SEATTLE – A Kia once was considered a poor man’s Hyundai. That’s not too great a compliment, considering until recently a Hyundai was thought to be a poor man’s Honda.

But now the Kia brand finally is getting some respect from its Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. overlords, who, after lavishing attention and money on the Hyundai brand (see the Genesis), finally have tossed some won in Kia’s direction.

Evidence of the emergence of a new Kia has been building slowly and subtly with each new model launch or redesign.

But the March debut of the ’10 Soul blew the slow-and-steady improvement track to shreds, showcasing a bold new direction that places a high priority on styling, a longtime problem area for Kia.

The ’10 Forte compact, replacing the Spectra and on sale now, is more evidence the newest models are not your older brother’s college roommate’s Kia.

Forte SX testers driven here boast great fit-and-finish and materials inside, a competent large 4-cyl. under hood and scads of creature comforts (including standard Bluetooth and Sirius XM Satellite radio), all meant to appeal to the most discerning compact-car shoppers.

As a result, the Forte is just a step away from same-breath mention with the segment’s sales leaders.

But there is a downside. The car’s cabin is not nearly as quiet as the Toyota Corolla’s; its 6-speed manual lacks the crispness of the Honda Civic’s gearbox; and styling-wise the Kia doesn’t stand out in the same way the new Mazda3 does, with its brash-but-noticeable grinning grille.

Overall, the Forte has a handsome, if safe, design. It’s a definite step forward from the homely, rental-car look of the Spectra.

But the Kia mimics the Civic from the A-pillar forward, with a nearly identical wide, thin grille. And, unlike the Mazda3, it lacks any truly unique characteristics that set it apart from the competition.

The Forte grows 1.5 ins. (3.8 cm) in wheelbase and 1.1 ins. (2.8 cm) in length from the Spectra. Width is up 1.6 ins. (4.1 cm), but front and rear tracks have been shortened.

Surprisingly, the latter change doesn’t seem to negatively impact handling, as the Forte SX is feline-esque in toss-ability and road-gripping character.

Helping provide that well-planted feel are the larger front stabilizer bar and firmer springs, unique to the SX trim.

The Forte SX comes standard with a 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. all-aluminum mill, part of Hyundai-Kia’s Theta world engine family developed with the former DaimlerChrysler AG and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

Ward’s 10 Best Engines judges never have found the engine family captivating, largely due to an excessive amount of raucousness.

That same criticism holds true for this application. Acceleration is good, but engine noise is more pronounced than that of the Civic 1.8L 4-cyl. The aural feedback may be exaggerated purposely for the SX, the “sport” grade of the Forte. But whether by design or otherwise, Kia would do well to dial in more refinement.

Even more pronounced is road noise, prevalent on all except the most silky-smooth asphalt. The surprisingly poor condition of Seattle-area pavement may have played a role. Nevertheless, more under-body insulation is needed on the Forte to silence any road racket.

’10 Kia Forte SX
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-door sedan
Engine DOHC 2.4L 4-cyl. with aluminum head, block
Power (SAE net) 156 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 168 lb.-ft. (186 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 88 x 97
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 104.3 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length 178.3 ins. (453 cm)
Overall width 69.9 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 57.5 ins. (146 cm)
Curb weight 2,853 lbs. (1,294 kg)
Base price $17,195 (SX) [$13,695 (LX), $15,795 (EX)]
Fuel economy 22/32 city/hwy (10.7-7.4 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Chevy Cobalt, VW Jetta, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, Dodge Caliber, Nissan Sentra
Pros Cons
Good fuel economy Gearing not much fun
On-road reflexes On-road noise
Clean design Civic, is that you?

The SX has two transmissions available: a 5-speed automatic or 6-speed manual. The automatic actually offers the sportier feel, with very quick shifts.

The 6-speed manual, Kia’s first, needs work. The clutch, although it engages quickly, suffers from too much pedal travel. Shifter throws are long and gear engagements sloppy.

For both transmissions, gear ratios are tall, requiring downshifting to third or even second to access even meager torque. But improved highway fuel economy is a bonus of this scheme.

In an automatic SX, Ward’s averaged 32.1 mpg (7.3 L/100 km) on a roughly 50-mile (80-km) route, with speeds of about 50 mph (80 km/h). A Forte SX with the 6-speed manual returned a slightly higher 32.9 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) under similar conditions.

On paper, the SX is rated at 32 mpg (7.4 L/100 km) highway with the manual and 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) with the automatic, better than the Civic Si, rated at 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km).

However, the Civic Si’s 2.0L makes 197 hp, 24 more horses than the Forte SX’s 2.0L. The same scenario holds true for the Corolla XRS, which has a 158-hp 2.4L 4-cyl. and gets 30 mpg with either its 5-speed manual or automatic.

The Forte’s interior is impressive, with fit-and-finish – including the tricky point where pillar trim meets the headliner – on par with the top Japanese compacts. Some minor flashing on an SX passenger-door pocket is the only apparent flaw on our test car.

Due to early buyer feedback in Korea, the silver painted finishes, optional on Forte’s EX trim and standard on SX, soon will be replaced. Arriving in late summer is a richer-looking titanium-toned paint, and chrome now will ring center-stack knobs. Both are improvements.

Forte’s seats are comfortable, with rear headroom only slightly cramped.

Standard on EX and SX trims is a 6-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 Infinity audio system. A demo reveals the ridiculous amount of bass that can be dialed up, a feature sure to appeal to window-rattling teens.

Overall, the ’10 Kia Forte is a good car for the money. The LX model, not available here for testing, begins at $13,695 sans $695 destination and handling. The ’09 Civic DX with a value package begins at $15,505 with a smaller engine and less techno gadgets. However, power windows, which are standard on the Civic are not so on the Forte, a potential deal-breaker for some.

Pending some small improvements (6-speed, NVH), Kia stands a chance of running with the big boys in the fiercely competitive, and lucrative, compact-car segment in the U.S.

Kia declines to reveal sales goals for the car, but once the economy gets back on track, it shouldn’t be difficult for the Forte to exceed Spectra’s best annual tally of 73,474 units in 2007 and close in on the 100,000 deliveries per year of the Mazda3.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com