This is a much anticipated test drive report. Not only have we received many requests to feature the Kia Forte, but I myself have been waiting so long to get behind the Forte’s wheel. We missed the media test drive event and Naza Kia’s schedule was so full that only now do we get a sampler.

Priced at RM75,800 OTR including insurance, the entry level 1.6 EX looks to be a steal, and that’s before you realise that for RM6,000 more the SX comes with equipment unheard of in cars below RM100,000. Let’s not forget that this is a C-segment contender to the Civic, Lancer, Sylphy, and Altis, priced below Japanese branded B-segment cars. We see if this irresistible on paper appeal runs deep.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

While I recognise and endorse the improvement made in Korean cars throughout the past few years, to be honest, I’ve never thought of having one myself. Many Kias, Hyundais and the odd SsangYong have passed through our hands, but never have they left a deep impression. Competent? Yes. Desirable? No. Not even the pretty Hyundai Coupe (weak drivetrain), although the diesel Santa Fe SUV is quite a good package.

But Kia is really working its socks off trying to change this. There seems to be an awareness from within the company that techincal competence needs to be supported by design brilliance, and the Forte represents this. The man behind Kia’s “design revolution” is Peter Schreyer, the German who previously worked with Audi. Even if we didn’t know this for a fact, my guess wouldn’t be too far off, for the Forte boasts clean, sharp looks that wouldn’t look out of place on an Audi.

Clean it may be, but the Forte is anything but plain. The front wears a distinctve “mask-like” design that reminds us of the European Honda Civic hatchback, while the scuplted bonnet and the signature crease that sprouts from beneath the A-pillar to form the shoulder line is neat. This, and the spoiler style boot edge distracts from the fact that the Forte has tall sides and a high rump. Of course, for the full effect, you’ve got to opt for the 1.6 SX, which comes with cool 17-inch wheels and low profile rubber. Still, this Kia is the looker of the C-segment – something unthinkable few years ago. Try as we may, photos don’t do it justice, so get down to a dealership and have a good look for yourself.

After hearing and reading so many good things about the Forte from fellow journos , I was expecting something special, perhaps a new class leader (although it’s priced a class lower in Malaysia, we’ll compare the Forte with the C-segment, which was what Kia intended globally), and perhaps it’s this inflated hopes, plus the fact that the Forte looks so good, that caused a slight disappointment even though I really enjoyed my time with it.

The 1.6-litre engine is entirely adequate for daily use, but there were moments where I wished for more pulling power and accleration. Perhaps the nature of the four-speed auto gearbox contributes to this impression – it’s not the most eager to kickdown when you need more go, which is not a problem in itself, but the ratios seem too long and widely spaced. Things get better once you get some momentum on board, but rivals with bigger engines are more effortless.

The 124 bhp/157 Nm Gamma engine also goes about its business without much charisma; it’s quite lively past 4000 rpm, but it also gets a little boomy at this stage. We’re not referring to Campro style resonance in case you’re wondering, but it’s not the smoothest lump in town either. Don’t get us wrong, the Forte’s drivetrain isn’t bad (some wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at what we’ve pointed out) but it’s just not positively memorable.

Here’s something more obvious. If you’re familiar with the class par, and have spent some time with the current crop of C-segment cars, you’ll easily notice that the Forte isn’t at its best at high speed, long distance cruising, and it all boils down to having only four forward ratios. At 110 km/h, the tacho points at 3000 rpm. A bit high, but all’s still well at this stage thanks to the Kia’s good cabin insulation from outside noises (which is above average, we reckon). Go beyond that to, say 140 km/h, and the buzz is loud enough for passengers to notice, and for you to “level” things by turning up the volume. Once again, rivals are more effortless.

Some of them are more fun to drive than the Kia too. I never warmed to the Forte’s steering (hydraulic for 1.6L models) throughout our time with it. While the weighting is surprisingly meaty at low speeds, it feels a little too sensitive and nervous when cornering at highway speeds – it just wasn’t very confidence inspiring for me. This was for the EX with 15-inch wheels and 65-series tyres. On the SX, which rolls on 215/45 R17 rubber, you’ll feel more of the road’s grains through the steering rim, but along with that comes significantly more tyre roar and a high pitched hum on certain surfaces.

The Forte, although not as mushy as Kia sedans of old, is still fairly softy sprung, and the body bucks and moves around quite a bit on undulations, even if it’s never unnerving. While turn in is sharp, some rivals manage to lean less and feel more composed on lumpy roads. The ride quality on the big wheeled SX is noticeably sharper edged than the EX though, so there’s a price to pay for the undeniable style it brings.

The previous five paragraphs may be of little consequence to many car buyers, who simply want a stylish, well equipped family saloon. And the Forte’s showroom appeal is simply amazing. Good looks aside, our EX tester came with all round disc brakes, ABS, dual airbags, trip computer, factory audio with iPod/AUX jacks and steering controls and electrochromic rear view mirror. If you’re impressed already, the 1.6 SX will leave you speechless. For RM81,800, you get keyless entry and start (with start/stop button), Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Traction Control, auto air-con, telescopic steering wheel with leather (also on gear knob), alloy pedals and those fetching 17in alloys – all for less than an S-spec Honda City. The 2.0-litre model costs RM93,800 and comes with curtain airbags and leather upholstery.

It’s not just the kit, but the cabin is faultless in terms of ergonomics and comfort, and quality is evident in the tight fitting buttons (all illuminated, even the audio jacks) and panels. The SX gets some contrasting silver painted plastic on the centre console, steering wheel and door trim, as opposed to the matt black of the EX, which also lacks the red “hood” of light on the speedometer. I found my ideal driving position with ease as the height adjustable seats have a long range of travel. And as previously mentioned, insulation from outside noise is good for its class.

In terms of rear space, there’s decent head and legroom although not as much as the Sylphy and Civic, which also has a flat floor to its advantage; the Kia’s all-black colour scheme doesn’t help in giving an impression of space either. One small grouse though, off the shoulder and rear visibility for the driver is limited due to the thick C-pillars and rising waistline – the rear screen gives you an upward view, which doesn’t help in parking at all.

The few “could be better” points would not be much of a letdown if the Forte is a mediocre entry, for which we will just say that “it’s very very decent considering the amount you pay”, but because Kia does most things right, I personally feel that it’s a missed opportunity to jump straight to the top, which I bet the Koreans will sooner rather than later.

At present, it’s not the best C-segment car you can buy, but then there are no other selling for the price of a Vios or City. Against those price rivals, it’s very hard to ignore the Forte’s appeal – it’s a much better developed and sophisticated car that also happens to look superb and packed to the brim with kit.