For 2019, the Kia Forte is entering its third generation, having debuted a decade ago as replacement for the Spectra. Like the previous two models, the new Forte shares more than a little with its corporate sibling, the Hyundai Elantra. Kia claims the Forte is more than just an Elantra with handsome new sheetmetal, with some minor updates and changes underneath the skin.
There are some allusions to the Stinger in the Forte’s design — thin, sweptback headlights, a wide lower air intake up front and full-width taillights in the rear. Both cars are also sprinkled with a number of black accents. It’s clean and more distinctive than the recently refreshed but still conservative Elantra.
The Forte’s interior is less Stinger and more Optima — not quite as bold as the exterior might suggest, but purposeful. There are the practical details that make a difference: small spaces for your phone, sunglasses and more. The Honda Civic offers more, but the Forte is near the top of its class. Like the Elantra, the Forte’s seats are comfortable and well positioned, though I do wish there were a little more thigh bolstering. Base models come with cloth, though heated and ventilated leather seats are standard on the top-tier EX trim. The EX also comes with two USB ports and an optional wireless charger.
Fit and finish are impressive, too. There was nary a rattle or panel gap to be found. Kia’s focus on improved noise and vibration was immediately evident, too. Both wind and road noise were both mild, with just a little bit of sound coming from the car’s A-pillars. The chassis has been stiffened significantly compared to the Elantra, and it definitely comes across on the road. The overall impression inside is that it looks and feels as well-built as anything coming from Japan and better than some of the Americans.
Unfortunately, things aren’t quite as rosy when you get moving. Right now, the 2019 Forte is available with a single engine: an anemic 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated inline-four mated to either a CVT or six-speed manual, though the latter is only available on the base model. The engine makes 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque, right in the mix with most of the competition. The same engine is found in the Elantra, though in the Hyundai it’s paired with a six-speed automatic.
Off the line, the Forte feels weak, like it’s considering its options before giving you some power. When the power finally comes on, the engine roars as the CVT finds the optimal ratio. It’s not pleasant. That said, the CVT itself is fairly good. There’s less of the rubberband-like feel that you get with other continuously-variable units. The CVT uses a chain drive rather than a push belt, improving both high and low-ratio efficiency as well as engine response. It works the same way as a belt-driven CVT, but improves on some of the transmission’s drawbacks. It’s the first application of a chain-drive CVT in the class. While the Forte’s fuel economy is good (30 city, 40 highway and 34 combined), it still falls short of the more powerful Honda Civic.
That said, there’s generally enough midrange punch when the engine is in its sweet spot to make passing mostly uneventful. Switching to sport mode adds a bit of response to the throttle and forces the CVT to use eight preset ratios, mostly simulating a traditional automatic. It works well enough, but there’s just not enough torque. I still prefer Hyundai’s six-speed auto’s responsiveness and consistent shift patterns compared to Kia’s CVT.
What the Forte lacks in grunt it somewhat makes up for with its chassis, and especially its brakes — which exhibit perfect pedal feel and scrub speed with ease. The Forte handles well, too. The suspension erred on the firm side of comfortable, but body roll is kept in check, as was brake dive. The increased torsional stiffness translates to a more communicative chassis. All your inputs felt a little more immediate. The steering didn’t provide much in the way of feedback, but it was quick and light.
As shown with the Hyundai Elantra Sport, there’s a lot of room to grow. The Forte’s extra chassis stiffness could help balance a sportier suspension and a more potent powertrain, both places the Elantra currently wins out. The Kia starts with a higher baseline, so with some upgrades it could give the Mazda3 or Civic a run for their money as a bargain sport sedan.
Pricing is competitive, with base FE trim starting at $18,585. That undercuts the Civic by nearly $2,000 and beats out models like the Chevy Cruze and Mazda3 by a few hundred. The Forte FE still comes with dual-zone automatic climate control, an 8-inch screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, keyless entry, forward-collision warning and lane-keeping assist. A fully-loaded Forte EX with all the trimmings barely crests $27,000, though you’re still stuck with that engine. The Nissan Sentra and Subaru Impreza have equally lackluster powertrains, but can’t match the Forte on features.
The 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter inline four from the Elantra would go a long way toward improving the Forte. And on the engine front is where some of the competition wins out, too. Nearly all are available with turbo inline-fours, many as standard equipment. Chevy offers a torquey and fuel-efficient diesel in the Cruze, if that’s your thing. While other compacts like the Jetta, Civic, Mazda3 and Cruze let you row your own across the range, the only Forte available with a manual is the base model.
The Forte is handsome, quiet and comfortable, and, aside from the gutless engine, it drives well, too. It’s certainly more inspired than something like a Nissan Sentra. The Civic, Cruze and Volkswagen Jetta outperform the Forte, but can’t compete on price or features. Kia has an opportunity here to let some of the Stinger’s performance image rub off on the Forte to make it stand out in its class. Most of what it needs is already in place, but until an engine upgrade is offered, the competition has mojo the Forte just can’t match.