The KIA Forte: Designed To Be Surprising

Gary S. Vasilash

The bread-and-butter car for Kia in the U.S. market is the Spectra. It is being replaced with the Forte. It may not be caviar on toast, but it is elevating tastes in the compact sedan segment.

The bread-and-butter car for Kia in the U.S. market is the Spectra. It is being replaced with the Forte. It may not be caviar on toast, but it is elevating tastes in the compact sedan segment.

The tagline used by Kia Motors America is "The Power to Surprise." And there are some things about Kia that are, indeed, surprising. For example, did you know that Kia was established 65 years ago, in Seoul? That it started out as a manufacturer not of cars and trucks, but of steel tubing and bicycle parts? That it is said to be responsible for the production of Korea's first domestically built:
• Bicycle (1951)
• Motor scooter (1957)
• Motorcycle (1961)
• Truck (1962)
• Internal combustion engine (1973)
That's surprising.

In addition to which, it developed Korea's first domestic electric vehicles (1986), sold the first Korean electric vehicle (1993) and developed the first Korean fuel-cell vehicle (2000). That, too, is surprising.

Kia entered the U.S. market in 1994 with the Sephia compact sedan. It sold 12,163 vehicles in its first year. Through 2008, it increased its U.S. market share year after year, and has gone from the single offering to 13 different vehicles, including an SUV, a minivan, CUVs, and cars. In 2008 it sold 273,397 units. That's somewhat surprising.

Kia is launching the Forte compact sedan in the U.S. market. It is really surprising. Surprising because this car, which replaces the Spectra in the company's lineup—and note that the Spectra is by far Kia's biggest selling vehicle in the U.S., with 2008 sales of 68,465 units, followed by the Optima with 44,904, so they're taking a surprising risk by taking away their biggest model name—is a car that is completely competitive with well-established models in the category.

The car is built in the company's Hwaseong, South Korea, ISO 14001 certified manufacturing plant. The car was designed at the Kia Design Center America in Irvine, CA (where the Kia Soul, the car preceding the Forte, was also designed). The car has world-wide availability.

The car was developed knowing full well that in the U.S. market, Kia is a "challenger brand," and the companies that it aims at challenging are, primarily, Toyota and Honda, so this is no small challenge. While the Spectra was primarily about price, value, warranty, safety, and interior space, for the Forte, as well as for other vehicles that are under development, they're not going to be giving any of that up, but they're upping their game. According to Michael Sprague, vp of Marketing for Kia Motors America, there are three key elements, or "guiding truths," for development:
1. Be more than a worthy competitor
2. Deliver on an exciting and enabling positioning
3. Provide top-tier design and quality.
And, note well that in the case of the Forte, they are doing this at a starting MSRP of $13,695. (That's for the base, LX, model, of which they expect will account for about 20% of the sales volume, so it is not like this is one of those "phantom models" that vehicle manufacturers sometimes promote.)

However, things get really interesting when arriving at the two higher trim levels, the EX and SX, and it should be noted, as well, that here the starting MSRPs are $15,795 and $17,195, so it is not like Kia is going to take anyone to the cleaners. All of the trims are front-drive. All have a wheelbase of 104.3 in., length of 178.3 in., width of 69.9 in., height of 57.5 in. And inside, all have 96.8-ft3 of passenger volume, including a top hat-friendly 40 in. of headroom. As the trunk is a capacious 14.7-ft3, there is plenty of space to store a multitude of hats.

The LX and EX have a 2.0-liter DOHC four that generates 156 hp and 144 lb-ft of torque; this engine features continuously variable valve timing (CVVT). The standard transmission is a five-speed manual; an electronically controlled four-speed automatic is the option. Either way, the fuel economy numbers are 25/34 mpg. The SX has a 2.4-liter four that provides 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque; it has a standard six-speed manual or an optional five-speed automatic with "Sportmatic" shift capability. Its numbers are 22/32 with the six-speed or 23/31 with the five-speed.

However, in keeping up with the times, there is a Forte that provides 27/36 mpg, or a surprising combined 30 mpg: the EX with the Fuel Economy Package. It uses the five-speed automatic, adds a few aero touches, has an electric power steering system, an alternator that works only when it has to, and silica tires.