MONTERREY, Mexico—Mexico in July is not the ideal location to test out a new car. A strong yet dry heat awaited my arrival in Monterrey, not made better by the sun beaming directly at me and the refreshed 2017 Kia Forte sedan.
The reason we were in Monterrey wasn’t coincidence, however. It’s the Mexican city in the north state of Nuevo León, home to the state-of-the art Kia Motors Mexico (KMM) manufacturing facility where Kia has started to build the new Forte and will soon begin work on the Forte5 hatch.
In total, KMM covers 1,700 acres, and after a $3 billion investment that will allow for a maximum production capacity of 400,000 units, it has the potential to create 14,000 new jobs (it currently sits at 7,000).
The Forte is now in its second-generation, which began with the 2014 model year car. For 2017, don’t expect sweeping changes, but refined improvements in the way of design, technology, safety and fuel economy. As the 10th best-selling compact car in Canada for 2015, Kia is planning to maintain its footing in the segment, with a long-term plan to bring in a steady diet of additional consumers ahead of a major platform change expected for 2019.
2019 seems a long time away, so the question that inevitably arises is whether Kia’s own slogan, “The Power to Surprise,” resonates with the new Forte. Will the changes be large enough to increase Forte sales in the feisty compact sedan market? Let’s break it down.
The 2017 Forte goes through several changes, but nothing too earth-shattering in terms of exterior design. It maintains its overall shape with a sculpted sporty silhouette that is made better by Kia’s new signature “tiger-nose” grille and front bumper configuration. The grille is conservative in nature compared to other in-your-face stylings; however, some sporty appeal is provided by its radiator grille and fog lamps.
By looking at it from a distance, the Forte is not a car that would stand out in a parking lot. Rather, it takes on more of a subtle, mild-mannered appearance that works well with its new headlights – also found on the larger 2016 Optima sedan – which form a wing-shaped pattern.
Additional changes can be found on its backside, with newly designed taillights, as well as three different sets of wheels. After seeing the base 15-inch steel wheels, I would advise to go above the LX trim, as the 16- or 17-inch alloy wheels elevate the Forte significantly.
Kia boasted about a refined space with a new centre fascia, seat pattern, gear shift and more eco-friendly materials. Once again, I found this area to be more subtle than spectacular. In the SX version, the Forte is nicely dressed in soft leather; otherwise it comes in premium black cloth with stitching.
Both seats were comfortable to get into and drive. There’s plenty of space for your legs and head in both the front and rear. In total, interior capacity has increased to 2,723 litres; while cargo space gives you some 421 litres to work with. If you’re looking for storage compartments, the Forte has a spot above the gear shift for your phone on top of the regular glove compartment and centre console area.
If you go past the base trim, you’ll receive an upgraded seven-inch touchscreen that can be accessed through various buttons on the steering wheel. Android users are still the only chosen ones when it comes to iPhone connectivity, but Apple CarPlay is on its way.
Safety and its technologies are always ever-present for the Kia brand. Blind Spot Detection is standard in the EX-luxury and up trims, but if you go up to the top-of-the-line SX version, the Forte receives Automatic Emergency Brake, Lane Departure Warning and Lane Keep Assist. All of these systems offer automated support for the driver, either braking for them or steering them back in the lane.
As a bonus, SX buyers receive a navigation system; Dynamic Bending Lighting that angles the light around corners at night; as well as a smart trunk release that activates after standing behind it for three seconds.
New for 2017 is the 2.0-litre Atkinson four-cylinder that produces 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque. The numbers don’t go up much from the previous 1.8-litre unit, but the new one comes with variable valve timing to make the Forte move at a quicker pace.
The base engine is fitted with an upgraded six-speed automatic transmission that uses a multi-plate torque converter to offer improved fuel economy. The new engine and transmission package lowers the official combined fuel economy rating from 7.6 L/100 km to 7.2. For those that prefer a manual transmission, a six-speed unit is available, but only for the base LX trim.
The new six-speed automatic unit is also paired to the more powerful 2.0-litre GDI four-cylinder engine. This engine can be had once you upgrade up to the EX level, for 164 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque.
In Monterrey, Kia set up a handling course on the KMM premises in order to fully test the Forte’s power and handling capabilities. The Atkinson version was sluggish when aggressively pushed forward, but catches itself once you get past the 40 km/h mark. Handling felt loose throughout, and was not made better by Kia Canada having to shrink its course due to the lack of available space.
This led to a skinny version of a slalom that wasn’t best suited for any car in the compact sedan segment, forcing some tight turns to be made with one hand on the wheel in order to salvage it without knocking over any pylons.
Luckily, we were able to take the Forte out on the streets of Monterrey and that’s where its true colours shined alongside that bright sun. It still didn’t have the power as some other competitors, but it felt comfortable to sit and drive in. The Forte is more of a city cruiser that delivers decent fuel economy numbers. If you want more of a sportier suspension set-up, turn it to Sport mode, which will better the driving atmosphere.
If changing the drive mode won’t do the trick, there’s always that 2.0-litre GDI to put more spark in your life. Instantly, you will feel a more spirited ride that gets rolling more quickly. The power seems to complement the handling situation much better than the base—just don’t expect the world.
Kia is known for its value-added packages, and the 2017 Kia Forte doesn’t disappoint. The Forte starts out at $15,495 for the LX manual, but the volume trim is expected to be the LX+ (it should make up 44 percent of projected Canadian sales) which rings in at $19,995. The LX+ still sits on 15-inch steel wheels, which is a bummer; however it receives the seven-inch audio display, 3.5-inch TFT LCD Cluster, a rearview camera, fog lights, and heated front seats with knit stitching.
If you want to go EX or up, there’s still plenty of value to be had. It’s only a couple grand more to go from the LX+ to the EX and that gets you the more powerful engine, 16-inch alloy wheels, LED positioning lights and side-view mirror, chrome door handles, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, soft-touch door panels and that smart trunk feature, to name a few. It’s a good package at a reasonable price, something Kia continues to specialize in.
Even the top-of-the-line SX only goes as high as $27,295, providing you those safety technology features, a navigation system, Xenon HID headlights, paddle shifters, ventilated front seats and alloy pedals.
The 2017 Kia Forte sedan continues to improve on its combination of technology, smart looks and performance at a value-laden price that averages around the $20K mark. It won’t blow you away, and comes across as more conservative than surprising, so expect a steady-but-not-large uptick in short-term sales.
In the end, it’s a safe choice when you’re looking for a compact sedan that comes with perks without having to go beyond your monthly allocated budget.
Kia is setting its sights on long-term goals of elevating the Kia brand through its upcoming modern “Red Cube” showrooms. It’s through dealer initiatives and the customer experience that the brand hopes to bring new customers into the fold.
Sales of the Forte sedan will begin at the end of July, while the Forte5 hatch will come out in August, followed by the sleeker Koup in August and September.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.