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First Drive: 2010 Kia Forte [Review]

Kia and parent company Hyundai have been on a wild tear of late and it shows no signs of letting up. The most recent example of this is the stylish new entry-level Forte sedan that the automaker hopes will steal some sales away from the class-leading rivals from Japan.

Fully tanked up with expensive coffee, we set out to drive the new Forte in much the same manner as a typical Seattleite would. That's not to say we would place ourselves in the fast lane and dawdle along, becoming so-called keepers of the speed. More on those slugs later. Along the way, we found ourselves flying past Boeing Aircraft's facilities in nearby Everett, where a monstrous 747 Dreamlifter sat outside a hangar awaiting another trip to Japan for a wingset to be used on the new 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Then we drove on board a ferry to Whidbey Island and finally got stuck in Seattle's notorious rush-hour traffic.

The Forte is technically the successor to the Spectra, but it is really so much more than that. This time, Kia decided to leave the help of the rocked-out Soul hamsters behind and instead concentrate on product, not marketing - though we do like the hamsters. The main competitors in the segment include the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda Mazda3 and when you add in the secondary targets of the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cobalt, it shows why anyone would need to strike hard when attempting to show up as a seriously dominant player that sells on more than just low prices.

She's got the look
Featuring one of the more muscular bodies to come from Seoul, the Forte continues with the pace started with the Soul. With a pronounced shoulder line over the fenders and across the hood, that extends rearward; the stance is wide and low. Swept-back headlamps combine with the grille area to offer a clean welcoming shape that depending on color and attitude can look downright menacing, given the chance. A more expressive but elegant design than we've ever seen on a Kia, we hope the Forte is a harbinger of future designs to come.

Offered in three flavors of trim, (entry-level EX, mid-level LX and high-end SX), we had the opportunity to check out the SX during our sojourn to Seattle.

The Forte SX starts, in typical Kia-style, with a healthy dose of features. Namely power windows and locks, remote key entry, steering wheel mounted audio and cruise controls, premium audio, a telescoping steering wheel and, on our tester, heated leather seats, Bluetooth and a power moonroof. Not bad for a little under $20,500. We found the fit and finish to be top-notch and materials appropriate, if not overwhelming. Though the style is unique to Kia, some elements struck us as a little Mazda-like, especially the instrument binnacles.

The interior featured a nicely trimmed dashboard area with all the normal driver accouterments housed within. We like the red illumination around the speedo, but think the tachometer could stand some "butching" up in the appearance department. The center stack houses a great AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sirius audio system, which is upgraded from a four- to a six-speaker system with surround sound circuitry. The Bluetooth system quickly found our phone and offered clarity that rivals cars costing twice as much. iPod connectors are included as is a three-month trial subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio.

The driver and passenger seats were optioned with the leather seating areas, and offered good support although they could stand the addition of adjustable lumbar support. "Class-above" safety includes active headrests and a full array of airbags. Two power outlets in the center stack allow for the use of both a radar detector and auxiliary navigation devic.e although Kia says a built-in unit (of the latter) will be available before long.

And the moves?
Ride quality over the rough roads in downtown and rural roads was extremely well modulated, resulting in a relatively quiet ride. If anything, the low-profile 17-inch tires were guilty of allowing a certain road drone or buzziness into the cabin while on these same rough roads. Head onto smooth highway, and the car was as quiet as some costing three times the price.

Power is available from two different engines. The EX and LX are powered by a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder, which manages to pump out 156-horsepower and 144 lb-ft. of torque. Look for mileage that the EPA claims hits 25 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. The SX is motivated by the 2.4-liter engine, which is a relative of the mill used in its sporty corporate cousin, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Derived from a joint venture involving Hyundai, Chrysler and Mitsubishi, it's an engine that tuners are already burning up the bandwidth over. Unlike the Genesis coupe, it is mounted transversely to drive the front wheels. Even with power output of 173 horsepower, and 168 lb-ft of torque, the EPA still puts its consumption at 23/31 mpg with the Sportmatic automatic transmission.

While driving back to the "world famous" Pike Street Market for our date with some Flying King Salmon, we encountered the aforementioned keepers of the speed. Apparently someone in state government has appointed certain citizens as hall monitors of Interstate 5. We agree that everyone needs a job, but we hope this is an unpaid position. Motorists would drive shoulder to shoulder at a fixed rate of speed, usually right at the posted speed limit. As a result, we were forced to make offensive moves when cars would move towards exit ramps to make any kind of headway on the limited access highway.

The 2.4-liter was up to the task. The hamsters, er, engine let you know that it was not happy when pressed but it did get up and go through the Sportshift gears when making passing maneuvers. We can't say the same for the manual, which offered gummy takeup of the clutch and a rather vague feeling between the six gears. Like the Genesis coupe, the Forte could really stand to benefit from a better tranny with a short throw shifter. In addition, the yelp from an engine could sound like a growl with the addition of a cat-back exhaust system for the SX.

Ride quality from the front-mounted MacPherson struts and coil springs combined with torsion beams, coil springs and struts hanging from the rear made for a good ride. It's not BMW-tight, but it does the job and actually accomplishes it in a fun-to-drive manner. The wide-berth that the Forte posses allows for tight cornering as well as the ability to make rapid but secure lane changes.

Leftlane's bottom line
Like their Hyundai partners, Kia has the competition looking over their shoulders with good products at great prices. Add in the hefty Kia warranty and you have a great combination"¦just stick with the automatic transmission. Not quite the standout Kia would like it to be, the Forte is nonetheless leaps and bounds above its pedestrian predecessor and offers 95 percent of the refinement of the class leaders at 75 percent of the price.

2010 Kia Forte SX
base price, $18,195. As tested, $20,490.
SX Leather package, $1,000; Power moonroof, $600; Destination, $695.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.