Even though they divisions of the same company, the divide between Kia and Hyundai has never been wider than with the 2019 Kia Forte.
Under its clean styling suite of standard active safety tech sits the automaker’s first continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Don’t go looking for such a transmission in the Hyundai lineup because you won’t find one.
The transmission costs $900 on the base Forte FE that’ll be rarer than hen’s teeth on dealer lots and it’s standard on LXS, S, and EX trims.
The knock against CVTs has been that in their search for the optimum gear ratio they can leave the driver feeling like the engine is revving excessively. And to ears accustomed to hearing distinct changes in engine pitch on upshifts, the CVT’s slurring of ratios can sound disconcerting.
So Kia’s CVT is programmed to move among pre-selected ratios, simulating the sound and feel of an automatic transmission. And when the shift lever is moved to the left, engaging Sport mode, the driver can even shift up and down among these simulated gears.
2019 Kia Forte
This worked surprisingly well, although the shifter’s push-forward-to-upshift, pull-back to downshift feels opposite the way it should be. Regardless, Kia’s continued use of a shifter that slides through discrete positions for Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive is commendable in an age of needlessly unfamiliar and complex shifters. Kudos to Kia for preserving a simple, clear shifter design.
At 30 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined, the Forte delivers on its fuel-efficient promise and easily bests the 6-speed automatic in the Elantra. Although some rivals such as the Honda Civic are more miserly, the Forte’s mpg game is on point and the Forte FE notches those numbers up 1 mpg all around thanks to its low rolling-resistance tires.
The Forte earns those figures thanks to a 147-horsepower, 132 pound-feet of torque 2.0-liter inline-4 that propels the compact with enough vigor. Surprisingly, Kia eschews direct fuel injection for more established (and less costly) port injection. Unlike the related Hyundai Elantra, which offers a turbo-4 rated at 201 hp, there’s no sportier version of the Forte.
Firmer steering that provides more driver feedback than the outgoing model’s over-boosted, video game-synthetic setup provides the Forte with pleasing handling, though it’s not particularly athletic.
Accordingly, the base 6-speed manual transmission is restricted to the entry-level Forte FE. All other trims use Kia’s first CVT, meaning the Forte’s sporty story is a short one. The Forte’s Elantra cousin uses a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission, but Kia says that the CVT alone is worth a 5 percent improvement in efficiency compared to the automatic.