Long has KIA been the butt of jokes. Many of those jokes, admittedly, were probably invented by me. Even KIA’s big brother Hyundai was laughed at throughout my college years in the 90s and early ‘oughts. Although the little H was producing decent vehicles like the Accent and Tiburon during the early 2000s, it didn’t stop the “Fast and Furious” inspired crowd from dogging on a Tiburon owner. As if we had much room to ‘dog’ on anyone—half of the stuff installed on our vehicles was from AutoZone and Pep Boys. Anyone remember APC? If you do then you don’t have room to talk, either.

Admittedly Hyundai’s styling wasn’t quite on point with Honda’s now famous EG and EK chassis at the time, but everyone could sense a change in the atmosphere trending towards Korean cars and not only because of the ridiculous 100,000 mile powertrain warranty. These cars were getting better and better each year, and legitimately so. Now as for KIA, well…poor KIA. Let’s just say thankfully in 2006, KIA pulled in one of the most prolific automobile designers of our time: Peter Schreyer.

How the small-time Korean automaker pulled in the now ex-Audi designer responsible for the gorgeous 1998 Audi TT is probably a mystery left best unsolved. I’m sure many of you have caught yourself staring at a car on the road thinking one moment it’s a mid-2000’s Audi when a split-second later you realize it’s a KIA. Mr. Schreyer is probably saying to us all from his castle, “no thank you’s necessary.” No, he isn’t. He’s German and has a reputation to uphold so his concrete expression will never change, however, he should be saying that.

The Forte5 is now in its second generation. This particular one being a 2015 automatic, SX. However, in mere weeks the 2017 Forte5 including the SX model, will be gracing dealerships around the country with a new front fascia design and a DCT automatic gearbox. I can tell you one thing, as well-known as it is that KIA essentially builds Hyundais with KIA-styled bodies on top, there are some actual differences between the Forte5 SX and Veloster. And I’m not just talking about looks.

The air induction system has been simplified a bit and in my opinion for the better compared to the Veloster’s. Was this a cost-cutting issue or an engineering choice? I don’t know, but I can tell you the Forte’s air scoop inlet from the grille doesn’t swoop all the way down to the bottom of the engine bay into a gigantic resonator like the Veloster of the same year does. As little restriction as that may be on the Veloster, it’s still a restriction and restrictions mean less power and most importantly, less awesome engine noises. And with the Forte’s already semi-mundane engine and exhaust notes, you need all the cool noises you can get.

On paper, the Forte5 pushes the same 201hp and 195 lb-ft of torque as the Veloster. However, I find the Forte5 to be a smidge quicker which may be due to the small changes in cost-cutting or engineering (take your pick) or it may just be because the Forte5 is a bit heavier and able to gain traction better through the suspension. I really couldn’t tell you, to be honest, but in my driving experience, it’s become my summation. The Veloster can boast a slimmer frame at around 2700 lbs, and this particular Forte5 is closer to around 2900 lbs.

If you were to race both the Veloster and this model Forte5 in a straight line with the same transmissions, I would assume it would end up being a wash at the finish line. However, I can assure you that the Forte5 has a touch more acceleration than the Veloster, and not just so much from the incredibly minor engine changes either. The way I’ve seen it so far is that you trade a heavier frame in the Forte5 for traction/handling versus a lighter frame in the Veloster for top end recovery.

Speaking of the transmission, you may have noticed that I mentioned this was an automatic. And you would be correct. Now you are perhaps telling yourself, “manuals rule!” Admittedly, I am an avid proponent of manual vehicles but they are strangely hard to find in my area mainly due to the fact that no one really cares about rowing gears anymore—especially not in the city. And that won’t change for the 2017 model year but evidently instead of a manual being cheaper, the stick will add around $2,000 to the sticker. That just goes to show how far auto transmissions have come in that to essentially “downgrade” to a manual, you must pay a premium.

Although this A/T is no DSG from Volkswagen, it’s very competent in its own right. And it’s still faster than the task of rowing through the 6-speed. To be frank, I like that the A/T is faster and competent. I do know that because of the use of a traditional torque-converter system that there is still the familiar, if not annoying, pause between gears changes. However, KIA’s ECU handles the boost very well from the turbo which covers up and deletes much of that pause that we all were not-to-fond-of with older A/T’s. Simply said, it’s a fun transmission to drive.

Connected to that A/T are the token shifter paddles that come with nearly any sporty automatic these days. They work well and they aren’t as cheap as I would have imagined them in a Korean made budget “hot hatch.” Though I can safely say that I do wish the paddles were taken out of the Veloster of the same year, which are much longer top to bottom.

The downshifts are lenient in manual-mode and mostly won’t upshift at inconvenient times like some other semi-autos tend to. I really haven’t had a time where the car thought I was doing something wrong and shifted for me. With the exception of coming to a stop, in which the transmission will downshift to 1st gear for you, manual-mode is a really decent experience. I actually like that a car can downshift for me at a stop sign, so sue me.

And if I am being 100% honest with you all, the best use of this automatic transmission is really to just leave it in automatic-mode if you want to be the fastest you can be. Still, manual-mode is great fun and you can build a little extra boost between upshifts and downshifts, but the ECU is so well-tuned for this car that you aren’t missing much boost at all using this A/T like you would in the manual.

Final Thoughts 

Before I end, I want to make a few key points about this particular vehicle. Firstly, I didn’t go over the interior or technology included because frankly it’s a 3-year-old car. What was available 3 years ago is nowhere close to what you can get today. But I can say for the time (way back in 2015) you couldn’t dream of getting a Focus ST or GTI with the same stuff for any less than $30,000.

And since I’ve mentioned it, this vehicle is not a Focus ST or a VW GTI. Not only is it down on power by a minimum of 30hp, it also doesn’t come equipped with the same level of chassis and suspension refinement as those vehicles do. And there is a big reason why. KIA is in the business of selling cars for a particular reason. 100,000 mile warranties on cars that will far outlast that mileage. Something you can drive without fear of feeling and hearing every bump on the road. Even down to the tires, which on this car, are an OEM only Hankook. The tires themselves are okay, but they aren’t close to what comes on the other hot hatches. For half the price of what these tires cost from KIA you can order an even better set from Tire Rack.

The Forte5 SX and Forte Koup SX are a much stiffer and exciting version of the standard Forte line of vehicles, bar none, but it’s still made for comfort. Unlike the Focus ST and GTI which can obviously be driven daily and for great distances as well, they aren’t going to sell to anyone but the enthusiast.

I have definitely heard a lot of complaints from non-KIA/Hyundai owners on the Veloster/Forte5 rear suspension setup and how it’s ‘primitive’. Indeed it is a twist-beam setup, but so are a lot of small economy cars. The revered Fiesta ST has a Torsion twist-beam setup as well. Although a twist-beam is not 100% independent, it doesn’t need to be for an economy KIA. Independent suspension raises the price of vehicles exponentially and so the twist-beam is more than capable of being great handling cars—just ask any owner of an older VW GTI.

Evilla Torsion Bar

The last thing regarding the chassis itself is it rolls some, but it’s supposed to. KIA has never claimed this car was a Focus ST or GTI killer. But add on a few hundred dollars worth of subframe collars, suspension bracing, and some stickier tires and those cheap upgrades will put this Forte5’s handling exceptionally close to those other compact sport hatches. As for the engine power, it pushes around 18 lbs of boost through it’s twin scroll charger, however just like the Fiesta ST which also has a 1.6L turbocharged engine, it’s easy to tune through the ECU to push a little more air through the stock engine components.

I personally am not risking my drivetrain warranty for more power, as I’m more of a handling and curvy roads guy, but if you could get an extra 20-30hp from this stock motor coupled with a few cheap suspension refinements, you’d have a much cheaper, and probably just as fun daily canyon carver as the more expensive GTI and Focus ST, while still keeping the total cost under both of those vehicles.

It may seem I’m arguing a case for the Forte5 SX against the other cars in this segment, namely the Mazda3, GTI, and Focus ST. Rest assured I am not. Those other vehicles undoubtably outclass and outperform the Forte5. It’s just not as much as you’d think. Mazda, VW, and Ford have had decades of making sport hatches and the fact remains that their products should be superior. At least for now.

My case here is that if anyone is looking for a much cheaper alternative to those mainstream, more expensive vehicles, then perhaps you need to look towards the Forte5’s direction. There admittedly isn’t much of an aftermarket for these vehicles if you are into that scene but it’s growing and fast. But if you just want a cheap thrill ride for a daily driver like I prefer, then the Forte5 is at least worth the time to test drive at your local dealership.

I’ve mulled over trading in my Forte5 for a brand new Fiesta ST and a Focus ST a few times. But I can never let myself do it. Between the uniqueness of the styling to the refinement of it’s qualities, it’s just too much of a cheap thrill ride to let go.

Check out Geoffrey Gray‘s auto blog, Proprio Stile.