Kia has had an unremarkable history in Canada. For a while, it was looked upon as the poorer sister to big brother Hyundai. In the last few years, however, all has changed. Kia’s styling has matured, its sales have increased in multiples of thousands and it is now a brand with which to be reckoned.
Although there is a great deal of platform and technology sharing between Kia and Hyundai, each is carving out their own niche in the marketplace. Kia has a sportier intention, while Hyundai, even with its sports models like the Veloster and Genesis coupe, is more mainstream. Kia’s philosophy is rooted in “The Power To Surprise”. Let’s see how the new-for-2014 Kia Forte surprises the recently refreshed Honda Civic.
The Civic is a perennial best seller. Honda sells almost twice as many vehicles as Kia domestically. This is a David versus Goliath story. The 14 years in Canada upstart versus the wily veteran of 43 years in our market.
The Forte has a new look, borrowing heavily from its larger sibling, the Optima. This is not a bad thing. The Optima looks sleek, sophisticated and mature, almost Jaguar-like, and the Forte reflects this look in a smaller package. Peter Schreyer, Kia’s Chief Design Officer since 2006 and now President of Kia, has rolled out his signature ‘tiger nose’ on the new Forte. Mr. Schreyer has advanced Kia’s look to be unique, distinctive, and instantly recognizable as a Kia. Previous designs were, in Mr. Schreyer’s words, “very neutral”. Inoffensive design is just as polarizing as design that is daring, and the new Forte is daring and successful. The tapered wedge look, the upward sloping belt line ending in a very European (read: BMW) Hofmeister Kink (the area of the passenger side rear window that comes back in a ‘C’ or reverse ‘C’ depending on which side of the vehicle you stand), and the upper belt line seam that integrates the door handles and finishes in the tail light, all provide a flowing, integrated, harmonious look.
Mr. Schreyer came from Audi after designing the highly influential TT coupe. Having been made the Chief Design Officer of Hyundai in addition to Kia, it will be interesting to see how he guides the two brands to keep them distinctive.
Inside, you’ll find economy car standards. There is no grand sweep of the dashboard integrated with the front doors. There’s no centre stack to meet the centre console. But this is a vehicle that starts at $15,995, and methinks I doth protest too much. The main controls for the radio and interior climate are canted towards the driver. The centre console armrest and door armrests are nicely padded and the front seats have generous bolsters to keep you in place. The rest of the interior has tone-on-tone shades of grey and black, that appears either austere or subtle, the latter reflecting my feeling on the subject.
Kia has a delightful habit of putting upscale features in their lower priced car lines. A few features of note: power folding side mirrors are available on the EX and SX trim levels. The SX includes a heated steering wheel; a decadent feature you’ll appreciate even if you only use it a few times in a year. The SX model also includes heated rear seats, again, a feature rarely found in this class of car.
Under the hood, two engines are available. A 1.8 litre dual overhead cam engine with 148 horsepower will provide excellent fuel economy. For the performance minded, a 2.0 litre, 173 horsepower direct injected gas engine will provide extra kick during passing maneuvers. The Forte doesn’t have an answer for the Civic Si’s 201 horsepower engine, but even the base engine has eight more horsepower than Civic’s 140 horsepower unit.
How do these two vehicles stack up?
In the most competitive market segment, the cost of entry is high. Power, heated mirrors, air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth streaming audio, cruise control, a rear view monitor and a full complement of safety equipment is the start of getting the buyer’s interest. The value story starts to separate the two vehicles into their distinctive personalities:
Forte comes with more horsepower, but you pay a penalty at the pump for performance. Civic is rated with a fuel consumption of 7.0L/100km in the city and 5.1 L/100km on the highway. Forte is not a miserly sipper in comparison at 8.4L/100km and 5.7L/100km respectively. Time for a little math. If you drive 20,000 km per year, split between 12,000km in the city and 8,000km on the highway, the Civic will cost you approximately $1,560 in fuel, at a price of $1.25 per litre. The Forte? $1,830. Is the extra horsepower worth an extra $270 per year in fuel costs? Over four years, the value advantage that Forte holds disappears. Then again, maybe throwing the Forte into a corner, with its beefier 215/45-17 tires gripping the apex, the steering mode set to sport, while flipping the paddle shifters to match the engine revs to the curve is just your cup of tea, or, rather, your can of Red Bull. Kia is all about the visible value, such as the illuminated vanity mirrors, leather wrapped shifter, auto dimming rear view mirror and satellite radio.
On the other hand, there’s the Civic. Open the power moonroof as you serenely pass the Forte filling up at the gas station. The glow of the electroluminescent gauges keeps you informed of your excellent fuel economy while the automatic temperature control prioritizes your comfort. Reply to a text message from your spouse with a few presses of your steering wheel controls, and you are certainly in command central.
This is a good thing, too, or we’d all be driving Model-T Fords, in any colour we want as long as it’s black. I don’t envy the task of today’s manufacturers. They need to differentiate their vehicles from the competition, give them personalities of their own, while meeting reliability, quality, affordability and fuel economy standards that are daunting. The result? Unprecedented choice for the consumer.
Forte is a larger vehicle in just about every dimension. More front and rear headroom, more hip room, more trunk space; Forte wins this round at almost every turn.
Civic didn’t get to its place as one of Canada’s favourite compact cars overnight, and neither will Forte. But with very strong entries from Kia and Hyundai, Honda might want to remember the last time a young upstart turned the automotive marketplace on its ear. In 1973, the Honda Civic came to Canada, and things haven’t been the same, since. Will we say the same of the Forte in 2039, forty years after the establishment of Kia Canada? Time will tell.