Looking at a Kia Forte5 SX then driving it is kind of like looking at a small, plump tangerine and then biting into it only to realize how sweet it really is. From the outside, this simple five door isn’t more than another compact, sensible, daily driver. Something built for penny-pinchers and high school kids whose fathers want them in something inexpensive, practical, and safe. That’s true, the Forte5 SX is all of these things.
But once you’re behind the wheel, you’ll notice that something’s different. There’s a well-stitched interior, with heated seats up front and in back. The navigation system and MID are as well-designed as the rest of the interior, with an overall great fit and finish. Oh, and someone must have made a mistakenly put a six-speed manual gearbox in this thing, because it almost feels like a hot hatch.
Then you realize that none of this is by accident. After cranking it up and taking it out, you see that this Kia has the ability to offer some serious satisfaction. It’s no Golf R by any means, but when it comes to being a crafty little cocktail, the Forte SX 5 is spiked with just enough hard stuff to make it memorable.
Memorable, but not perfect; Kia is preparing to finally update the Forte. But if you’re in the market, you might want to wait for the new model to come out and snag one of these little guys for a song, because being practical and playful is exactly what this car is all about. Sure, the next Forte5 SX will hopefully address some issues I had with this car. But overall, this little guy is great as is, and I found far more to like than not.
From the front, the Forte is relatively unexceptional and has a feminine feel that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It isn’t a horrid nose, but it isn’t an incredibly brazen one either. Those bubbly lines and alien-like eyelids don’t leave you with a feeling that this is a car for enthusiasts – something that left me torn. As much as I like that pinched grille (some of the only chrome on the car), that bulging black center bumper along with those overly busy fog lights and uninspired lower valance were shrug-worthy at best.
On the bright side, those split “sakura flower” alloy wheels look damn good, the ride height is appropriate, the sideview mirrors and markers are well sculpted, and having the LED-illuminated handles chromed-out adds a nice touch against the Steel Blue paint scheme. Perhaps the best part of the Forte5 SX to me was the rear hatch, which comes standard with a gorgeous set of LED taillights and a dual port oval exhaust, each nestled on either side of a slightly over-sized rear diffuser.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Those 18-inch alloy rollers and low profile tires look pretty slick, making an argument if Kia wants to throw-down with heavy hitters like the mighty GTI.
+ Power-folding heated mirrors come standard with integrated turn signals and puddle lights.
+While the profile isn’t bad, its hind quarters are what make it a winner. The LED taillights, a well-proportioned hatch, dual port oval exhaust tips, and a sizable rear diffuser tie it all together.
– Overly soft lines make the front of the Forte5 look odd, and those strange-looking fog lights don’t help. We’re curious to see what would happen if this car gets some angular Optima influences down the line.
– You would expect a more aggressive aero kit for a performance model, but the SX is pretty subdued save for its rear bumper area.
– That spiral rubber antenna, fake carbon front center-bumper, and rear wing are pretty frumpy looking.
This is what I was most excited about putting to the test, as the turbocharged 1.6-liter GDI motor has been a pleasant surprise for most critics thus far. In the case of the Forte5 SX, getting one with a stick-shift was just icing on the cake.
Strong and slick, this 201 horsepower four-banger is a really fun powerplant. By opting for the standard six-speed manual gearbox, things like turbo lag can be easily masked for more smiles per gallon. It may not be as potent as the stunning 2.0 liter turbo motor found in the Optima SX-L, but for shear drivability, it’s tough to beat this gearbox/engine combo. You could drop an extra grand for the automatic tranny, but the SX is such a breeze to drive, who would want it?
Powertrain pros and cons
+ 201 horsepower may not usher forth Zeus’ rage, but in something this small it certainly gets the job done. Quietly, too.
+ There’s an option for an automatic slushbox in the Forte, and that’s nice — but with a clutch and gearbox this forgiving, who wouldn’t want to learn how to drive stick?
+ Having a motor that doesn’t like to over-rev makes engaging first gear easy, and winding the SX up like a toy car and watching it go is a lot of fun even when if it tends to bog down at higher speeds.
– There’s no Sport Mode for the powertrain, so going full beast mode isn’t really an option with the SX.
– While the 24 miles per gallon average isn’t great for a 1.6-liter turbo engine, its need for premium fuel really drove us up the wall since turbocharged cars from most other automakers now run on 87 octane.
– While it gets around okay in front-wheel drive with help from Kia’s basic traction control system, it would be nice to see an all-wheel drive option someday. Some of us have to commute in wintry conditions, and an all-wheel drive hot hatch would certainly give Kia a leg up on its competition.
While critics have praised the Forte5 SX’s nicely appointed interior (myself included), there were a few miscues, which we’ll get to later. Issues aside, this little hatchback offers an extremely well appointed interior for the money, featuring heated and ventilated front seats, heated rears, a roomy cabin, and a sprinkling of classy accent plastics.
Who cares if it’s a little dated? For $20,890, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better base-priced interior. Having said that, I’d strongly recommend adding the $2,300 SX Premium Package and the $1,900 Tech Package to the mix, as they both offer excellent value for the money.
Interior pros and cons
+ Heated rear seats, vented and heated front ones, two-way driver memory settings, aluminum sport pedals, leather everywhere, and a heated steering wheel add a lot of value to this interior. Pretty top-shelf for the most part.
+ The positioning and size of the shift knob is ideal, as is the back seat and trunk space. A 60/40 split and a deviated storage bin beneath the trunk floor are features that help make this cabin a winner.
+ Having the additional power sunroof, automatic dual zone climate control, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror is nice, but for our money it’s the standard stuff like the push-button start and that leather-wrapped steering wheel that make our day.
– Certain touches and parts of the dash look dated, and the fake carbon trim doesn’t help. There are also some consistency issues with the dash stitching, as well as with knobs and buttons.
– Those leather sport seats may be heated and ventilated, but even after playing with all of the 10 controls on the driver’s seat I still couldn’t find a setting that made it as comfy as the Optima SX-L.
– It confounds me that certain Kia models get LED interior lights and others don’t. And who purposefully makes a glovebox and center console under-sized when there’s plenty of room to make them larger, and then puts the E-brake so close to the driver’s seat that it’s almost impossible to put one’s hand around it?
Tech and safety
The Forte5 SX I received came equipped with the available tech package, which added $1,900 but also offered things like a navigation system with Sirius traffic updates, a 4.2-inch MID, and those Xenon HID headlights. Blend that with other tech amenities and some nice safety features, and you’ve got a well-equipped little Kia without breaking the bank.
Some of my favorite features were the navi, with its crystal clear graphics, responsive touchscreen controls, and intuitive layout, and amenities like hill-start assist and keyless entry. Plus, walking up to this car at night and watching the mirrors light-up with the door handles as they fold out makes for a fantastic first impression. There are far more well-equipped vehicles out there, but most of them cost a lot more than the SX. This little Kia really is close to being a home run.
Tech pros and cons
+ Bluetooth, abundant apps, a refrigerated glovebox, endless infotainment options, customizable MID layouts, and a large touchscreen that doesn’t suck are all high points.
+ The navi option on this car is solid, with great graphics and a very intuitive layout. It could offer more detailed 3D mapping, but Kia is likely working on that for the next generation.
+ A crisp back-up camera is one thing, but once you pair hill start assist with stability control and traction systems, you’ve got a solid array of safety features that go beyond a set of disc brakes and ABS.
– Hauling ass in a turbocharged hatchback is fun until you realize that your MID doesn’t show vehicle speed, and you need to take your eyes off the road to squint at a speedometer.
– There isn’t an option for blind spot monitoring or surround view cameras on this car, something buyers are beginning to expect from tech packages nowadays.
– There are two 12V plugs and an auxiliary port up front, but there’s only one USB port and no wireless charging options available. For some reason, Kia has seemingly been slow to hop on the integrated WiFi bandwagon, something American manufacturers have been quick to capitalize on.
Driving the Forte5 SX was far more enjoyable than I predicted, as the manual gearbox and the turbocharged 1.6-liter motor work damn well with one another. It does struggle a bit on the top end, with 201 horsepower and no tricky limited-slip differential to its name. But these new GDI motors have practically eliminated turbo lag and replaced it with torque. Even though the new Volkswagen GTI and the Focus ST will run rings around it, it’s hard for me to discredit the SX; it truly is a fun car to drive.
My issues with the SX on the road are pretty straightforward. The sport suspension is not overly “sporty,” electronic steering inputs are relatively disconnected even in “Sport Mode,” and both body roll and braking are passable but not applaudable. But perhaps the biggest issue I had with the car came from the incompetent Nexen tires that come on it: Even after warming them up on the highway, these tires offered more road noise than grip, and on completely dry surfaces, these “performance tires” were flaccid, regardless of acceleration, stopping, or cornering.
Wrap up and review
So here’s the big question: Should you buy a 2015 Forte5 SX or wait for the next generation to come out? I would wait for the new one and drive both of them back-to-back to see what’s changed. There’s so much about this car that’s right-on, that it’s hard to imagine a new version could offer more for the same money, especially when prices of this car will drop the minute the new one arrives. Sure, it would be nice to see a facelift, a stiffer suspension, and a more potent motor. But the 2015’s interior and tech are really competitive, and the awful tires that come on the SX an be easily switched out for better rubber.
Kia is really narrowing the gap between what it offers versus the competition, and we wouldn’t be surprised if one day a purpose-built, all-wheel drive 2.0T Forte5 emerges with a manual gearbox. Kia knows which way the wind blows, and you can bet it wants the attention of critics, consumers, and competitors alike. The direction I see Kia going with cars like this reminds me of the $67,000 K900 sedan it sent me last summer to review. While not perfect, it was an impressive effort and showed promise that future models are only going to get better. Working on a blend of performance and luxury, it looks like Kia is just getting warmed up. We can’t wait to see what’s next.