Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Designing coupes and fullsize sedans is fairly easy, compared with compact sedans, says Tom Kearns, chief designer for Kia Motors America.

Small sedans that seat five are difficult to style because there’s not much to work with, he says. Right off, a short front and rear make for restricting dimensions.

“Creating a creative and appealing compact sedan is one of the toughest challenges we face,” Kearns says.

Nevertheless, he believes Kia designers nailed it with the new ’10 Forte that debuts at the Chicago Auto Show.

“Even in the affordable-compact segment, it is important to make a design statement,” Kearns says, describing the Forte as sporting a hunkered-down look and crisp lines.

“Forte’s looks will get noticed by folks who’ve never looked beyond the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Mazda3,” he says, referring to three of the compact segment’s most popular sedans.

The Forte replaces the Spectra, a no-frills car that had a decent 9-year run with steady annual sales in the U.S. of about 70,000 units, making it Kia’s most-popular model.

“The opinion on the Spectra was that it was OK, but the Forte takes it to the next level,” says Tom Loveless, KMA vice president-sales. Accordingly, a new name for Kia’s latest compact-sedan entry was in order.

He cites the Forte’s expanded engine choices, more trim levels and fuller content. The car also did better in consumer research clinics than any Kia to date.

“We’re going to the heart of the market, and in some respects the heart of the market is going a little towards us,” Loveless tells Ward’s. Before the economy soured last year, “it had been about what the customer wants. Now it is more about what the customer needs.”

Kia has yet to announce pricing on the Forte, but Loveless hints it will undercut the little giants of the segment, the Corolla and Civic. That could be a particular point of difference in today’s troubled economy, which has hurt vehicle sales and sent many consumers down market.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” Loveless says. “Honda and Toyota owners are looking for less-expensive alternatives. At the same time, Kia has been building on its value proposition. Value is the new ‘cool.’”

The Forte will available in the U.S. market this summer, following the South Korean auto maker’s all-new Soul cross/utility vehicle that goes on sale here next month.

Because of its breakthrough design, Loveless calls the Soul a game changer. But the Forte “could be an even bigger game changer,” he says. Either way, those vehicles “are a one-two punch for us.”