Small cars such as the Kia Forte are at their best when they are shaped in the most practical body style possible. Not everyone subscribes to this postulation, which is why Kia and other automakers make sedan as well as hatchback or wagon versions of their compact automobiles.
For maximizing a minimal amount of space, especially with the rear seats folded down, the Kia Forte5 can literally work wonders by providing more passenger and cargo room than its sedan relation. The front-wheel-drive compact wagon also does it with more style, beginning with the front end where an aggressive-looking open-mouth nosepiece replaces the Forte sedan's more traditional grille, which is different again from the 2014 Forte Koup.
Kia's design team, headed by ace shape maker Peter Schreyer, has added to the wagon's aggressive nature by reducing the rear body overhang several inches, while pushing the left and right wheels as far apart as possible. The overall effect is that of an attractive Euro-style sport wagon, which is exactly what Kia was aiming for. As well, the wagon has been given a suspension setup that's tuned for sportier handling.
The Forte5's interior isn't quite as dramatic, but at least the dashboard and control panel appear intelligently laid-out, including large and easy-to-read gauges plus a generously sized display screen for the optional navigation system. For passengers, especially those in the rear seat, the wagon's two-inch stretch between the front and rear wheels provides some extra legroom.
Adding to the sport-wagon theme is a pair of stout little powerplants. The starting-point EX runs with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 173 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque. The sportier side of the Forte5's demeanor is demonstrated with the up-level SX's turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder that pumps out 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. Both engines use direct injection, whereby fuel is sprayed directly into the cylinders under extremely high pressure and not through the intake manifold. Most automakers are adopting direct injection as a way to increase power (important on small-displacement engines) while reducing fuel consumption and curbing emissions.
Kia (and its Hyundai parent) has so far resisted the growing shift to continuously variable transmissions that appears to be spreading throughout the industry. A traditional six-speed automatic is your only choice with the 2.0, while the turbo 1.6 can be ordered with a six-speed manual gearbox as well as an available six-speed automatic.
A hallmark of the Forte5 - in fact of all Kia models - is an extensive level of base equipment. Among the standard EX niceties are air conditioning, alloy (not steel) 16-inch wheels, rear-view camera and a system that allows the driver to vary the turning resistance delivered by the power-steering unit between Standard, Sport and Comfort settings.
Along with the turbo engine, the SX adds 18-inch wheels, keyless pushbutton start, LED taillamps, outside mirrors with downward-facing puddle lamps and metal-trimmed pedals.
What sets the Forte5 apart from its competitors is the extensive array of luxury-class extras that are rarely, if ever, available on compact cars. In addition to the more commonplace power-operated sunroof and touch-screen navigation system, you can order leather-covered seats with front and rear cooling and ventilation, a 10-way power driver's seat with memory presets, a heated steering wheel, auto-dimming rearview mirror and high-intensity discharge headlights.
Surprisingly, there's no high-end audio upgrade or any of the expanding number of electronic crash-avoiding safety equipment (such as blind-spot or backup traffic alerts) that are just beginning to trickle down from on high, as in from larger, high-priced models.
Those features plus others are probably not far off as smaller cars such as the Forte series begin attracting buyers seeking the maximum level creature comforts as well as fuel efficiency. That's what makes the Forte5's sporty character and hatchback-practical shape all the more enticing.
2014 Kia Forte5
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive mid-size sedan
Engines (hp): 2.0-liter DOHC I4 (173); 1.6-liter DOHC I4, turbocharged (201)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual (std.1.6); six-speed automatic (std. 2.0, opt. 1.6)
Market position: Compact hatchback models continue to gain popularity, spurred on by versions that provide more powerful engine choices that deliver a sportier driving experience than their sedan counterparts.
Points: Great looks make it a winner right off the bat; Optional turbocharged I4 performs well in other Kia/Hyundai models, too; More available premium content than any other car in its class; If stowage space is an issue, check out the boxier Kia Soul; Providing a Forte5 version with 50 more horsepower would make it competitive with Ford Focus ST and VW GTI.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy): 24/36 (est., 2.0)
Base price (incl. destination) $20,000 (est.)
Ford Focus hatchback
Base price: $19,900
Sporty driver especially with the ST's 252-horsepower turbo I4.
Mazda3 i Sport
Base price: $19,750
All-new 2014 edition has sharp looks and thrifty four-cylinder engines.
Subaru Impreza 2.0i
Base price: $19,200
Standard AWD hatchback comes in base or hiked-up XV Crosstrek edition.