You don’t get into a Kia expecting to be wowed or even surprised by its performance. Sure, there’s the new Stinger, which is undoubtedly sporty. But you usually find your way into a Kia because it’s the sensible choice. You can imagine my surprise when I first floored the 2018 Kia Forte5 SX and found myself with a wide grin on my face. Kia may have carved a niche for itself with cars that are priced lower than others while offering more features, but it’s started to inject sportiness into its cars, which is a good thing.
The Forte5, as its name implies, is the five-door hatchback variant of the Forte sedan. Kia’s been offering the Forte5 since 2011, which has provided owners with a more spacious interior and cargo area over the regular four-door sedan with which it shares its name with. The SX trim has also been a Forte5 special, which usually added a more powerful engine and some snazzier exterior touches.
The Achilles Heel of the Forte5 SX is that it was never sporty enough to be a true competitor to the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI or Ford Fiesta ST. It’s something Kia has been working on new generations, but it’s really buttoned down the hatches with the latest version. On paper, the 2018 Forte5 SX reads like a proper hot hatchback.
Without beating around the bush, has it worked? It’s a complicated answer, as things usually are, and it’s both yes and no.
The SX trim is all about performance, so let’s start there. Instead of the regular 2.0-liter inline-four that makes a modest 164 hp, the SX features a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-four. The turbocharged motor cranks out 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. The horsepower figure puts it on par with other available hot hatches on the road.
There are two transmission options to choose from for the SX — a six-speed manual and a seven-speed dual-clutch. Our press car was fitted with the latter, which was introduced last year. The fact that one of Kia’s more affordable offerings can be fitted with a dual-clutch transmission will surprise some and gives it an edge in the sporty hatchback segment.
Let’s start with the good. The engine is a little featherweight fighter. It’s punchy and delivers its grunt in an enjoyable way. The torquey engine doesn’t have any perceivable turbo lag and before I know it, we’re going well above Virginia’s antiquated speed limits. “How fast are you planning to go?” questioned my wife. I honestly wasn’t looking to be a speed demon, but the way the Forte5 SX gets up to speed is enjoyable and I’ve gotten used to Michigan’s do-whatever-makes-you-happy speed limit.
The SX is also enjoyable around corners. Kia fitted the hatchback with new suspension components that are a little more rigid than before, which pair well with the stiff chassis. It all results in a vehicle that can not only handle itself around corners, but enjoys doing so. The kicker, though, is that slowing things down and getting onto the highway doesn’t unsettle the machine. Some hatchbacks require you to compromise. Want a really sport ride around a windy road? You’ll pay the price on your daily commute. If anything, it’s the other way around with the SX, which may appeal to the majority of drivers.
There are a few downsides to Kia’s offering. The dual-clutch transmission isn’t refined or happy at low speeds. Driving in stop-and-go traffic angers the gearbox, which struggles to get the hatchback off of the line smoothly. Parallel parking and reversing also proved to be difficult for the DCT, as it wasn’t quite sure on when or how much power to deliver. The steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles are nice to use and the gearbox isn’t bad at high speeds, but Kia’s got some kinks to work out with its low-speed qualities.
The Forte5 is Kia’s third most affordable offering in its lineup, so I didn’t go into the review expecting to have heavily-bolstered seats or an airy cabin. Once again, the SX impressed on that front, too. For such a small car, the hatchback really does have a spacious cabin. I’m 5’10 on a good day and with the driver’s seat in a comfortable position, I had plenty of room in the back. We managed to cram three full-size adults in the rear and none of them complained about space either.
SUVs may be all of the rage at the moment, but the Forte5 proves that you don’t need a tall-riding vehicle to be able to hold a lot of cargo. While cargo capacity figures aren’t sexy numbers, they’re meaningful and important with the car like the Forte5. Leave the rear seats in place and the model can hold 23.2 cubic feet of goods. That figure expands to 56.4, which rivals some crossovers, with the rear seats folded down.
In addition to being nice and airy, the design of the cabin is aesthetically pleasing, especially for drivers that enjoy some spirited driving. Over lower trims, the SX gets alloy pedals, a flat-bottom steering wheel, sport seats, and the center console is angled slightly towards the driver. And since it’s a Kia, it’s loaded with everything you could ever want in a car.
Our press car was loaded to the gills with things like heated and ventilated seats, a sunroof, navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, dual-zone automatic temperature control, and a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat. Purists may claim that they don’t need any of these features in their hot hatchback. And while I do agree with that sentiment, the features were nice to have on multiple commutes from Washington, DC to Baltimore, Md.
The only perceivable downside to the SX’s interior are the ghastly trim pieces. The hatchback is fitted with hard plastics throughout the entire cabin, which don’t look or feel nice to touch. Fake carbon fiber trim around the center console and instrument clusters are especially hideous. With that being said, everything you do touch, like the steering wheel, shift knob, and buttons, feel good for a car at this price point.
The Forte5 SX is the high school student at the party that’s more mature than everyone else. It still knows how to get down and have a good time, but you won’t catch it doing a keg stand anytime soon. The SX may be the sportiest Forte5 in the lineup, but it’s not about to showoff its athleticism. It has a handsome, more refined approach to advertising its speed and lengthy list of features. I’m not a huge fan of the front end, despite the gorgeous shade of blue and red accents that our press car has, but the rear end is good looking. Park it next to a Honda Civic Type R and you’ll see why Kia’s more conservative approach has worked.
I’m a little confused by the Forte5 SX. It falls just shy of being as fun to drive as a true hot hatch, but it’s got a lot more features. It also knows when to have a good time and when to settle down for the long haul. As an overall machine, it’s darn good. With a starting price of $21,795, including the $895 destination fee, the SX trim is a good value proposition. It gets even better, though, when you consider the $3,600 SX Premium Technology Package that brings features that other sporty hot hatchbacks don’t offer.
During our time with the Forte5 SX, we saw a lot of GTIs, Ford Focus STs, and Fiesta STs. But we never saw another SX-badged Kia. That’s kind of a shame, because for the average consumer, the vehicle can do it all. If you value having a feature-packed car that’s comfortable on your daily commute over something that’s good at an autocross event, the Forte5 SX is worth a look and something I would wholeheartedly recommend. For me, I still hear the Fiesta ST’s swan song in my ears.