As SUVs have become more popular, compacts have become less so, but they remain sought-after just the same, as evidenced by sales of the Civic, Elantra, Corolla and Mazda3. Given that they are relatively inexpensive, however, they are not exactly cash cows for manufacturers compared to other vehicle types.
Still, every manufacturer is wise to maintain a presence in this category. And with every passing generation, this segment is improving at an astonishing rate. Having owned a 2007 Corolla in 2009, I can tell you that this little car, when compared to its contemporaries, is disturbingly archaic.
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In this market where compacts offer more and more, positioning their products properly means everything to manufacturers. When you think Toyota Corolla, you think reliability and resale value. When you think Mazda3, you think of fun, passion and design. When you think Civic, you think performance, carefree car and safe purchase. When you think Elantra, you think a lot of options for the asking price.
When you think Forte, umm… what exactly do you think of? Good question! A car that is available in sedan, five-door and coupe versions with various engines casts a wide net. To hear the manufacturer tell it, it combines performance, comfort, luxury, equipment, reliability, initial quality and more. Can a car manage to bring all of these elements together to create the perfect car? A bold gamble, especially considering that jacks of all trades are very often masters of none.
Far from a makeover for 2017
We made our way to Monterrey in northeastern Mexico to visit a new, gigantic plant constructed in just 14 months. Within the next few months, it should produce nearly 400 000 cars per year: the Forte, the Rio, and another mystery car—perhaps the next Soul?
But we’ll talk about the plant another time. The main reason for our visit was to see this Forte because Hyundai (Kia’s sister company) has a new Elantra for 2017, which means that Kia has to do the same for its compact.
Except that it turns out that its new Forte isn’t really new after all. Rather, it’s an ever-so-slightly modified version of the previous version.
What’s new for 2017? Two major things: goodbye 1.8-litre engine, hello 2.0-litre four-cylinder Atkinson found in the Elantra. Otherwise, the bumpers have been modified to appear more modern and refined.
Inside, there are a few esthetic changes and a whole whack of new technology. The Forte sedan is also available, depending on the version you choose, with a driving aid system that keeps you in the middle of your lane. It’s like a mini Tesla Autopilot setup, except that you can’t let go of the steering wheel.
The six-speed automatic gearbox has also been improved, making it more docile and adding plates in the torque converter.
You can’t sacrifice quality
Kia is one of the brands that, year after year, stands out for initial product quality according to J.D. Power. We have to admit, the Forte, as diverse as its lineup is, delivers great quality.
When you get inside, the materials appear to be good quality and the assembly solid.
The spacious seats are great, and even more so since they are comfortable thanks to the cushioning.
But there’s just no passion at the wheel. The Forte5 SX with the 1.6-litre turbo engine is very good, though. The sedan version offers two engines: the Atkinson four with 147 horsepower and 132 lb.-ft. of torque in the LX, and the good old GDI four, also a two-litre with 173 horsepower and 154 lb.-ft. of torque in the other variants.
The Atkinson engine, which replaces the 1.8-litre engine, has very similar power and at a combined average of 7.5 L/100 km, its fuel economy is a little better. The more powerful 2.0-litre GDI offers a combined fuel consumption of 8.2 L/100 km. Have fun! Don’t deprive yourself of this additional power and smoothness for such a small difference, especially since the GDI engine is much livelier. However, if your budget only allows you to get the Atkinson engine, it’s not too bad either, albeit a tad boring.
The 2017 Forte’s ride is just as dull as the 2016 Forte. Driving modes that only change the gears and the sensitivity of the accelerator aren’t sufficient to spark excitement.
The Forte’s problem is that it tries to do everything at the same time. However, all segments feature champion cars. You can’t claim to be a dynamic car if you aren’t one: it’s just that simple.
Hyundai has just announced an upcoming sport version of the Elantra that will have more than 200 horsepower, and something similar should follow at Kia. In the meantime, the 2017 Forte, the sedan at least, is not a bad car at all. It does everything well, but doesn’t excel at anything.