Liz Kim | March 27, 2020
It was just over two decades ago that having a small new-car budget automatically meant you were doomed to drive the automotive equivalent of a penalty box. That’s no longer the case. Now, numerous budget-friendly vehicles offer smart design, intelligent packaging, technological advancement, and good fuel economy.
Kia’s stable is full of vehicles that are attractive, value-laden and sophisticated, and that includes the 2020 Kia Forte, a compact sedan that’s nattily styled inside and out, well-equipped at a low price, and terrific for the daily commute.
Redesigned for 2019, the Forte was the top-ranked car in its class in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS), Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout Study (APEAL), and U.S. Tech Experience Index Study. That’s a powerful owner endorsement of this car.
For 2020, the Forte gets even better. Kia debuted the GT-Line and GT versions of the Forte this year, the former adding a sporty look and the latter providing genuine power and performance. A new EX Special Edition also arrives for 2020, with upscale features and amenities. These join the existing Forte FE, LXS and EX.
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Kia Forte GT equipped with an automatic transmission, the GT2 Package, Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summer performance tires, a cargo mat, a cargo net, carpeted floor mats, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass and a garage door opener. The price came to $26,485, including the $965 destination charge.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Forte, it is helpful to understand who buys this compact car and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
Forte owners skew female (48% vs. 43% for the segment), and they’re slightly younger in terms of median age (47 years vs. 49). Forte owners report a median annual household income of $59,429, significantly less than compact car owners as a group ($71,751). Not surprisingly, 49% of Kia Forte owners identify as Price Buyers (vs. 39% for the segment).
J.D. Power data shows that 47% of Forte owners agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company, suggesting that with Chevrolet, Dodge, and Ford getting out of the small car business, they turned to Kia.
For the most part, Kia Forte owner sentiments about car buying and ownership track with those of the overall segment. They are, however, less likely to agree that quality of workmanship is a first consideration when choosing a new vehicle (83% vs. 91% for the segment). They’re also less likely to strongly agree that they will pay extra to ensure their vehicle has the latest safety features (21% vs. 25%), but this flips in terms of somewhat agreeing (55% vs. 48%).
Fuel economy is important to Forte buyers. The data shows 85% agreeing that miles per gallon is a first consideration in choosing a new vehicle (vs. 78% for the segment).
Owners say their favorite things about the Forte are (in descending order) the exterior styling, fuel economy, interior design, driving dynamics, and infotainment system. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Forte are (in descending order) the engine and transmission and the storage and space (in a tie), visibility and safety, climate control, and seats.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the 2020 Kia Forte measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.
Covered in Fire Orange paint and equipped with machined-finish 18-inch wheels and design details specific to the GT trim level, the test car might have been the most head-turning Kia Forte in history. Although I’m not a fan of its bulbous headlamps, the rest of the Forte is attractively rendered, looking for like the company’s racy Stinger sport sedan than any other car in the lineup.
Kia’s minimalistic approach to interior design is on full display inside the Forte, with a metallic bar spanning the dashboard and shiny trim pieces accenting the GT’s otherwise simple, all-black color scheme.
Yes, there are some cheap plastic trim pieces, such as those covering the roof pillars. But this is an economy car, after all, and overall the look and feel of the materials is agreeable and everything is assembled with care.
For some reason, Forte owners rate the seats as their least favorite thing about the car, but I can’t understand why that is. Even in base FE trim, both front seats offer height adjustment, a rarity in any price class let alone the compact segment.
Naturally, the Forte GT test vehicle came with the best seats in the house, heated and ventilated up front, and the 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat offered plenty of ways to get comfortable. GT trim also includes standard red contrast stitching and is available with convincing simulated Sofino leather.
For a compact car, the Forte is quite roomy, especially in the back. My rear passengers appreciated the air conditioning vents, but they wished for a USB charging port.
Two big knobs and well-marked buttons make the Forte GT’s automatic climate control a cinch to use, and together with the heated seats, quickly made for a cozy cabin in the damp late winter chill. In summer, the Forte GT’s ventilated front seats will no doubt come in handy, and they’re a real rarity in this segment.
According to Forte owners, the infotainment system ranked mid-pack in terms of their favorite features. At the same time, it ranked higher than any other compact car in the 2019 U.S. Tech Experience Index Study.
No doubt, it is easy to use. An 8-inch touchscreen display is mounted high on the dashboard, with separate power/volume and tuning knobs, and a row of buttons along the bottom lets drivers access primary functions.
Standard equipment includes Bluetooth connectivity, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection. Depending on the trim level, the Forte offers connected services, voice recognition, satellite radio, wireless device charging, and a Harman Kardon premium sound system.
Kia does a good job providing both interior storage space and a roomy trunk.
Inside, the center console bin is narrow but deep, and it held a DSLR camera without any trouble. The door panel bins and glove box are on the small side, but are usefully configured. I especially appreciated the wireless smartphone tray, providing separate storage so that the bin beneath remains usable.
Still, the interior can’t compete with the Forte’s trunk space. Measuring 15.3 cu.-ft., it essentially matches midsize cars for cargo room. Plus, the available Smart Trunk feature supplies hands-free operation. You need not stand on one foot to make it work, either, because it senses the proximity of the key fob and after a few seconds automatically opens up.
Generally speaking, visibility is good, but I found the Forte’s thick, steeply angled windshield pillars to obstruct my view in certain driving situations.
Fortunately, the car includes a standard backup camera with guidelines, and a blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning system is standard on all but FE and LXS trim levels. Every Forte, however, comes with standard forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane keeping assistance, and a driver attention monitoring system.
The Kia Forte performs well in all Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests, and the car earns a Top Safety Pick designation with full LED headlights.
In crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Forte doesn’t fare as well. It gets an overall rating of 4 starts, but in the frontal impact test the protection level for the front passenger rates only 3 stars.
All Fortes except for the GT trim level have a 147-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine making 132 lb.-ft. of torque. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) powers the front wheels, and as CVTs go, it’s a good one.
The Forte GT gets a more satisfying turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder making 201 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque. Most Forte GTs will have a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT), but enthusiasts will like the available 6-speed manual gearbox.
Perfectly matched to the Forte, and aside from a little hole in the power at the lower end of the rev range, the turbo four and DCT give you plenty of smooth acceleration. If you’re not in Sport mode, it can be a bit slow to downshift, but you can solve for that by getting the manual gearbox or leaving the driving mode in Sport.
The EPA says to expect a Forte GT to return about 30 mpg (27 city/35 highway) in mixed driving conditions. That’s either optimistic or I had too much fun driving this car, because I averaged 27.5 mpg on my test loop.
Unusually, Kia Forte owners are very pleased with the fuel economy supplied by the standard powertrain, citing it as their second favorite aspect of owning the car. So if you get the FE, LXS, GT-Line, or EX, that bodes well for your fuel bill.
In addition to a turbocharged engine and different transmissions, the Forte GT is equipped with a sport exhaust, larger front brakes and a tauter suspension. The test car’s 18-inch wheels also wore summer performance tires, and a multi-link independent rear suspension is exclusive to the GT.
Given this thorough performance tuning, it’s no surprise that the Forte GT proved itself highly capable on the curvy roads in the mountains of Malibu, California. And while it lacked the can-do perkiness of a Honda Civic Si, or the overall refinement of a Mazda3, the Forte GT inspires you keep on taking the scenic route rather than dejectedly turning toward a freeway ramp in order to reduce the time to your destination.
Around town, where most people drive most of the time, the Forte’s tidy dimensions help to negotiate busy city streets while the thick wad of turbocharged torque allows it to slip in and out of holes in traffic. The sport-tuned suspension is a bit stiff over bumps, but the multi-link rear components are definitely worth the compromise.
Not too long ago, one of the primary reasons to recommend a Kia was for its industry-leading warranty that covers the powertrain for 10 years or 100,000 miles, along with five years of bumper-to-bumper protection and 24-hour roadside assistance.
Now, that level of customer protection is just one of the reasons that the 2020 Kia Forte should be on every compact sedan buyer’s shopping list.
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