The newest Kia Forte is second-best in government fuel economy ratings among 2011 mid-size hatchbacks. Only the Toyota Prius, with hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain, does better.
But the new-for-2011 Forte 5-Door gets its rating of 26 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway from its base, four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.
The newest Forte also adds 32 percent more cargo space, a bit more rear-seat headroom and a lot more style than its sibling Forte sedan. It's the additional cargo space that vaults this five-door Forte into the larger, mid-size class. The four-door Forte sedan is classified by the government as a compact.
Adding to the Forte interest, Consumer Reports magazine has listed the Forte as a recommended buy, and it comes with a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile limited, bumper-to-bumper warranty.
I just wish the Forte hatchback test car had a more refined suspension and ride, a bit ritzier interior and better crash test ratings.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2011 Forte 5-Door is $17,645 with 156-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. The lowest starting retail price for a 2011 Forte 5-Door with automatic is $18,645. The Forte 5-Door with a more powerful, 173-horsepower, four-cylinder engine starts at $19,145 with manual transmission and $20,145 with automatic.
Note that these prices include items that are not usually standard equipment on base hatchbacks, such as Bluetooth wireless phone connectivity and keyless entry.
Meantime, the Prius starts at $24,280 and is rated at 51/48 mpg by the federal government because of its use of supplemental, on-board-generated electric power. Another hatchback competitor without hybrid technology is the 2011 Mazda3 five-door, which starts at $20,840 with 167-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission and is rated at 20/28 mpg.
In personality, the Forte is middle of the range between the sport-inclined Mazda3 hatchback and the fuel-sipping Prius. And it looks that way, too. The Forte 5-Door is well proportioned on the outside and attractive. But it's neither overtly sporty nor utilitarian in appearance.
Inside, passengers find a good amount of room in both front and rear seats. In fact, headroom in the rear seats measures 38.4 inches, which is more than the 37.6 inches in the Forte sedan. Front headroom of 40 inches is the same in both body styles and works well for even 6-footers.
Rear legroom is 35 inches in both Forte sedan and hatchback, and with the driver's seat up a ways on its track, I sat comfortably behind in the hatchback. But like the sedan, which has the same 69.9-inch width, the Forte 5-Door sets the middle person in the rear seat close to and touching the two other rear-seat passengers.
Seats in the test Forte, with optional leather trim, looked good and provided decent comfort.
But the car's ride readily sent vibrations and jolts to the seat cushions. The hatchback suspension _ independent MacPherson struts in front and torsion beam at the rear _ seemed inordinately busy on even relatively smooth roads. There were constant sounds and chatter going on under the car floor that could become distracting, even if passengers weren't feeling road bumps intimately.
There was considerable road noise, too, in the Forte, particularly on rough, just-scraped pavement that sent me reaching for the volume knob on the radio so I could mask the sounds with more music.
The test hatchback was the top-of-the-line SX, which had the uplevel, 173-horse four cylinder and six-speed automatic. This six-speed transmission helps maximize fuel mileage even on this more highly equipped model, which included standard paddle shifters for shift-it-yourself moves without needing a clutch pedal.
I heard the engine often as I pressed it up hills and around town. The sounds were OK, but sometimes a bit raspy. I felt shift points at times, too, as the Forte sought to respond to my demands. There wasn't the smoothness to the gear changes that I experienced in some other cars.
Overall, though, the engine delivered power steadily and with good response. Torque peaks at 168 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm, and I never felt the car lagging, even when I had four adults and some luggage inside.
I didn't even try to maximize fuel mileage and yet I got 27 mpg in driving that was 65 percent in the city and the rest on highways. This allowed for a 370-mile range on a single, 13.7-gallon tank of regular gas.
The dashboard area of the Forte 5-Door was well-arranged and easy to understand. I just wished the plastics didn't seem so generic in my test car that topped out at more than $23,000.
It's easy to reach inside the sizable rear-door openings to unlatch and then flip down the Forte hatchback's rear seatbacks. And there's no doubt that the 19.4 cubic feet of cargo space, which compares with the 14.7 cubic feet in the Forte sedan, was flexible and accommodating.
All safety equipment is standard on the Forte 5-Door, including six air bags, traction control and electronic stability control.
But the federal government crash test ratings for the Forte are not as good as for some competitors. Specifically, in crash testing into a frontal barrier, the Forte received five out of five stars for driver protection but only three out of five stars for front-passenger protection. The Forte is rated at four out of five starts in passenger protection in a side crash.
Note that Kia does not offer a rear-view camera for the Forte 5-Door.