It takes a mere second sitting inside the new ’14 Kia Forte, winner of a 2013 Ward’s 10 Best Interiors award, to realize the South Korean brand has declared “check-mate” to its competitors in the compact-car segment.

Our top-of-the-range $25,000 EX-grade test model raises the bar for C-car interiors and darn near competes with pricey luxury and near-luxury models.

Quality materials such as soft-touch skin on the instrument panel and upper doors and real stitching on door armrests lend a premium touch.

“The Forte is an inexpensive car with materials that are more upscale than what’s typically found in the segment,” one WardsAuto editor says.

Our judges commend the innovative design features in the Forte, which starts at $15,900 for an LX-grade and $19,400 for an EX.

Those innovations include decorative “gills” molded into doors and the instrument panel and a textured-to-the-touch, carbon fiber-look bezel around the center stack.

WardsAutotesters love the on-screen graphics, including the image of the car’s taillights followed by a “goodbye” message that appears in the gauge cluster each time the car is shut off.

That same screen also delivers vehicle information when the car is running. Messages and vehicle data are well-organized into categories accessed by a “pages” button, conveniently located on the steering wheel.

A “down” arrow button, also on the steering wheel, drills deeper, cycling through each page’s featured information, such as miles traveled, fuel economy, tire pressure and current radio station.

The Forte interior not only is outstanding visually but also is ergonomically and functionally superior.

Although passenger space has been reduced from the prior-generation model, the back seat still is “very spacious and comfortable,” in the words of one judge.

The rear center head restraint is a welcome sight, as so many models today lack this safety feature. It is adjustable too, meaning taller children or shorter adults can be protected from whiplash in the event of a rear-end collision.

Good materials, style, safety and comfort – it appears everything is Kia’s forte with this interior.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com