Kia is not fooling around.


Korea's other automaker has a surprise on deck for 2012 that should make econo-compact buyers smile - and will definitely make competitors sweat.
Two surprises, actually... .


WHAT IT IS

The Forte is Kia's entry-level compact car. It's available in regular sedan, hatchback sedan and coupe (which Kia spells Koup) bodystyles and marketed as a cut above the typical economy car as far as how it looks, how big it is and what it comes with - but without a price tag to match.
A base LX sedan with 2.0 lter engine and six-speed manual transmission has an MSRP of $14,995. The hatchback sedan - which comes standard with a six-speed automatic transmission - starts at $16,895.


Both the standard sedan and the hatchback sedan are available with a larger 2.4 liter engine.


The sporty Koup - which is almost a different model because it has its own unique exterior - is also available with either engine, as well as either transmission. Base price is $16,995 for an EX with the 2 liter engine and six-speed manual. A top-of-the-line SX Koup with 2.4 liter engine and six-speed automatic starts at $18,395.


Buyer's note: Kia had not released official 2012 pricing at the time of this review but expect the prices quoted above to be about what they'll be.

WHAT'S NEW FOR 2012

This review was written before official details were either confirmed or denied, but apparently Kia is going to build on the success of the 2011 Forte by adding a hybrid model to the mix and offering a turbocharged version of the 2.0 liter engine - packing as much as 274 hp - in the Koup at least.


The hybrid Forte should deliver about the same fuel economy as a Honda Civic hybrid while the turbo Koup would - if the hints are accurate - outclass would-be competitors like the Honda Civic Si by as much as 70 hp while selling for about the same money .


Possibly, less.


WHAT'S GOOD

Already one of the best deals going in its class.


Honda Civic-like array of bodystyles, powertrains, available features - at a Kia price.


Close to 40 MPG highway with Fuel Economy Package.


Two of the strongest base/optional engines you can get in the under-$20k segment.


Top-drawer warranty coverage.


WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD

Manual transmission not available in hatchback sedans with either engine.


Telescoping steering wheel comes only with higher-cost SX trims.


Fuel Economy Package upgrades ought to be standard - not extra cost.


UNDER THE HOOD

One of the Forte's fortes is power. Even the least expensive LX versions come standard with a 156 hp, 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. Just for comparision a Toyota Corolla's standard 1.8 engine is rated 132 hp; the Honda Civic's standard 1.8 liter engine makes 140 hp. The Forte's standard engine is among the most powerful engines you'll find in a new car costing under $15k to start.



The 2.0 liter engine can be teamed up with either a six-speed manual transaxle or (optionally), Kia's six-speed "Sportmatic" automatic, with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.


Unfortunately - and inexplicably - the hatchback sedan comes only with the automatic. But the upside is you get better gas mileage with this transmission: 26 city, 36 highway vs. 25 city, 34 highway with the manual. And that can be bumped up t0 27 city, 37 highway if you choose the optionally available Fuel Economy Package - which includes low-rolling-resistance tires, electric-assist power steering, low-drag alternator and a more aerodynamic exterior to cut down on wind resistance.


The next-up Forte engine is a larger, 2.4 liter four cylinder that delivers 173 hp. In the sedan, you can team this engine up with a manual transmission, but (again) if you choose the hatchback sedan, it's the automatic only.


A Forte with 2.0 liter engine and six-speed manual can reach 60 mph in just over 8 seconds.


A Forte sedan or Koup with the 2.4 liter engine and six-speed manual can reach 60 mph in about 7.3-7.5 seconds.


If Kia does follow through with the hints it's been dropping, in early spring 2012 the Optima's 274 hp turbocharged engine will be available in the Koup and possibly the four and five-door Fortes, too. The target seems to be the MazdaSpeed3 - the only other FWD compact with that kind of power for around $23k or so.



The expected hybrid version of the Forte could be a game-changer, too.


ON THE ROAD

Models with the 2.0 liter engine accelerate as well or better than other cars n this class/price range - and the SX with the 173 hp engine is as quick 0-60 as a Mazda Miata.


It's a shame that the hatchback sedan is an automatic only deal, though. The base 2.0 liter is powerful enough to work ok with the automatic, but a manual would be more fun - even if not quite as fuel-efficient as the sharp-shifting six-speed automatic.


The base /LX Forte sedan/hatchback sedan/Koup's ride is softer and more isolated from the road than the typical economy car's - a desirable feature for people who aren't looking to throttle-steer through corners as much as they are looking for a quiet, comfortable get-you-to-work-and-home-again ride.


I liked the Forte's soft, plush, almost mid-sized car ride more than the Honda Civic's noticeably firmer, almost sports-car ride - and much more than the much over-rated Toyota Corolla's tinny/bouncy economy car feel.
If you want a bit more sportiness, choose the SX trim (available with all three bodystyles). It has a firmer ride and sharper reflexes due in large part to the more aggressive 17 inch wheels with performance tires. It's not quite as quick as a Civic Si, but the handling/steering/responsiveness is in the same ballpark.


And when Kia puts the Optima's 274 hp engine in this thing a few months from now, look out.


AT THE CURB

It's hard to tell from looking at it that the Forte is Kia's least expensive model.



For openers, it's a pretty large car for an entry-level compact - and there are several un-economy car styling details such as the compound curves of the front quarter panels, which arc upward near the joint at the base of the windshield (the "A" pillar) to meet an upward swooshing front door sill. Ok, so the front end has some obvious Civic-inspired hints to it. But as GM styling legend Bill Mitchell once put it, there's nothing wrong with cribbing someone else's design if you crib a good design.


The interior's big selling point is its roominess compared with competitors.
For example, the Forte sedan has more front and rear legroom and headroom than the Corolla and Civic. You could buy a Nissan Versa 1.6 and get more backseat room (including about three inches more rear seat legroom) than all of them for around $11k with AC. But the Versa 1.6 is basic transportation, early '70s style. It doesn't even come with a radio.
Meanwhile, the LX Forte comes standard with an MP3-playing stereo with SiriusXM satellite - as well as Bluetooth wireless connectivity. No extra charge. The only almost-essential that's not include in the base price is AC. Order the EX and you get that plus power windows, locks, cruise control, keyless entry and a very nice six-speaker audio system.


High-end options (many of these are standard on SX versions) include keyless ignition, voice-command, metallic interior trim plates and leather seats with heaters for the driver and front seat passenger. You can order an SX htachbcak sedan or Koup with umost everything on the menu and only be looking at about $23k.

That's a pretty sweet deal. A top-of-the-line Civic GX starts at $25,490 - and that's with the 140 hp, 1.8 liter engine (vs. the SX Forte's 174 hp engine).


Lots of trunk space, too.


Almost 15 cubic feet - which is significantly more than the Civic (12 cubic feet ) and the Corolla (12.3 cubic feet). The Forte's trunk number also beats the price-busting Versa (13.8 cubic feet).


And those numbers go up if you choose the hatchback, which has almost 20 cubic feet behind the second row.


THE REST

So, what's not to like?


Just the few small items mentioned (no manual with the hatchback sedan; telescoping steering wheel only available in the higher-cost SX). But that aside, if AC were standard in the base model LX, this car would be hard to knock on any level.


And: Kia must feel confident about the quality of its cars because it offers the most comprehensive and generous warranty coverage in the business: Ten years/100,000 mile powertrain (engine and transmission) warranty and five-year, 60,000 mile coverage on the whole car, wheels to roof.
This is nearly twice the coverage Toyota and Honda offer (three years/ 36,000 miles).


Plus free roadside assistance.


THE BOTTOM LINE

Appealing as it already is, the soon-to-be-here turbo Forte and hybrid Forte could make this Kia the one to beat.


Throw it in the Woods?