It’s been just over a decade since we got our first look at the first-gen KIA Forte, an offshoot of the very same Hyundai Elantra that had pretty much failed to captivate our hearts. Fueled by our general lack of enthusiasm for the brand as a whole, it was unlikely that the Forte (in any of its three stylings) would be the vehicle to have us running to the nearest Kia dealership.
Granted, 2009 might have been the perfect year for KIA to try their hand at just about anything. The pinnacle of the depression, with automotive sales dropping to 5.4 million units (down 3.5 million from 2000) to reach an all-time low, the idea of an affordable, eco-friendly offering seems like a no-brainer. But if we’re ten years older and (arguably) ten years wiser, how does the 2019 KIA Forte measure up against our evolving expectations? It is any more desirable (or even relatable) than it was in the past? There’s really only one way to find out, so let’s break it down.
2019 marks the start of the third-gen Forte, now offered as either a four-door sedan or five-door liftback. Priced to start around $17,790 MSRP it comes served up in four trim levels (FE, LXS, S and top of line EX).
Spitting in the face of some of our earlier criticisms regarding KIA’s minimalist design theory, we were surprised by their decision to borrow successful design notes from the Stinger. Over the last year or two, they’ve caught us off-guard with their new willingness to go bigger, bolder, and stray further off-brand. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’ll discuss aesthetics in greater depth below. At the end of the day, the Forte honors KIA’s legacy of affordable offerings with the options of ‘leveling up’ (as the kids say).
In terms of recognition, the 2019 KIA Forte was given the Driver’s Choice Award for “Best Small car” by MotorWeek. Awarded based on a perfect blend of ‘price, practicality, performance, and fuel efficiency’ the 2019 Forte was also cited by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) as a ‘Top Safety Pick’. Never one to proceed solely on the advisement of critics, we’ll have to dig a little deeper in order to make up our minds.
Starting with the (base) FE, the Forte comes powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder paired to either a 6-speed manual transmission or a dual CVVT (Continuously Variable Valve Timing) transmission, it delivers a modest 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy kicks off at around 31 mpg combined (37 highway, 27 city) gaining some efficiency from multi-point injection on all but the base trim level. That said, the core powertrain, its horsepower, and torque ratings remain fairly consistent across the entire lineup.
And with all that in mind, there is really nothing about the Forte’s overall performance that draws me in. Then again, it’s important to recognize that my bias towards performance vehicles leaves little appreciation for a well-mannered I4 engine whose numbers are so grounded. For me, trading performance for fuel economy would be a major, almost insurmountable concession. For another consumer, however, perhaps one with proportionally-mannered driving habits, this sort of powertrain might prove a perfect fit.
As alluded to above (and stated far more directly in more conversations than I can count) KIA’s design philosophy has always felt uninspired, at least in my ever-so-humble opinion. Feeling less than a full-step away from dated subcompact designs of the 1980s, nothing about KIA’s lineup had ever made it feel like chances were being taken. And it’s that perceived sense of complacency that has proven to be a continual turnoff, leaving me opposed to KIA offerings.
But I’ve also cited the Stinger and Telluride recently, as examples of what KIA has proven capable of once willing to err in the opposite direction. For better or worse, bold and unapologetic design tends to be the hallmark of successful models, so it’s no surprise that both of the models mentioned have received such a warm and enthusiastic welcoming.
The fact that the 2019 Forte takes its cues from the Stinger represents a smart choice on the part of KIA. With more aggressive lines, most visible across the front fascia, the Forte feels bolder than ever. Of course, there is some expected iconography present, from core badging to the tiger-nosed grille, but the newness of a carved headlamp design and the sportier appearance of the front diffusers makes all the difference from its 2nd-gen predecessors. Bottom-line: we like the looks of the new Forte way more than we thought we would.
As visible in the Forte’s exterior design, KIA also used the Stinger as inspiration when designing the cabin. Borrowing certain successful design notes, including (but not limited to) rounded vents, and the raised touchscreen interface that floats above the center stack. But where the magic really happens is in the small, nuanced choices like the horizontal theme of the Forte’s fore-cabin design. Feeling as though it pushes the cabin outward, there’s a counterintuitive openness to how big the cabin feels from the inside. It’s almost surprising, to be honest.
And in terms of composition, the interior is extremely well-conceived. Of course, the leatherette options of the higher trim levels make all the difference in lending the Forte a more satisfying cabin experience; but both the woven-cloth and premium tricot versions do little to devalue what is generally, a confident attempt that we take no major issue with.
Comfortable seats (regardless of trim level), the kind of moderate spaciousness you’d expect of a compact, and a respectable blend of physical and touchscreen controls make the Forte a great option for anyone looking to, or able to reduce their vehicular footprint.
At the (base) FE trim level, the Forte arrives Bluetooth-connective and smartphone-compatible with both AndroidAuto and Apple CarPlay. The UVO infotainment/navigation system is optional as you ascend trim levels, but all trim levels are equipped with the same 8-inch touchscreen interface with rear camera display. In terms of audio, the base system consists of a traditional 4-speaker AM/FM stereo with MP – but that can be enhanced with speaker upgrades, all the way up to an 8-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.
An ample array of safety and driver-assist features are also found across the trim levels. From low-speed features like Rear Cross and Forward Collision notifications to Blind Spot Monitoring, Collision Mitigation, and Lane Stay maintenance, there is no shortage of forward-thinking features available.
Did the 2019 Forte Change our Mind About KIA
While it’s not as a confident departure from KIA’s trappings as made by the Stinger, the Forte certainly benefits from the elements borrowed from it. Like a fair share of its stablemates, it’s a car meant for a very specific type of driver – and we’re not talking about driving enthusiasts. I believe we’ve used the term ‘well-mannered’ at least once, and that’s probably the best term to use (‘inoffensive’ and ‘perfectly fine’ would be close runners-up). So, even those it might not be the first car atop our list, it speaks to KIA’s evolution and the kind of chances we might see them taking in the model years to come.