Nobody asked me, but . . .

What we have here is a grown-up Kia.  A 2014 Kia Forte EX, grown-up in style, comfort, convenience and feature content, but still decidedly pre-adolescent in size.  Meaning it competes with the likes of the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart and VW Jetta in the compact segment.

During the past few years we have witnessed a change in buyer habits with consumers downsizing from midsize to compact cars in conjunction with the shrinking of their nest eggs, courtesy of the still lingering 2008 depression.  Lower price tags and higher fuel economy for compacts versus their midsize brethren are oft-cited reasons for the switch.  But consumers who have grown up with and become accustomed to the content and appointments of larger vehicles aren’t easily weaned off these accouterments.  Ergo, the birth of the premium compact, such as the Forte EX.

The Kia Forte EX I borrowed for this evaluation has a base MSRP of $20,200 (including $1000 in transportation charges).  But you gotta add another 25 percent to that price for this full boat version.  The Technology and Premium packages contribute nearly $5,000 to the bottom line, adding features including, navigation, dual-zone climate control, leather seats, a multi-adjustable driver’s seat including power lumbar with heating and ventilation, a heated steering wheel, heated front passenger and rear outboard seats, sunroof and HID headlights.

All this on top of standard heated and power-folding exterior mirrors, fog lights, LED running lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, and a sliding center-console armrest.

This stuff comes wrapped in a style-leading exterior package and a nicely appointed interior with fit, finish and use of up-scale materials that give this Kia a decidedly non-compact look and feel.  I particularly liked the sporty carbon fiber dash accents and the logical HVAC buttons and knobs.

The one standard feature that was missing from my glovebox was the owner’s manual.  It would have been handy for deciphering some of the less obvious features of Kia’s UVO infotainment system.

There’s nothing to dislike about the driver accommodations except for a minor personal gripe about the hard-edge, steering wheel thumb rests. The rear outboard seats provide adequate leg and head room for passengers just under six feet in height and all four doors include pockets for drinks and oddments.  The center seat is best used for a car seat.

Kia continues to set high standards for powertrain development.  The upmarket EX trim level includes a larger displacement 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with DGI, Direct Gas Injection, coupled to a 6-speed automatic with a separate gate for manual shifting.  This engine cranks out 175 bhp at 6500 rpm and makes peak torque of 154 lb-ft at 4700.  Overall it’s smooth and quiet, but a sensitive ear will notice the induction noise contributed by the DGI.  DGI benefits include quicker engine response and better fuel economy.  I can attest to the latter.  I averaged almost 33 mpg during my nearly 1500 miles behind the wheel of the Forte EX.  Admittedly, probably 70 percent of that driving was on the highway, but you have to balance that against my typically enthusiastic driving style and frequent use of both heavy throttle and high revs.

With only 2.0 liters of displacement and max torque at a relatively high 4700 rpm, the Forte’s forte is not bottom-end or mid-range torque.  I compensated by my aggressive driving style, along with planning my passing and merging maneuvers well in advance.  Unfortunately, most American drivers don’t use high revs and downshifting to keep the engine at peak torque.  Those drivers may label the Forte as only adequate for performance.

The EX features ECO and Normal engines modes.  This is actually a shifting change.  Normal provides quicker and more aggressive up and down shifting to make the engine feel stronger.  On open highways I pretty much left it in the ECO setting.  In heavier traffic and on secondary roads, I used the Normal mode to smooth out curves, hills and to aid in passing maneuvers.

Ride and handling are strong suits. The Forte is not a sports sedan, but with its Nexen P215/45R17 radials and alloy wheels it offers good grip and traction.  The suspension handles broken, frost-heaved pavement with a controlled, well-damped demeanor.  It goes where it is pointed and is nicely composed around rough corners. It is nicely balanced for everyday driving without exhibiting noticeable front-wheel drive vices such as strong understeer.

The steering is a little slow.  Three different steering modes are offered: sport, normal and comfort.  There is no ratio change; the feel is electronically stiffened.  Sport was the best of the three, but still lacking in overall feel and precision. A shame, really, as the rest of the platform is so rigid I wanted the Forte to feel like a sports sedan.  But it’s only a few tuning tweaks away from achieving that goal.

Overall, the 2014 Kia Forte EX is a trend setter.  It gets lots of style points inside and out. It’s also jam packed with comfort, convenience and performance features that you won’t find in some luxury cars.

And while $25,000 might seem like a lot of greenbacks for a compact car, the Forte is still very much a Kia regarding its value proposition compared to most of its compact competition.

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