Every automotive underdog might take a hint from the Kia Forte: if you're a back-bencher in a house of big names, it can't hurt to make your car pretty.
The Chevrolet Malibu is only the latest cautionary tale of a car that refused to make waves -- and whose creators seemed surprised when sales didn't surge. Sure, the Toyota Camry is every bit as boring as the Malibu, but the Camry's many fans would buy that car in their sleep.
Thrown into the compact-car ring, the Kia Forte doesn't merely have to grapple with the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Toyota Corolla and other familiar models. The Kia has also been overshadowed by its popular Korean cousin, the Hyundai Elantra.
But Kia did a smart thing, luring the designer Peter Schreyer from Audi in 2006 to transform its styling. Johan de Nysschen, the executive who guided Audi's stunning rise in the American market -- before leaving to become global leader of Infiniti -- told me in an interview that Audi made a mistake by letting the designer get away. Mr. Schreyer is now global design chief for both Kia and Hyundai.
The 2014 Forte is the latest signed-edition Schreyer that just about everyone agrees is a fine-looking car, whether in the form of a sedan, the two-door Koup or the coming Forte 5 hatchback.
One goal of every carmaker is to make the more affordable models look and feel expensive, and almost no one is doing that better than Hyundai and Kia. Thanks to some remarkable upgrades to cars once viewed as disposable, Kia's sales approached 560,000 in the United States last year. That's more than Volkswagen or Dodge and denotes 18 consecutive years of gains -- from a paltry 692 sales in 1994.
Ask these companies' separate sales, marketing and distribution executives, and they'll tell you that Hyundai and Kia try to beat each other's brains out, same as any rivals. But with Hyundais and Kias using the same platforms, powertrains, engineers and factories, it's fair to ask what makes them different. For now, exterior and interior design remains a big separator, because the cars tend to perform similarly.
If you think the Forte looks better than the Elantra -- or if you prefer Kia's badge to Hyundai's -- then by all means lean that way, or vice versa. If that sounds superficial, note that the warranties are equal: bumper-to-bumper coverage for five years or 60,000 miles; powertrain protection for 10 years or 100,000 miles.
But while I admire the Elantra's curves, the Korean-built Forte wins my overall vote, and for more than its solid impression at the curb.
I don't think my eyes are sensitive enough to spot the Kia's roughly two-inch stretch in length and wheelbase from the 2013 version. But from style to features, the Forte comes across as a pricier midsize car trapped in a slightly smaller body.
To a point, that effect is also physical: the back seat is especially easy on the knees and elbows. A sprawling trunk (14.9 cubic feet) is larger than those in some midsize cars, and the rear seat folds to expand the space.
From its somewhat rowdy engines to a bare-cupboard cabin, the old Forte had a vestigial, Korean-crackerbox feel. Those crumbs have been swept away. The new car feels far more legitimate, with a cabin that surpasses expectations for its class.
Starting at $16,700, the Forte LX shares the Elantra's 1.8-liter engine with 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque. But the Forte EX, at $20,200, one-ups the Hyundai. The EX adopts a 2-liter in-line 4 with direct injection, 173 horses and 154 pound-feet. That matches the horsepower of the Forte's departing 2.4-liter engine, and the new, downsized engine is smoother and more efficient: it is rated 24 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway, versus a previous rating of 23/32.
If you want a 6-speed manual transmission, you're stuck with the LX for now, in keeping with the dubious assumption that only cheapskates want to shift. Other models get a 6-speed automatic.
I tested a nearly loaded EX, the Forte's deluxe calling card. And at a sticker price of $25,515, my EX was almost ridiculously well equipped. Buyers may get a kick out of putting their luxury-car-owning pals aboard and showing off the toys, saving the "gotcha" line of how little they paid.
The list includes 17-inch alloy wheels and handsome perforated leather seats -- with heated chairs for front and rear passengers. The driver gets 10-way power seats with heating, cooling fans and memory, and the robust leather-wrapped steering wheel includes cruise and audio controls. There's a generous navigation screen with real-time traffic alerts and a backup camera, dual-zone climate control, a 4.2-inch driver's color LCD display and a three-month satellite radio subscription. Don't forget the sunroof, cooled glovebox and smart key with a pushbutton starter.
The EX defies more industry assumptions with its new UVO telematics and e-services system, developed with Microsoft. Unlike most subscription-based telematics plans, it's free. Features include 911 notification, onboard diagnostics and dealer service scheduling, Bluetooth streaming and clever phone-based apps like Parking Minder. It guides you to your parked Kia via GPS and computes the time left on parking meters. It can snap and send overhead satellite shots of your car.
Outside, high-intensity headlamps are striped with LED marker lights, as if the Forte were an Audi Jr. Puddle lamps shine from power-folding mirrors. That's right: puddle lamps. On a $25,000 Kia.
A stiffer structure and more soundproofing allow fewer unwanted decibels to intrude inside. Even the base LX gets 4-wheel disc brakes, and their strength and pedal feel are a high point.
But strong brakes and acceleration aside, the Forte's driving dynamics are strictly average. I consulted my notes, but they seemed as blank as my memory, with exclamation points regarding the design and little about how the thing actually drove.
The switch to electric steering allows a Flex Steer switch that adjusts power assist across three modes. But as with some other adjustable gimmicks, Sport mode just seems to add glop to the steering -- like artificial thickener being poured in -- instead of actually improving the handling.
In the Forte's defense, its steady, sanguine character is par for this class, akin to models like the Cruze and Honda Civic. Only a few cars -- the Ford Focus, Mazda 3 and VW Jetta -- put a sporty stamp on the proceedings.
For that, Kia fans must wait until fall for the Koup and Forte 5, which both get the 173-horsepower engine even in their base trim. And they'll entice enthusiasts with SX versions that will offer a 6-speed manual and will make 201 horses from a 1.6-liter turbo 4.
If Kia and its kissing cousin, Hyundai, figure out how to make their dynamic performance as appealing as their styling and value, they'll be unstoppable.
They've already stolen Mr. Schreyer. How much more could it cost to lure some hotshot ride-and-handling engineers from Audi, BMW, Mazda or Ford?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.