First Drive: 2019 Kia Forte

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OTTAWA — According to Michael Kopke, Kia Canada’s brand new marketing manager, what millennials want, from what is often their first new car, is not so different from what their parents and grandparents were looking for the first time they walked into a new car dealership.

“Value and practicality,” says the former Jaguar and Ford advertising manager, “are still key the key motivators when millennials are shopping their first car.”

But how they define that value — well, that’s a little different, says Kopke, who contends that millennials, being more sophisticated — and if you wanted to read that as being more spoiled, please go ahead — what they’re looking for is as many luxury and safety items as possible within their price range. Deliver on that “practicality,” says Kopke, and “price becomes a secondary conversation.”

That’s why Kia’s advertising for the all-new 2019 Forte will be focusing on the well-optioned EX model, even going so far as to focus on the EX’s price — $20,995 — rather than leading with the base model’s $16,495 price tag. With millennial-friendly social media the primary focus for Forte, Kopke reasons, the actual pricing information would get disseminated so quickly that any advertising subterfuge would be quickly found out. Might as well try some truth in advertising always seems like such a novel approach when you’re confronted with it.

So, what does one get for this price — err, value?

Well, in the aforementioned EX trim — which Kopke estimates will make up 50 per cent of the company’s Forte sales — besides traditional move-ups like the automatic transmission (actually an ”intelligent” CVT) — the EX includes heated seats, a heated leather steering wheel, air conditioning, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, a back-up camera, Bluetooth, Forward Collision Avoidance, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Driver Attention Alert, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, Blind-Spot Collision Warning, Rear Cross Traffic Collision Avoidance Assist, LED headlights, High Beam Assist and wireless cellphone charging.

Whew! Wasn’t that an exhaustive — and if you wanted to read that as boring, please feel free — list of now-essential automotive features. Sorry if it was a handful, but to Kopke’s point, the EX’s equipment list more or less covers what are now considered essentials, especially in the safety nannie category. Indeed, all of the extras available in more expensive trims — and you can get a Forte, the EX Limited, optioned all the way to $28,065 — are true “luxury items.” Things like a smart trunk that opens when you approach the rear, Sofino synthetic leather seats, power seats and an upgraded UVO infotainment system. So, to Kopke’s point, the EX does seem to be in the sweet spot of value and practicality versus price.

Once you get past all that value, though, the question then becomes: Is the new Forte a good, as well as value-packed, automobile?

For the most part, the answer is yes. The engine, for instance, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder now operating under a fuel-sipping Atkinson cycle, is quite frugal. No stranger to the throttle I, the little Kia still returned 7.3 L/100 kilometres during our test, despite being thrashed hard over some twisty Quebec side roads. Even using all its 147 horsepower — which meant exercising it well into the 5,000 and 6,000 rpm range, dialed to render it parsimonious.

Part of the reason is the adoption of Kia’s first continuously variable transmission. Now, those of you who’ve read terrible reviews of belt-driven transmissions, don’t worry: The Koreans have done a masterful job of masking a typical CVT’s ills. By artificially creating eight “gears,” Kia’s IVT — as in “intelligent” variable transmission — has little of the ‘hanging’ onto gears that causes the CVT-transmissioned engines, especially high-revving little fours, to drone on. Indeed, except for relatively rare circumstances — such as climbing long hills at moderate speeds — the average consumer won’t know that their IVT isn’t a traditional automatic.

Road-holding, meanwhile, is a Forte, well, forte. The steering is quite responsive and body roll well-contained. Almost Honda Civic like, in fact. The only issue might be that the suspension is definitively firm, certainly more so than the previous generation and probably more than many intenders in this segment, possibly with young ones strapped in car carriers, were expecting. We’re not talking Lamborghini rock hard here, but the Forte’s dampers definitely have a sport sedan feel to them.

2019 Kia Forte2019 Kia Forte Handout / Kia

There’ll be no discomfort inside. There’s more room than in previous Fortes, easier ingress/egress and the seats are plenty supportive, even offering sufficient side bolstering when pushing that stiff-ish suspension as it should. The audio system is no-so-bad and even the base air conditioning system offers controls for two zones. The wireless charging pad even has an audible chime if you leave your cellphone behind after you’ve shut the Forte down. A “you’ve left you phone behind” message will even pop onto the dashboard. Kia really doesn’t want you to be without your iPhone.

The one flaw in Kopke’s value argument, however, is the Forte’s infotainment system. Even the EX trim, it seems, is not worthy of Kia UVO infotainment system (which, by the way, we rated very highly in our giant infotainment system shoot-out). For that, you have to move up to the EX Premium package ($25,085). Worse yet, if you want the UVO’s “Intelligence” to include the navigation option, you have to bump up to the EX Limited trim, which costs $28,095.

So, yes, as good as it sounds, Kopke’s value message is not quite perfect. If, however, you’re a typical millennial — addicted to your cellphone, be it Android or Apple — you probably won’t mind. We Boomers, not attuned to Kia’s EX-focused social media messaging, will just head to the Limited none the wiser.

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