(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)
(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)
Like its parent Hyundai, Kia just gets more and more proud of itself. Its budget lineup undercuts nearly every segment by a few hundred to a few grand, offers lots of equipment, and stands by an industry-leading warranty. Kia's August sales of 40,198 — a whopping year-over-year increase of 60 percent — would have any manufacturer feeling cocky in a recession.
The company's confidence, months after hip, rollicking hamsters debuted the Korean challenge to Scion, the Soul, is obvious in commercials for its new Forte sedan. "The first of its kind," the company proclaims, in reference to the car's lengthy list of standard features. If that's true, then the four-speed automatic on our Forte 2.0 EX tester is most certainly the last.
As five and six-speed automatics have moved from luxury cars to mainstream — largely due to better fuel economy — four-speed automatics have become the latest signal of vehicle cost-cutting.
Most of these gearboxes, no surprise, are still common to economy or older-generation cars. Chevrolet has eight models that offer four-speed automatics, Dodge seven, Toyota and Hyundai four, and Mitsubishi, Suzuki, and Subaru have several more (Ford has but one on the Focus, and Honda has none). Many, like on the Toyota Yaris, do their basic duty without fault.
But not on this Kia. Like the Soul — from which the Forte shares many components — the Forte's transmission suffers from wide ratio gaps that drain the power from the 156 horsepower four-cylinder. There's plenty of getup from the start, but even before reaching 40 mph, the transmission is too eager to upshift into fourth, where the revs drop to near idle. It's an obvious fuel-saving measure (an "ECO" indicator lights up on the tachometer) and desirable while cruising an open road or highway, but during midrange acceleration this behavior turns into a noisy, gear-hunting mess.
When I wanted to accelerate from 20 to 30 mph, a gentle prod on the gas would cause a surge into third, all the more rough because fourth gear forces the engine to trudge well below its torque curve. It was the same while merging onto highways, where a slower, initial on-ramp speed and gradual, merging acceleration would cause another delayed, abrupt downshift. The Soul's four-speed was a weak point but not terribly invasive. The Forte's makes you cringe on the shortest of trips.
Yet this 2010 Forte, which replaces the aged Spectra and is also available as a two-door "Koup," boasts a five-speed automatic on the $600 "fuel economy package." Indeed, that transmission helps boost mileage in both directions to an EPA-estimated 27/36 versus our car's 25/34. Boston.com hasn't tried a Forte with this transmission, but slushbox fans should do themselves the favor and spend the $600. A five-speed manual is standard on 2.0 liter models, while a six-speed manual is reserved for the sportier 2.4 liter trim.
Aside from the 17-inch alloys and fog lamps on the top-level 2.4 SX, nothing saves the Forte's uninspired exterior styling. The door panels are flat and featureless, the beltline curling up to the A-pillar is attractive as a crooked finger, and the stubby, upright rear has taillights that look a little too similar to the Hyundai Elantra. It's tough to distinguish the Forte from the company's tired Optima, and the whole car seems to appear 10 years behind.
Pity that things like appearance and transmissions so dull the Forte's otherwise agreeable features, of which there were plenty in our $19,290 example: leather, heated front seats, heated windshield, Bluetooth, USB and iPod inputs, Sirius radio, moonroof, and power everything except for the seats, which were thinly-padded but supportive. (Note to base-model buyers: A/C and power door locks aren't standard.)
The dashboard's well-spaced buttons and a simple radio menu are just as easy to navigate as the Soul. Interior materials, including the "metal finish" plastic trim, are up-to-par, save for the flimsy turn signal and headlamp stalks. Headroom and legroom are adequate for six-footers, and the ride is much more compliant and a bit quieter than our Soul, which admittedly was a toaster sitting on 18-inch wheels.
Handling is another strong point. Body roll is moderate, and the steering communicates a decent amount of feedback from the wheels and road surfaces. Braking is also competent, and the pedal feel is linear and not at all squishy. The Forte isn't exciting to throw into a corner, but it's at least composed.
Kia hasn't made a standout car here. The Forte continues Kia's reputation for value, but this particular trim doesn't deliver the more polished driving experience that Toyota, Honda, and Ford deliver in today's economy segment. Given the Soul's wholehearted effort to excite small car buyers with its offbeat, original personality, this new Kia doesn't care to try.
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