For 3 years now, the Honda Civic RS 1.5 Turbo has been our favorite in the compact car class.
We dig the looks, the performance, the feel, the way everything works, and its manners on a daily drive. But what if we told you that there's another car that may be worth considering to benchmark against the Civic RS, one that has the potential to take the reins as one of the most exciting compacts in the market? And it comes not from Japan, but from Korea.
What we're really talking about is this Kia Forte... in GT trim.
The Forte is a generally unfamiliar name in the Philippine market. Kia has been selling this nameplate since 2009; yes, it's a 10-year old name already. In other regions, the Forte known by different names; in Korea they call it the K3, but in other markets they refer to it as Cerato. You can see why they never used that latter as a name for the Philippines.
Unlike its contemporaries the Forte never sold in big numbers which is why -even with this third generation model- it's not as familiar as the Civic, the Lancer, the Corolla, or even the Elantra. But that, however, doesn't mean its a bad car. Quite the contrary, actually.
This third generation model represents the latest in the evolution of the Forte. Most of us area already familiar with the design direction that Kia has taken in the last decade, and their investment in that critical department has really paid off. The Forte looks quite attractive, far more so than many competitor models from Japanese brands.
The Forte looks wide and has a profile that's really quite sport saloon-ish with a long hood and a short rear deck. It's not a fastback, but it's not so much of a 3-box sedan either. The Tiger Nose grille does start things off neatly; it's been a Kia signature for a decade already, and this one has red shark-like teeth instead of a classic honeycomb mesh.
The headlamps are sleek, and extend all the way to the fenders. What we really like is the treatment of this top spec GT variant, particularly the large wheels and the black accents all around for a sportier look. The LED pattern on the taillights are really nice too. One thing we did notice is that Kia appears to have borrowed the Hofmeister kink as seen on BMWs.
The story inside is also one of neatness in design and a great execution of ergonomics. The D-cut steering wheel is very nice, along with the shifter for the automatic gearbox; well, DCT. I like the treatment of the predominantly black or dark gray or black cabin with the polished metal and red accent lighting and trim.
There are quite a few buttons around, but everything feels logically positioned and therefore intuitive to use. The rounded A/C vents on the side, the way the multimedia system juts out from the dash, and the feel of the controls are very nice. If anything, it appears Kia has taken a few cues of the masters of interior design and driving ergos: Mazda.
The seats are firmer than I thought they would bet. They're definitely on the side of sport in terms of firmness and the way the side bolsters feel. This could be a little uncomfortable to spend hours in traffic in. The rear seats are decent, and have a fold down armrest with cupholders for convenience. Boot space is at a respectable 502 liters, and the rear seats can fold down if you want to carry longer items, like if you couldn't resist that three day sale.
The smart key is nice; the buttons are on the rim, not on the face. Press the ignition and you'll kick up that 1.6-liter engine behind that neat grille. Now I did mention that this is a performance car, but some would wonder what a 1.6-liter can actually do. Well, that's the magic of a turbo intercooler system. Together with direct injection, this Kia Forte GT has 204 PS. It's the same engine as the one found in the Veloster, which is really the Forte GT's not-so-distant cousin from the larger Hyundai-Kia family.
The Forte GT is alright as a city drive. The gearbox they used is a dual clutch transmission, and it works fine in city traffic. I would pick the DCT over a CVT, but maybe not over a new generation automatic. Engine response is fairly quick, and there's really is some pep in the way it goes so you'll enjoy it in the mad dash from stoplight-to-stoplight. If you're quite relaxed with your drive, expect fuel economy in the region of 9.7 km/l (22 km/h average) in town, and 14.1 on the highway (85 km/h average, 2 persons).
I like that they've equipped it with many safety features such as 6 airbags, stability control, and hill start assist. In the city we appreciated the front and rear parking sensors and rear camera; it just makes it easier to avoid dinging the bodywork against other cars or obstacles. Rear passengers would also appreciate the fact that it has rear A/C vents; all the more to combat our kind of midday heat.
The Forte, however, does have a lot of compromises that you'll feel in traffic or even when there isn't much of it. We spoke of the seats already, but now we're really referring to the suspension. I won't exaggerate: it's almost as if the Forte GT has those stiff aftermarket coilovers on all four corners. You'll feel the harshness if you'll have to deal with rough concrete roads or bumpy asphalt. A check of the tire pressure showed that all four tires are at proper levels; not overly inflated like you would get from a freshly shipped automobile. Actually, I'd say the stiffness of the suspension is slightly harder than the WRX.
So yeah, the Forte GT isn't a comfortable one to drive around the metropolis. Clearly Kia has compromised the comfort potential of this car to be more of a performance machine; a a boy racer, so to speak. So let's see if they truly accomplished that by a blast up and down a mountain range.
Acceleration is quite immediate, definitely a leg up on the Civic RS Turbo; the Kia does have a 30 PS edge on the Honda. The dual clutch works far better at higher speeds than the CVT, and it just feels more natural when you're coning into a corner. Steering feel is alright but really unremarkable, much like its prime competitor. We did like the handling, as the Forte GT felt sharp around the corners, especially the tricky ones. Even the unibody itself came into play; this is a very stiff frame thanks to the use of advanced steel. This feels like a tuner car that's been fitted with stiff strut bars front and rear rather than a production car.
What the Forte turbo does do better than the Civic turbo is the braking. In the Civic RS, we noted how if you're coming from full acceleration to full braking, there's a possibility that the turbo was still generating boost and accelerating the engine. That could be problematic if you have to slow down right away or if you're pushing hard and braking late on a racetrack; you'll feel it in the pedal because the engine is fighting to go faster for that second or two while you want to brake harder. In the Forte GT, there's none of that.
Of course we can talk about a lot of other things like the many features of the Forte GT, but in reality this is a demonstration of a spectrum. On one side you have comfort, while on the other you have performance. The Forte GT really sacrificed on-road comfort to dial in more performance, particularly with cornering abilities. I also have a feeling that Kia had tuned the car to suit better roads than the ones we have in the country. But on a mountain pass, you can really enjoy the Forte. It's fast, and fun, and comes priced not too far off rom the Civic at PhP 1,650,000.
The only question remains whether it has the potential to be better than the benchmark: the Civic RS Turbo. On some fronts, yes it can. The extra 30 PS does translate to better acceleration, the suspension does make it a nice corner carver, the natural feel of the gearbox, the fit and finish, the features, and the overall design are exceptional for what it is.
But I have a feeling the Forte GT may have sacrificed a bit too much on the comfort side for it to be an appealing upgrade over standard Forte variants, or to sway Civic RS buyers their way. Kia may have focused a bit too hard on making a car that handled sharply, that they may have overlooked that while some of us enjoy fast driving on weekends, most need a reasonable level of comfort for everyday driving.