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2017 Kia Forte: A tale of two cars

2017 Kia Forte 1.jpg
2017 Kia Forte (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

As I mentioned in my first-look review of the 2017 Cadenza, Kia’s got some great things going for it. The brand has managed to make some attractive, low-cost cars that have decent ride and handling and up-level amenities.

While the name “Kia” might scare some label-conscious buyers away, all I have to say is: Get over it.

Take, for example, the 2017 Forte. It’s one of the few cars that still has a base price closer to $15K than $20K, and though it is compact, it still has plenty of space for people and stuff.

Plus, if you top out at the EX trim and add all the safety tech, the final price of the vehicle is slightly more than $26K. Personally, I find that pretty amazing.

Design

In the space of about 10 years, Kia has managed to go from an econobox to a vehicle that’s nicely designed and well worth owning.


For 2017 the Forte gets a slight exterior update that tightens up some of the lines and adds a little class. Headlights and taillights have been redesigned as well as the front fascia.

One of the little design features I appreciate in the Forte is the door handles. The test vehicle came with smart key entry and push-button start. A lot of manufacturers add a glaring black button on the handle that trips the lock/unlock button. It’s functional yet ugly. I loved that Kia took an extra step and integrated the button into the silver accent on the handle. It makes the little Forte look like a vehicle that should cost a lot more.

Overall, the exterior comes off looking elegant, sleek and up-level.

The inside, however, is a mixed bag of goods.

The cloth seats are fine, and I like the reverse stitching surrounding the seams. The front cup holders are well placed so they don’t interfere with an arm reaching for the gearshift. I also appreciated the light in the glove box and the large 7-inch touch screen that is standard starting at the S trim. Plus, I was surprised to find nicely padded door arm rests in both the front and rear of the vehicle.


But that’s where the tactile pleasantries end. The faux carbon fiber accents on the dash of the S trim looked cheap. Plus, I couldn’t figure out the hard dash panel in front of the passenger seat that looked like fish gills.

I get that this is a vehicle that has a base price under $17K, and the more plasticky accents are in keeping with the price point. I just thought it was odd to see so many nice touches diminished by cheap ones.

Ride & Handling

The test vehicle was the new S trim with the sport-tuned suspension, rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels. It also has the new base 2.0-liter engine that delivers 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque.

I thought the Forte was perfectly powered for every kind of driving situation I encountered. It was fast off the start from red lights, and it merged well with traffic.

Need more power? There is an available 2.0-liter engine that delivers 164 horsepower. This comes with the EX trim, but unless you really want the standard leather seats and some of the other up-level amenities, the extra power isn’t really necessary.


In general, the Forte is well-suited to urban situations, and it is easy to parallel park and maneuver in tight traffic. It is also comfortable and quiet on the highway, which makes this a great vehicle for suburban or city dwellers, too.

Fuel economy

The new base engine also comes with really good fuel economy. EPA estimates the Forte will get 29 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. If you opt for the up-level engine, you’ll still get decent fuel economy with city/highway ratings of 25/33 mpg.

Tech & gadgets

The great thing about the Forte is you can get some good high-tech features for little money. Of course, that excludes the base LX trim, where air conditioning and Bluetooth phone pairing are standard, but that’s about it. You have to level up to either S or EX to start getting goodies like Apple CarPlay and autonomous emergency braking.

If you can afford at least $22K, you can get everything from push-button start, lane keep assist and 7-inch touch screen infotainment display to a trunk that opens when you stand behind it – without flailing feet and waving hands.

Trims

For 2017 there are now three trim levels ranging from just less than $17K to just more than $22K.

LX: This is the base trim and comes standard with the base 2.0-liter I-4 engine and a 6-speed manual transmission. Standard items include Bluetooth phone pairing, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, projector beam headlights, steering wheel mounted audio controls, tilt and telescoping steering wheel. Base price for this trim is $17,340. The automatic transmission adds $1,010.


S: This trim adds a standard automatic transmission as well as front LED positioning lights, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a 7-inch infotainment touch screen, sport-tuned suspension, auto light control, rear camera display, drive mode select and cruise control. Base price is $20,050.

EX: This top-tier trim is equipped with the up-level 2.0-liter I-4 engine that delivers 164 horsepower and adds standard features such as rear LED lights, leather seating with heated front seats, push-button start, passive entry and smart trunk. Base price is $22,345, and the EX tops out around $27K with the addition of the Premium Plus Package ($4,490).

The test vehicle was the sporty new S trim, which added the Technology Package. That means it included all the safety tech that puts it in the running for an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus (though it hasn’t been tested yet) for less than $22K.

Safety

Standard safety features include dual-stage front air bags, dual front seat-mounted side air bags, full-length side curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes, vehicle stability management, traction control, stability control, hill-start assist and tire pressure monitoring.

Optional safety features include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking. These features are not available at the LX trim and will add $1,490 to the S trim pricing (included in the Technology Package) and $4,490 to the EX trim pricing (included in the Premium Plus Package).


The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the 2017 Forte "Good" marks in all of the crashworthiness tests it performed. Plus it gets a superior rating for its crash avoidance and mitigation system. So, I'm trying to figure out why it didn't make the list organizations Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ list. Perhaps it's because of the new headlight criteria?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tested the 2017 model and gives it an overall 5-star rating.

Not sure what the safety ratings mean? We break it down for you here.

New for 2017

The Forte gets an exterior refresh as well as adds a new S trim, an updated 6-speed automatic transmission and a new 2.0-liter engine. Advanced driver assist systems, including lane keep assist and autonomous emergency braking, are also available for the first time.

A few of my favorite things

The exterior of the Forte is beautifully done. It’s elegant and sleek with up-level touches that make it look like a much more expensive vehicle.


I also love that all the high-tech safety features are available at this level – and they won’t break the bank. A fully equipped Forte will cost just more than $27K.

What I can leave

The interior of the Forte was mostly that of an up-level vehicle, except for a few glaring features like the faux carbon fiber dash inserts and weird gill-like dash design on the passenger side.

The front headrests also did not pass the “pony tail” test. They were OK if I had my hair down, but as soon as I pulled my hair back the headrest started to push my head forward at odd angles. While this was livable for a weeklong test, it would not be something I’d choose for an everyday driver.

I’m surprised the rear camera isn’t standard on the base model.


The bottom line

While I think the 2017 Forte is an awesome vehicle, there are a couple features that keep this car from being a home run. First is the random mix of high- and low-end features. Kia does a great job with the design – especially on the exterior -- but then cheaped out in weird places on the interior.

For the money, it’s definitely worth a test. But will it stand up to the likes of Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic? It depends on what you’re looking for, and where your preferences lie. Do you want more power? Civic. Do you want a cleaner interior? Elantra. Better city fuel economy? Corolla.

Overall, Forte has a nice well-rounded package that makes it competitive, in terms of not only pricing but also quality fit and finish. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if Civic, Elantra or Corolla are on your shopping list, Forte should be there, too.

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