Kia’s advertising campaigns over the past few years wanted us to believe that its vehicles were especially popular among hamsters, but the truth is that the brand keeps attracting a fair share of human customers and has pretty much no reason to envy the competition.
Take the 2016 Kia Forte for example. It might be viewed by some as just a close cousin of the Hyundai Elantra, but this compact offers more body styles (three) than any rival in the segment. Next year there will be a tie as the Honda Civic Hatchback joins Canada’s best-selling car lineup.
All Forte models have a friendly face, modern powerplants, and excellent overall quality. Let’s not forget their long list of features at a great price in typical Korean fashion. So, why the heck does the Kia Forte enjoys limited success in North America? It’s a valid question, although you have to admit that my Forte5 SX Luxury tester’s MSRP of $28,795 is definitely not the value proposition most compact-car buyers are after.
You can’t fault the 5-door hatchback’s styling, that’s for sure. Kia designers have transformed run-of-the-mill, economy-focused products into classy head-turners since Peter Schreyer came over from Audi several years ago.
The SX and SX Luxury models stand out from the rest of the Forte5 family with a more aggressive front fascia where the gaping lower intake squeezes Kia’s signature tiger-nose grille right above. The LED fog lights and xenon headlights (the latter exclusive to the SX Luxury) get a unique treatment, as well.
The sleek 18” alloy wheels obviously add a sporty touch to the package, but be prepared to pay extra for replacement tires. In the rear, LED lightbar taillights, a carbon fibre-patterned bumper bar and rear diffuser panel, and dual stainless steel exhaust tips further set the 2016 Kia Forte5 SX apart.
Turbocharged with 201 horsepower
While the base, naturally aspirated engine delivers ample performance 95% of the time, the available 1.6L turbocharged mill demands a bit more restraint on the driver’s part. This direct-injected 4-pot produces a healthy 201 horsepower along with 195 lb-ft of torque, both commendable numbers by today’s sport compact standards.
The thrill seeker that I am would have preferred the SX Luxury with a 6-speed manual transmission instead of being stuck with the automatic that offers the same number of gears. The good news is that manual shifts are still possible using either the console-mounted lever or the paddles on the steering wheel.
The turbocharged Kia Forte5 SX may not be a true hot hatch like the Volkswagen Golf GTI or even a “hardcore” sport compact like the Honda Civic Si, but it does feature 0.8” larger brake discs at all corners than other Forte models, while its firmer, sport-tuned suspension provides better handling.
What about interior refinement?
Redesigned for 2014, the Forte5 has not changed since. Kia’s recent products have all managed to impress in terms of material selection and build quality, and this one is no exception. Of course, the toughest critics will lament the fake carbon fibre trim on the dashboard, but other than that the layout in front of the driver is nice and straightforward. I actually quite like the driver-oriented centre stack.
A good driving position is easy to find and can even be memorized in SX Luxury trim. The front buckets provide decent support, although the lower cushions could be made longer. Rear passenger room is limited, but that’s to be expected in the segment. Unfortunately, the outgoing model’s flat-folding seatbacks were not carried over to the new Kia Forte5 (they at least retained their 60/40 split).
Time to hit the road!
It’s somewhat hard to figure out what Kia wants to achieve with the Forte5 SX. As mentioned earlier, this car attracts buyers with sharp looks and a potent turbo, but it still lacks certain attributes that would turn an ordinary compact into something a bit wilder and racier. The Golf GTI starts at about the same price as this loaded Kia, and while the latter wins the equipment battle, its driving dynamics pale in comparison to the legendary German.
The force-fed engine under the hood of the 2016 Kia Forte5 SX manages to wow occupants despite its small displacement; it’s certainly not the disappointing affair I experienced in the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. Acceleration is lively this time around, the autobox changing gears with satisfying enthusiasm and sharpness. Downshifts are another story, however: Response is slower and some jerky action is commonplace. It’s best to leave it in auto mode.
Moreover, the so-called sport-tuned suspension could use slightly firmer springs and shocks, while the tires don’t quite have the bite a true sport compact should possess. As for the driver-selectable steering assist system, it doesn’t work as well as BMW’s for example.
The bottom line
Sportier than the average compact car, the 2016 Kia Forte5 SX Luxury remains a cut or two below the segment’s big boys. Still, it’s an extraordinary compromise… if you accept to foot the bill. For a few grand less, the manual-equipped SX model definitely looks more enticing.