SCOTTSDALE, AZ – Kia rolls out the next-generation of its Forte this spring after just 3-1/2 years on the market

Either it's further evidence the Korean auto maker lets no grass grow under its feet, or proof it knew the first-generation Forte wasn't cutting it in the competitive U.S. compact-car segment.

It's probably a little bit of both.

The Forte, unlike the trendy Soul compact cross/utility vehicle or sophisticated Optima midsize sedan, aged quickly in the face of fresher, more attractive competitors, including the Ford Focus, Dodge Dart and Hyundai Elantra.

Stylistically, the outgoing Forte does not stir the emotions.

So for the new '14 model, Kia is using design language borrowed from the eye-catching Optima, which became its best-selling model in the U.S. last year. With 152,399 deliveries, Optima booked roughly double the Forte's 2012 sales.

The bigger Optima still wears the look better, but it’s appealing on the Forte. The Optima's tiger-nose grille is stubbier on the Forte but announces the car in a way its old face did not.

The new Forte's shoulders are broad, wheels are pushed out to all four corners and overhangs are short, creating a modern, athletic stance.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery when it comes to the rear of the car. The red and white horizontal taillights are similar to those on the current Ford Focus.

The interior of our Forte EX tester here keeps with Kia’s alluring black, red and white theme, but introduces plastic trim that looks like carbon fiber. It’s a welcome change from faux leather grains but it is becoming too common.

The cheap-looking hard-plastic pillar trim and vinyl visors are disappointing, but there are no poorly molded pieces with extra flashing or ill-fitting panels in our tester. However, we did notice some orange peel on the finish of the interior door trim.

Only uplevel EX-grade ’14 Fortes are available for media test-drives here. The grade comes standard with an 8-in. (20-cm) liquid crystal display touch screen. Its controls are well-structured in menus but we could not find the equalizer.

The screen is part of Kia’s next generation smartphone-based UVO in-car infotainment system. It’s free for 10 years or 100,000 miles (160,934 km) and now can be paired with optional navigation.

New features include vehicle diagnostics and maintenance scheduling and the ability to send a point-of-interest from Google Maps to the car.

Kia says it’s working on UVO eServices’ compatibility with Android phones.

The ’14 Forte shares its base engine with the Elantra, a 1.8L multiport-injected 4-cyl. making 148 hp and 131 lb.-ft. (178 Nm) of torque.

Not available in the Elantra, but standard in the Forte EX driven here, is one of the most powerful non-performance engines in the segment: a new 2.0L gasoline direct-injected 4-cyl.

It matches the 173 hp made by the outgoing Forte SX grade’s 2.4L port-injected I-4, but its 154 lb.-ft. (209 Nm) of torque is less than the 2.4L’s 168 lb.-ft. (228 Nm).

On paper, the new GDI 2.0L, a stroked variant of the 1.8L “Nu” engine in the Elantra, bests all the segment’s non-performance engines, edging out the VW Jetta’s 170-hp 2.5L 5-cyl. However, the 89 hp/L specific output of the 1.8L tops the 86 hp/L of the Forte’s new 2.0L.

On hill and mountain treks outside Scottsdale, the 2.0L GDI is plenty powerful, providing brisk and linear acceleration.

There is plenty of torque available below the 4,700 rpm peak cited by Kia, and the transmission hesitates only slightly when accelerating up a steep mountain grade at speeds in the 60-mph (97-km/h) range.

Engine noise, or any noise for that matter, is remarkably absent inside the new Forte, which has one of the quietest cabins in a U.S. C-segment car.

Kia pumps plastic foam into the inner and outer cavity of the Forte's pillars and also uses special materials in the dash and carpet pads to reduce unwanted sounds.

Increasing the front subframe bushing by 0.2 ins. (4 mm) helps isolate road noise, Kia says.

The Forte retains its MacPherson-strut front and torsion-beam rear suspension. The latter is low-cost and can deliver a harsh ride, but the Forte feels solid and forgiving on the road. Even driving over potentially jarring cattle grates is not a problem.

Kia's FlexSteer allows drivers to choose between Comfort, Normal and Sport steering profiles. But, as with the similar Hyundai system, differences are most notable at lower speeds; cycling through all three at highway speeds shows firm steering all around.

FlexSteer is made possible by the switch from hydraulic to electric power steering for the Forte.

The wheelbase of the sedan has grown 2 ins. (5 cm) from ’13, and total length and height is increased 1 in. (2.5 cm).

Total passenger volume for the 4-door is down from the first-generation model, but some dimensions have been improved. For instance, although the trunk holds slightly less, it has a 2-in. wider opening.

Rear-passenger legroom is better, but it comes at the expense of front floor space.

Another move backward is the 1.1-ft. (0.3-m) increase in the Forte 4-door’s turning circle. However, in performing a U-turn after a missed exit, we find it still is tight enough.

Curb weight is about the same as the previous model, depending on the grade and transmission.

Kia ups aluminum and lightweight, high-strength steel content for the ’14 model and adds underbody panels to improve aerodynamics. Coefficient of drag is down to 0.27 from 0.29.

Given the highly publicized fuel-economy restatements Kia had to make last fall, the auto maker is being cautious and does not offer fuel-economy figures during our preview.

We average 38.3 mpg (6.1 L/100 km) over nearly 60 mostly highway miles (97 km), according to the trip computer, hitting 39.5 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) at one point.

The outgoing Forte was estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency to achieve 26/36 mpg (9.0-6.5 L/100 km) city/highway in LX and EX grades with a 156-hp, 2.0L engine and 6-speed automatic transmission.

The Forte has many optional goodies. Heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel are especially nice features in a sub-$25,000 car.

Now, Kia just has to raise consumer awareness of the Forte in a world of Civics and Foci.

The “robot” Super Bowl ad, in which female robots give a beat down to a dork who does not respect the car is a good start. With a capable engine, quiet interior and lots of sophisticated new features, plus an enticing new look, the ’14 Forte should leave some bruises on the competition.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

’14 Kia Forte EX
Vehicle type 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive compact car
Engine 2.0L DOHC 4-cyl. with gasoline direct injection; iron block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 173 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 154 lb.-ft. (209 Nm) @ 4,700 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 81 x 97
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic with manual mode
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 179.5 ins. (456 cm)
Overall width 70.1 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 56.5 ins. (144 cm)
Curb weight 2,857 lbs. (1,296 kg)
Base price TBD (LX grade: $16,000 6MT, $18,000 6AT)
Fuel economy TBD
Competition Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Jetta, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Dodge Dart, Nissan Sentra
Pros Cons
Better looking than before Optima wears design better
Good fit-and-finish Cheaper materials
Powerful, fuel-efficient new 2.0L 2.0L only comes with uplevel trim