2011 Kia Forte5
2011 Kia Forte5. Click image to enlarge

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Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2011 Kia Forte5

It doesn’t look it, but the 2011 Kia Forte5 is a little bit retro. The prevailing trend is for new cars to be more refined and more grown up than the ones they replace, so it’s easy to get used to the concept of a compact that drives more like a mid-sized car.

I’ve driven the Kia Forte before. In fact, with this test drive, I’ve spent time behind the wheel of all three Forte variants: sedan, coupe and hatchback. But I noticed something new in the Forte5, and that something is how much it reminds me of small cars from a couple of generations ago, when a small car was basic transportation, instead of being a small car trying to act like a bigger one.

Naturally, that aspirational reach up to the next size class isn’t a bad thing. It usually adds refinement, and tends to add safety, with compacts now featuring standard anti-lock brakes, (at least) six airbags and a pile of convenience upgrades the likes of which were just a dream for anyone looking to spend less than $20,000 on a car about 10 years ago.

2011 Kia Forte5
2011 Kia Forte5. Click image to enlarge

That ten-year timeline is apropos, because this Kia brings to my mind the Mazda Protege5, one of the cars that led the North American hatchback renaissance when it was introduced in 2001. The comparison looks-wise is an obvious one, with the Forte’s taut lines and clipped rear end, but there are parallels to be made, too, in how the Forte5 drives.

My tester was a mid-level EX model, an impressive package that includes a long list of standard kit such as air conditioning, heated cloth front seats, windshield wiper de-icer, cruise control, stability/traction control and a great sounding six-speaker stereo. The base LX and EX models use a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that makes 156 horsepower and 144 lb-ft of torque, and the top-trim SX has a 2.4-litre engine with 173 hp/168 lb-ft. All Forte transmissions are six-speeds this year, replacing last year’s five-speed manual (in the LX and EX), and four- and five-speed automatics. The EX I drove paired the 2.0-litre with the six-speed automatic.

2011 Kia Forte5
2011 Kia Forte5. Click image to enlarge

Despite its class-average displacement, the smaller engine is an impressive performer, to the point that I was sure I was driving the bigger motor. The car moves smartly from a stop, but never seems to run out of breath, generating plenty of punch even at highway speeds. It’s there that you’ll discover the first of those parallels to compact hatchbacks past, however. The engine is an eager performer, but generates plenty of noise, not much of it refined to the ears. Things get buzzy and boomy between 2,500 and 3,000 rpm, where the motor spends a lot of its time in normal acceleration.

You can be grateful, then, for the long-gearing in this new six-speed automatic, which keeps the motor spinning at a leisurely 2,000 rpm in top gear at 110 km/h, which does wonders to lower noise levels on long-distance drives. The transmission is a smooth operator, shifting well and promptly in upshifts and responding dutifully with downshifts to throttle inputs. The expected manual shift mode is here, but doesn’t respond quickly enough to add to the driving experience for anything but holding lower gears for engine braking. On the plus side, it’s a true manual shift mode, and won’t downshift automatically under full throttle. In an experiment on a highway drive, the engine generated enough torque at that 2,000 rpm to accelerate uphill in sixth gear.

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