More proof the South Koreans are catching up to the big boys
by: JONATHAN HOUSE, The new Forte more than lives up to Kia's slogan,

Kia should change the advertising for its new Forte sedan.

In its TV spots, the South Korean maufacturer describes the Forte as the first small car to include such standard high-tech features as an AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, Bluetooth Hands-Free Connectivity and AUX-iPod-USB connections.

But the truth is, the Forte is a well-built, good-looking, fun-to-drive car that also happens to be small, include such advanced standard features, and not cost much money.

In fact, the top-of-the-line Forte SX comes close to being the least expensive true sports sedan on the market. The package includes a punchy 2.4-liter DOHC four cylinder engine, a smooth shifting five-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode, a leather package with supportive heated seats and a power sunroof. And the 16-inch alloy wheels contribute to a surprsingly firm, well-controlled ride.

Only a few things keep the Forte SX from directly challenging the small sports sedans produced by Acura, Infiniti, Lexus and the like. They include the relative courseness of the engine at high revs, a certain vagueness in the steering when traveling in straight lines and lower quality plastics in the cabin.

But considering that a well-equipped SX can be had for around $20,000, such shortcomings are easy to forgive. In short, the Forte is a lot of car for the money. And the entry level EX model starts at less than $15,000.

The Forte replaces the Spectra, an adequate but dull sedan. The differences between the two cars are remarkable. While the Spectra was most often described as generic, the styling of the Forte is sharp and bold. On the outside, the front fenders sweep up from a large air dam towards a high truck, giving the Forte an aggressive look that is accented by the attractive wheels. The interior is contemporary and functional, with large, easy to use controls. The black leather trim in our test model added to the sporty feel, especially the leather wrapped steering wheel that felt just right.

The Forte is a good example of why Kia and its parent company Hyundai are just about the only manufacturers to increase their shares of the U.S. car market since the recession started. Put simply, they are making cars that people want to buy. The Forte is also available as a two-door, called the Koup. Both versions come hot on the heals of the Kia Soul, a deliberately-cute take on the new wave of small boxy cars. After releasing the surprisingly sophisticated Genesis sports sedan last year, Hyundai has now debuted an equally impressive coupe version available with either a 2-liter turbocharged DOHC four or powerful V6.

Despite its numerous strong points, the Forte is not perfect. Visibility out the rear window is restricted by the high truck. The analog gauges only include a speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge. While digital temperature readings can be called up, the optional 173 horsepower engine in our test model screamed out for a more complete gauge package. And we only got around 22 miles per gallon in a week of mixed driving, although that included a lot of high-speed runs. The entry level EX comes standard with a less powerful but more economical 2-liter DOHC four.

But those are small complaints given the Forte's overall value, however. Don't be fooled by the ad campaign stressing its high-tech features - the real fun is in the driving.

Facts and figures

• Test Model: 2010 Forte.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front wheel drive.

• Style: Five-passenger, four-door sedan.

• Power train: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve inline 4 (156 hp/144-lb-ft); 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve inline 4 (173 hp/168-lb-ft).

• Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 6-speed manual; 5-speed automatic; 6-speed automatic transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 31/36; 25/34 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $14,390 (price as tested $19,290).

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