To separate itself from the pack—not to mention sister company Hyundai—Kia says it wants to become a design-led automaker.
Kia gave itself a good start by hiring an Audi designer. No, really, that’s exactly what it did in 2006 when it lured Peter Schreyer away from the German company. We think it’s working, too, as we’re now starting to see the effects.
First to catch our eye was the new, boxy Soul that has a distinct and compelling look that’s youthful without crossing the weirdness boundary, as do some of its competitors, such as the Nissan Cube. Now there’s the Forte, which looks handsome in sedan form but positively stylish as a two-door coupe. Sitting 0.4-inch closer to the ground with a 2.4-inch lower roofline that’s not unlike that of an Audi A5, the only piece of the sedan’s sheetmetal carried over to the Koup is the hood. We particularly appreciated its sleekness from behind, where the squashed rear taillights make it stand out from the sedan. A five-door hatchback model will join the Forte lineup in 2010.
The Koup’s mechanicals, however, are nearly unchanged except that it drops the base LX trim, as well as the available EX fuel-economy model. EX Koups get a 156-hp, 2.0-liter four paired with either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. We drove only SXs, which come with a 173-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four and a five-speed auto or six-speed manual, along with slightly larger front brakes, a stiffer suspension tune, 17-inch wheels, and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. The SX also gets some interior upgrades, including a classy red halo that rings the speedo and the gimmicky red lights seen first on the Soul that can be set to flash to the beat of whatever’s playing on the stereo. Kia says it’s still mulling a higher-performance version.
Attractive Cabin to Match the Stylish Exterior
The interior itself is well executed in hard plastics, which are par for this class, and the control layout and ergonomics are spot on. We have just one minor complaint: since the iPod connector is right below the HVAC controls in front of the shifter, there’s no place to stash an iPod out of sight when it’s connected. Plan on unplugging your device before parking to discourage thievery.
Kia is quick to brag about the Forte’s above-average horsepower in its class, but as we discovered in a recent test of a SX sedan, the Forte won’t be known as a sprinter. Expect 0-to-60-mph runs in the low eights for an SX manual; the same sprints may stretch into the nines with lesser-engine EXs. On the bright side, at least the Koup’s fuel-economy ratings are above average: EX models are rated at 25/34 mpg city/highway while SXs achieve 22/32 for the manual and 23/31 for the automatic.
It would be difficult to deliver a driving experience as impressive as the exterior styling, and the Koup struggles. We’d say it’s solidly average. Clutch take-up is smooth in the six-speed, but the shifter feels imprecise and has a fair amount of play in it. And someone needs to tell Kia that aggressive throttle tip-in does not make a car sporty. It only makes a driver annoyed at the difficulty in being smooth. Despite the jumpy throttle, however, the engine is somewhat sluggish to respond to a quick, downshift-enabling throttle blip. The automatic works well and will likely be the more popular choice.
Say “Bye-Bye” to Soft-Riding Kias
Gone are the days of roly-poly, softly sprung Kias. During our brief drive in South Korea, the Koup sometimes felt too stiff over the pothole-ridden roads surrounding Seoul. It occasionally felt a bit befuddled, too, reminding us of its twist-beam rear axle and not the more sophisticated independent suspension found on some of the competition, such as the Honda Civic and Scion tC. We’ll reserve final judgment on ride until we get one back at headquarters for more extended evaluation. The steering feels slightly artificial, like perhaps a bit too much feedback has been filtered out, but it has a nice on-center heft and responds predictably and linearly.
Anyone much over six-feet tall will also want to pass on the sunroof in the name of headroom, which has decreased by 1.3 inches compared to the sedan. In back, a significant 2.5 inches of headroom has been extracted from a space that would otherwise be reasonably roomy.
From Car and Driver