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The Kia Forte is in a weird spot in the compact car segment. It’s not the fastest, nor is it the most comfortable-riding. Handling has never been its strong suit, and the bargain-basement pricing days of Kias have long since passed. The looks have always been distinctive when compared to the plain sheetmetal encasing better sellers like the Corolla and Sentra. But even that’s a stretch to justify why sales have gone up every year as the styling gets older.

So, here we are with a brand-new Forte for 2019. Updates include completely revamped styling inside and out, new suspension, and most notably, Kia’s first continuously variable transmission. The front of the new Forte is undeniably Stinger-like in appearance. From the grille to the copy-cat headlights and even the fastback feel it brings to the rear, Peter Schreyer’s design is written all over this one. It presents well as a package. Muscular lines in the hood and other spots complement luxury car touches like the taillights that appear to wrap around the entire rear width of the car –- they’re only connected by an unlit strip of trim designed to look the part. The exterior’s biggest downfall is the separate rear turn signal modules underneath the taillights. It complicates what could be a wonderfully clean look with giant triangular pieces of piano black plastic.

If you’ve spent any time in a new Elantra, then the 2019 Forte’s interior will look mighty similar. Horizontal lines and an uncluttered center stack make for a relatively elegant interior look. Kia only had top-level EX and Launch Edition trim levels on hand, so we can’t speak to the cheaper versions yet. However, the most expensive trims feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. There’s still plenty of plastic around, but the important bits are all soft to the touch and feel ergonomic. One funny part though –- the dash appears to be stitched leather until you touch it and learn that it’s plastic. Kia even included a fake “stitch” going across the entire dash for appearance purposes.





A revised 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the only engine choice for now. It makes the same horsepower and torque as the 2018 model at 147 hp and 132 lb-ft. All changes are designed to help it sip less fuel. Those include a cooled EGR system, piston cooling jets and higher-voltage ignition. Of course, the biggest powertrain difference comes in the form of Kia’s first continuously variable transmission (CVT). Kia says that because it uses a chain-type belt, it offers smoother acceleration over other CVTs in its class that use a push-belt system.

The 2018 Forte needed some help on the handling side, and Kia did a lot to make that happen. Its structure is 16 percent stiffer than before thanks to a new subframe design, thicker doors and windows and more bonding adhesive throughout the structure. Reworked suspension geometry is supposed to improve things even more.





The Execution

After everything that Kia did to improve the Forte for 2019, it still finds itself in the weird middle ground among its competitors. However, it does almost everything a hell of a lot better.

Hop in and you’re greeted to new comfortable and lightly bolstered leatherette seats. A leather steering wheel is nice to see on the features list, but it doesn’t feel that soft or luxurious. Visibility is great all around, but the A-pillars could use a bit of thinning. It has an airy feel with lots of storage spaces too – definitely helpful to make a small car feel bigger. The Forte grew in every dimension for 2019. You can feel the benefits everywhere; back seat occupants certainly won’t be disappointed.

Kia says the Forte “has the spirit of the Stinger’s handling.” It mentioned Albert Biermann (ex head of BMW’s M-division) when describing how the new Forte goes around corners. It’s not easy to live up to those words, and we think it’s a bit of an exaggeration in practice. However, the Forte dives into corners much more willingly than before and offers a modicum of fun when hustled on a twisty backroad. Uneven roads do trip the rear end up a bit as it bounces around in ways you don’t want it to.



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If you came to the Forte thinking it would go as fast as it looks, you’ll be roundly disappointed. It’s painfully slow off the line, with a throttle pedal that seems to ask you twice if you’re sure before telling the engine to do something. Kia didn’t quote any acceleration times, but it feels like a 9-second-plus car to 60 mph.

The first CVT made by Kia is a competent transmission for the manufacturer’s first try. It’s designed to mimic a conventional automatic with “steps” that almost feel like shifting gears. At full throttle it slowly revs up to redline, then falls back about 2,500 rpm and revs back up. It’ll do this for as long as you stay on it. The car even seems to pause/delay acceleration a bit as the revs fall before picking back up again. Many buyers may not even notice that a CVT is in use if they weren’t told beforehand, but it’s readily apparent for those of us who pay attention to this kind of thing. It will behave differently depending on the mode you select too: normal, sport or smart. Sport mode just causes the revs to stay higher no matter what you’re doing, and it’s more eager to rev up if asked to do so. Normal and smart offer more sedate driving experiences.



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Kia decided to develop this CVT for improved fuel mileage. It worked, because the new Forte is rated at 30/40/34 mpg (city/highway/combined). That’s about two mpg better than before, and we don’t really miss the lazy six-speed automatic it featured, despite the CVT’s downfalls. Like a bunch of others in this segment, Kia will still sell you a Forte with a manual transmission. You’ll get worse mileage, but you’ll have more fun.

Where the Forte appears to have a leg up on some competition is the tech it offers. Automatic climate control and driver-assist features come standard. Those include lane keeping assist, forward collision-avoidance assist, driver attention warning and forward collision warning. When you climb up the trim levels (FE, LXS, S, EX) you get adaptive cruise control, blind spot collision warning and rear cross-traffic collision warning. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto along with an eight-inch touchscreen come standard. Heated and cooled front seats plus a wireless charging tray round out the best of the tech on offer.

If you opt for the more expensive Launch Edition, you’ll get all that plus a sunroof, LED interior lighting, navigation and a sweet-sounding Harman/Kardon sound system. Some competitors offer such things, but these are still luxury car niceties on a much cheaper car. The lane keeping assist system is awesomely capable – even tighter curves on the highway are handled with ease. In our short time with it, the car stayed right in the center of the highway lane without the constant back and forth that some lane-keeping assist systems cause.



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Takeaway

This new Forte does the majority of things you’d expect it to do well. It feels more premium than a lot of cars in its class – that and the mountain of tech that comes with it should keep the Forte on the upward trajectory it’s been on the past few years. For people looking for something that isn’t a Civic or Corolla, the Forte is a good choice.

However, if true sportiness is what you’re after in a compact car, you might be best off waiting. Kia did not confirm, but hinted about a possible SX trim with more power coming. Spy shots of that car have made it out, but powertrain details are still anyone’s guess. We’d put our money on the 1.6-liter turbo used in the Elantra Sport. An extra 50 hp and a proper manual would do wonders for the new Forte. If Kia swaps out the torsion beam rear setup for the multi-link independent suspension in the Elantra Sport, that would make it even better.

Kia put forth a solid effort with the new Forte. It’s refreshing to see this at a time when many others are treating sedans as second fiddle to their crossover lineups. There’s no doubt that the Forte is still in its weird happy medium of not necessarily being the best at one particular thing. At the same time though, this complete redesign brings it dangerously close to the top of its commuter car competition.






Zac Palmer



Zac Palmer



– Zac Palmer is a freelance automotive writer. He likes anything that can go around a corner, and is surely talking about a car wherever he might be.


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On Sale: Fall 2018


Base Price: $18,685


As Tested Price: $22,985


Powertrain: 2-liter I4; continuously variable automatic transmission; FWD


Output: 147 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 132 lb-ft torque @ 4,500 rpm


Curb Weight: 2,762-2,903 lbs (depending upon configuration)


Fuel Economy: 30/40/34 mpg(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)


Pros: Very nicely equipped; attractive restyling


Cons: CVT doesn’t suit enthusiastic driving; rear axle can get unsettled







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