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2021 Kia Forte5 GT Manual Review: An Endangered Species

2021 Kia Forte5 GT | Photo: V.Aubé
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Vincent Aubé
We drove a 2021 Kia Forte5 GT with a manual transmission, an increasingly rare configuration these days

Auto123 reviews the 2021 Kia Forte5 GT with a manual transmission.

Over the years, Kia has become a producer of utility vehicles, like most automotive companies in North America. But unlike some brands that have shunned the traditional car segment, Kia persists, in fact it still offers five models, if you count as separate entities the 4- and 5-door versions of the Forte.

It's true that among that group of five, there’s the Rio5 that’s frankly hanging on by its fingertips - the subcompact category isn't what it used to be - and the Stinger, which we already know is on the way out. But the K5 was renewed just a few months ago, and the Forte was redesigned in 2019. In fact, Kia is thought to be preparing a mild upgrade for its compact car. We know this because just recently, Kia unveiled details of the K3 sedan, the name used internationally for the Forte.

While we await the tweaked Forte, I had occasion to drive a 2021 Forte5 GT equipped with a manual transmission, a configuration that is quickly going extinct these days. Here's what I took away from a few days of testing., 100% online, shop for your next car, buy online and get it delivered to you anywhere in Quebec!

2021 Kia Forte5 GT, front
2021 Kia Forte5 GT, front |

Timeless ambience
Redesigned for the 2019 model year, the current Kia Forte, despite a more appealing silhouette, hasn’t exactly captured the public's attention, at least not as much as, say, the Mazda3, which is blessed with a showier design. Kia's take is more sober, more timeless you might say. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for drivers who prefer more anonymity on the road.

Mind you, this Forte5 GT would have been flashier with a brighter colour than this very sober Gravity Blue - which, by the way, adds $250 to the bill. But it's not just the colour choice that makes this five-door from Korea so unnoticeable.

I have to admit, the front end is decently appealing with its stretched headlights, "tiger nose" grille, reddish finish, racier lower portion and small spoiler that stretches to the front wheels. The back end is fairly appealing as well, with its pair of exhaust pipes on either side of a small diffuser and that tailgate window pinched between two fins and that extends the roof. Don’t forget the small spoiler over the LED running lights. For their part, the 18-inch wheels add a bit of flavour to the package, especially with the red-rimmed badge in the centre.

2021 Kia Forte5 GT, interior
2021 Kia Forte5 GT, interior | Photo: V.Aubé

Inside, driving fans will love the sight of that gear shifter and the three pedals rising from the floor. Plus, the VW Golf GTI-style flat-bottomed steering wheel is very pleasant to hold. The red stitching on the seats, door panels and steering wheel is also worth mentioning; it’s a detail that makes the interior more welcoming.

The Forte doesn't benefit from the state-of-the-art interior of the K5 sedan, mind you, but that's okay! The design of the dashboard is very sober, which makes it easier to use. The air-conditioning controls are grouped under the central ventilation nozzles and the touchscreen rests on a row of shortcut buttons covering most of the essential things you want to do. Even the multi-function steering wheel is easy to use.

A sporty ride, but...
That’s all fine, but the Kia Forte5 GT needs more than just a few tricks like 18-inch wheels, widened rocker panels and a sporty-ish interior to earn our love. And to that end, there's also a turbocharged engine under the hood to boost performance. This small 1.6L 4-cylinder is well known since we find in a variety of models produced both by Kia and its Hyundai Auto Group mate. In this case, power climbs to 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, figures similar to those of a Honda Civic Si, for example.

2021 Kia Forte5 GT, manual transmission gear lever
2021 Kia Forte5 GT, manual transmission gear lever | Photo: V.Aubé

And the fact that a manual shifter is plonked between the two front seats is good news for the three-pedal driver, although I should add the dual-clutch option is perfectly competent in this model.

But here’s the thing about this Forte: start driving, and you realize quickly that that Golf GTI vibe is, well, kind skin deep. The shifter is a little approximate and not so fun to handle when changing gears, the steering is lighter than expected (even with the Sport mode engaged) and I had a hard time feeling the 200 hp under my right foot. This is the reality of these small engines that struggle to reach their maximum power at high RPM.

The chassis is stiff enough to deliver confidence and the suspension - firm, but not overly so - allows you to tackle certain corners with some assurance, but the whole thing lacks the sparkle you feel in a GTI, or felt in the Hyundai Elantra GT N-Line that was available until 2020.

And yet, a quick look at Hyundai's N division confirms that there’s a certain expertise in delivering sparkliness at the Korean automotive giant that is Kia-Hyundai. Unfortunately, there's not an ounce of the Veloster N's explosiveness aboard this Forte5 GT. On that account, I prefer the handling of the Hyundai Elantra N-Line tested earlier this year, even though that model makes do with a dual-clutch transmission.

Kia Forte5 GT 2021, coffre
Kia Forte5 GT 2021, coffre | Photo: V.Aubé

More practical than the sedan, but it’s no wagon
Where this Forte5 GT does better than the sedan is behind the second-row seat. There, the presence of a tailgate makes it easier to store longer objects with the seatbacks folded down. The trunk itself is fine, but it doesn’t offer nearly the same number of litres of space as the Subaru Outback or the now-defunct Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, two authentic wagons. The Forte5, despite its elongated silhouette, is more to be grouped with the likes of the Mazda3 5-door and Toyota Corolla Hatchback.

The last word
Kia will continue to offer this type of car as long as there is a demand for a compact, practical and sporty car. The Forte5 GT isn't going to seduce anyone with the driving pleasure it delivers, but for the overall package, it’s worth consideration, especially at the asking price ($25,895 before prepaid and tax). It offers enough to make a case with buyers who won’t/can’t pay more than $30,000 for a compact car.

Specifications sheet of 2021 Kia Forte5 GT Manual

2021 Kia Forte5 GT, three-quarters rear
2021 Kia Forte5 GT, three-quarters rear | Photo: V.Aubé

We like

The timeless look
The simple and functional interior
The price

We like it less

The precision of the gearshift
The fuzzy steering
Some body noise

The competition

Honda Civic Hatchback
Mazda3 5-door
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Corolla Hatchback

2021 Kia Forte5 GT, rear
2021 Kia Forte5 GT, rear | Photo: V.Aubé

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Vincent Aubé
Vincent Aubé
Automotive expert
  • Over 17 years' experience as an automotive journalist
  • More than 60 test drives in the past year
  • Participation in over 200 new vehicle launches in the presence of the brand's technical specialists