each taillight.

All cars Kia provided to us were in an electric blue exterior paint color and shared equipment like the optional 17-inch wheels. So this Forte looks great, keeping in mind that we haven't seen lesser trim levels with wheel covers or a different color. I suspect the overall attractiveness won't wane much with smaller wheels or different paint.

Driving Refinement: Nailed It

Kia's 2014 Forte takes a huge leap forward in ride comfort, with a quieter interior and pleasant-riding suspension that doesn't thwack or ride cheaply over rough roads like the outgoing Forte and many of Kia's other small cars. The Forte rides with the composure and quietness of a larger car, an accomplishment the Focus and Chevrolet Cruze have also achieved.

The new chassis -- shared with the Hyundai Elantra -- is stiffer than the one on the outgoing Forte and has a longer wheelbase to improve ride quality. The new chassis teams with additional sound insulation for improved resistance to noise. The Forte resists those intrusions more proficiently than the Elantra.

Additionally, the Forte EX's more powerful engine is one of the most refined four-cylinders offered in any Kia, including the Optima. The 173-horsepower 2.0-liter is virtually silent while offering adequate power, but for an upgrade engine it's not exciting or performance-oriented in any way. The Forte's handling doesn't wow in the performance department, with more body roll than fun-to-drive small cars like the Focus and Dodge Dart. The Forte strikes a good balance of sportiness and comfort, though it leans toward the latter.

The less powerful engine, which should be the most popular choice, wasn't available for testing. The base 1.8-liter four-cylinder makes 148 hp and comes with a six-speed manual transmission standard or an available six-speed automatic. More expensive EX models receive the 2.0-liter with higher-tech direct fuel injection. The 2.0-liter pairs only with the automatic.

Interior

The inside mirrors Kia's successful midsize Optima sedan with a center console canted toward the driver for easier reach and use. The Forte doesn't make any significant interior quality strides, having soft-touch materials similar to the rest of the increasingly nice compact-car segment. A few touches stand out, including a soft-touch dashboard and carbon fiber pattern around the center console, replacing what could have been additional painted plastic.

Despite relatively unchanged overall interior volume, which is spacious for the class, the Forte's cabin takes a hit of almost an inch in front-seat headroom and 0.3 inch in the rear. Even so, at 6 feet tall, I was perfectly comfortable up front, as was my co-pilot of the day who measured 6 feet 5 inches. In the rear, though, the low seating position elevated my knees more than I'd like.

Visibility is a mixed bag, but not in the traditional way of obstructive pillars. Over-the-shoulder visibility to the sides is actually great, with additional quarter windows added to the rear doors. The rearward visibility is minimized because of the high trunk line and short rear window. An available backup camera helps when reversing. Shorter drivers should pay attention to rearward visibility to see if it's a deal-breaker.

A Trunk Golfers Will Love

At 14.9 cubic feet, the Forte's trunk is generously sized for a compact car. The Cruze's trunk is 15.4 cubic feet, though others like the Honda Civic (12.5 cubic feet) and Ford Focus (13.2 cubic feet) come up short. The Elantra is 14.8 cubic feet. Big trunk measurements are dandy, but trunk size doesn't mean squat if the opening is small. The Forte's trunk opening is extremely wide and gains 2 inches of width for 2014. It's ready to swallow golf clubs, strollers and other wide-load items. All models feature a 60/40-split folding rear seat.

Features

Today's compact-car shoppers have it good. Many convenience features are newly available, but you can expect to pay for them. The new Forte leads the way with niceties formerly seen only in upscale cars: Heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel, ventilated driver's seat, 4.2-inch dashboard display, power side mirrors with turn-signal indicators, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, 10-way power adjustable driver's seat with two memory positions, smart key with proximity access and more are options on the 2014 Forte.

Many of the upscale features are available only on the pricier EX, including the standard next-generation UVO system. UVO with eServices is powered by Google and uses a smartphone application to provide services like connecting to 911 when airbags deploy, enhanced roadside assistance, car diagnostics and more. By using a smartphone, Kia is able to include these services at no charge; typically, features like OnStar have their own cellular hardware onboard. UVO is launching with Apple iOS compatibility first, followed by an Android application.

Standard LX equipment for the sub-$16,000 starting price includes 15-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, projector-beam headlights with halogen bulbs, USB input, Bluetooth phone connectivity, steering-wheel audio controls, air conditioning, power windows and locks and more. Some notable features missing from the LX are remote keyless entry, cruise control and automatic transmission.

Kia hinted at pricing at the event, saying a base LX with the Popular Package that adds 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless entry and a sliding front armrest should cost around $18,500 with an automatic transmission. The fully loaded EX that I drove with leather, navigation and more will likely retail well north of $20,000 when pricing is eventually announced.

Safety

The 2014 Kia Forte hasn't been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the time of this writing. Standard safety features include the federally required antilock brakes, electronic stability control, front airbags and tire pressure monitoring system. The Forte also has front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants as well as hill start assist as standard equipment.

2014 Kia Forte in the Market

Few cars blend style and high-quality ride comfort in the compact class as well as the Forte; those that do go by the names of Civic, Cruze and Elantra, which are three of the most popular cars in the segment. The Forte should be perfectly capable of competing with the segment's top dogs as long as Kia delivers competitive fuel economy and value.

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