Over the past few years though, things started to really look up for the cars built just south of the 38th Parallel. Hyundai was the first to truly improve, winning over many families with the Starex, but in general Korean cars began to look better, felt better engineered, were specced better and, best of all, they drove much, much better. Well, except for Ssangyong.
Perhaps the best, and more specifically the most significant model to come out of Korea of late has to be this one: the Kia Forte.
The most noticeable thing about this car is its design. It's very clean, sleek, modern car to look at. I definitely like the front end, headlined by the tiger grille and twin multi-reflector headlamps. The side reveals a classic compact sedan profile, neat creases, and a set of cool 17 inch alloy wheels. The rear end is again quite clean, punctuating that this is a car with an almost Germanic air about it; conservative with purpose. Not surprising, as Peter Schreyer, the man who conceived the original Audi TT and VW's New Beetle, had more than a hand and a pen in designing this car.
Inside the Forte its more of the same, and judging by the outside, its a good thing. There's a bit of monotony in the color choices for the interior, but nevertheless, black, gray, metal trim and red backlighting do go well together. As I would have expected of a new Kia nowadays, the switchgear, ergonomics, and other controls have a distinct feel of quality indeed. I love the red stitching on the leather steering wheel and the alloy pedals as well as the red light on the rim of the speedometer. Overall, this Forte's cabin is a nice place to be.
It's not as roomy as, say, a current Honda Civic, but there's decent legroom to go around while the trunk is quite spacious too. For features, you've got powered everything in this top of the line SX variant with the usual kit of power windows, locks, mirrors and power steering. I personally like the convenience of the key fob proximity transponder with the push-start system, as well as the automatic climate control, but they're not really necessary.
Another thing I appreciate is the excellent AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system that Kia shares with big bro Hyundai, complete with an Aux and USB port that combine for full iPod integration (via a special cable) as well as the steering wheel mounted controls. Rounding out the features are the dual airbags, the trip computer that also calculates fuel consumption (among other things) and anti-lock brakes.
Of course, I can go on about what you can read on a brochure yourself, but that's not why you're reading this review right?
First is the engine. At the heart of the Forte is a 2 liter gasoline engine with continuously variable valve timing. What's surprising about it is that it develops 156 horsepower (metric), giving it an ever so slight performance advantage over the MIVEC-powered Lancer EX and i-VTEC-powered Honda Civic. It may only have a 4-speed automatic, but its a good one, kicking down easily for spirited driving and cruises efficiently when you need it to. As a result, the fuel economy on mixed highway and city driving (moderate traffic) is at 8.5 kilometers to the liter.
In terms of handling, on paper it doesn't really look that good for the Kia; a car that has MacPherson struts in front and a torsion beam (instead of an independent multi link) in the back. The execution of the suspension is a different matter, however, as this Forte seems to have been set up to take on corners; something I found very surprising. Tip the wheel on initial turn in and the Forte lunges for the apex, returning a decent amount of feedback. The more corners I encounter, the more fun I have in this car.
And then there are the brakes. You'd half expect me to say that they're bad and spongy, but on the contrary, they are quite good. Dive on the brakes before entering a tight and the Forte hunches down quite evenly. These traits make it an exciting car to drive uphill here on Cebu's Trans Central Highway* and an unexpectedly confident one on the downhill. The Lancer EX will still be my weapon of choice if I wanted pure driving excitement on any road, but the Kia Forte SX does come close. Quite close.
There are some sacrifices with the Forte, however, as having the car tuned for sporty handling (not to mention those big 17 inch wheels and low profile tires) means that riding comfort has been significantly compromised. You really will feel every bump while cruising our pothole and corrugation-infested roads.
There is another problem with it, and it deals primarily with the number of digits it has on the price tag. The indicative price is quite steep at PhP 1.4 million, and that says a lot... especially as to why Kia Philippines is reluctant to "officially" launch the car here or even give an actual price. Nevertheless, Kia's dealer network in Cebu has sold quite a few, and not just the Forte sedan, but the 2-door Koup as well.
Nevertheless, the Kia Forte packs a lot of great things in a small package overall, and does come close to the fun factor of two of our favorite cars to drive in the segment: Mitsu Lancer EX and the Mazda3. However, unless they can find a way to get the pricetag way down, this great mass market compact car will end up being as rare as some high end sportscars on our streets.
*Thanks to Gateway Motors in Mandaue, Cebu for loaning us a (literally) showroom new Kia Forte