Priced like a City, armed like a Civic. Naza-Kia`s new Forte will be posing plenty of questions to the Japanese. KON writes....
|[+ click to enlarge] |
|We arranged for an unscheduled car swap half-way|
|1.6-litre Gamma engine gives good shove|
|Differences between EX and SX are minor at a glance, until you read through the list.|
It was a bright sunny afternoon along the North-South Highway. A W210 Merc E280 was cruising southwards from Tapah, with the speedometer hovering steadily between 140 and 150kph. As the occupants enjoyed the cruise, an unfamiliar looking car was closing in on them, lights switched on and right signal blinking.
It was a sleek-looking car, futuristic even. It maintained a distance from the Benz, patiently waiting for a chance to overtake. A kilometre passed. No reaction. Two kilometres. Nothing. Three, and it went on. After a while, the car behind was moving across the Merc's rear view mirror. From his left wing mirrors, the Merc driver saw the car behind finally making the move to overtake from the left.
It didn't take long for the car behind to pass the Benz, showing in all its glory, the 'NAZA' badge adorning its bootlid. The marketing tagline for the Forte is that it'll leave you speechless. I'm curious if that was the Merc driver's reaction when I had passed him without breaking sweat in what was a 1.6-litre Kia with steel rims and wheel caps.
Ok, that was a bit of a fantasy, but trust me, the Forte is a fabulous drive. It's here, and it's a bargain.
What's On Offer?
The Forte is available with two engine options - 1.6 and 2.0 litres. The 1.6 will be offered in two spec variants - entry-level 1.6 EX, and the full-on 1.6 SX, while the 2.0 is available in SX trim only. All three variants come with generous amounts of kit, although the list of goodies get progressively longer with each successive variant.
From the outside, 15" steel rims and a downward pointing exhaust pipe are all that set the lowest grade EX from its costlier siblings. For a base model, the Forte EX is rather well-equipped. The usual base model omissions, such as steering-mounted controls, rear discs, foglamps, dual airbags. 60:40 split-folding rear seats, and trip computer are all on board, so you definitely don't feel short-changed here.
Of course, while the 1.6 EX draws the crowds into the showrooms, the one that Naza Kia expects to form the bulk of the Forte's sales is the 1.6 SX. The list of added goodies is substantial - ABS, stability control, traction control, keyless start, tilt & telescopic steering, auto lights, and auto climate control among the more useful things. The cosmetic additions include chromed this-and-thats, higher grade interior finish, and larger alloys.
On top of the range is the 2.0 SX. Besides having a larger engine, the 2.0 also gets six airbags (against two for the 1.6), and a motor driven power steering. Otherwise, it is for all purposes, identical in spec to the 1.6 SX.
Like the Picanto launched earlier this month, the Forte will wear Naza badges outside, a Kia badge on the steering, and be called only as the Forte. This looks set to be a practice to be adopted by Naza-Kia for all future CKD Kia vehicles on a permanent basis.
Price? Here's the good part. Hold your breath: 1.6 EX - RM75,800, 1.6 SX - RM81,800, and 2.0 SX - RM93,800. And, we are talking about on the road prices with insurance (in the Peninsula).
Both variants of the Forte draw propulsion from 16-valve twin-cam engines with Kia's Continuous Variable Valve Timing system. The engine for the 1.6 displaces 1,591cc, producing 122hp @ 6,200rpm and 156Nm @ 4,200rpm. With a kerb weight of 1,261kg, it shares a similar power-to-weight ratio as the Proton Waja CPS.
Meanwhile, the 2.0 gets the Hyundai-Kia version of the famed GEMA engine. Versions of this engine are used by Mitsubishi as the 4B11, and by Chrysler as the World Engine. Known for its square-shaped combustion chamber (bore x stroke = 86mm x 86mm), the Theta II variant used in the Forte outputs 154hp @ 6,200rpm and 194.2Nm @ 4,300rpm.
In our shores, Naza-Kia is offering both variants of the Forte with 4-speed automatic transmissions. Manual versions will, sadly, not be offered. Both the 1.6 and 2.0 get the same set of ratios, but the 1.6 has a shorter final drive ratio of 4.375 compared to 3.681 for the 2.0.
From the Spectra, Kia has made the conscious decision of omitting independent rear suspension for the Forte, replacing it with a torsion beam axle. Kia justifies this decision by quoting advantages in terms of weight saving, space saving, and additional robustness - doubling as protection for the fuel tank in rear impacts up to 84kph.
Steering mechanism is rack-and-pinion, with the 1.6 getting hydraulic power assist and the 2.0 going electric. All-round disc brakes are standard across the board. The Forte's specs sheet is indeed competitive, though I still find the use of 4A/T and torsion beam rear suspension to be the minor drawbacks of an otherwise faultless package.
Viewed from most angles, the Forte is a sleek, and very handsome looking car. There are some design elements that do not gel together too well, but Kia's design is maturing by huge leaps and bounds.
By and large, the Forte appears to be an amalgamation of many already existing design cues. Different parts of the car reminds you of different cars. The front fascia seems to have derived styling elements of the Honda Civic Euro and City, while the tail lights resemble the product of interbreeding between the Audi A4 and BMW 3-series.
The Forte is easily Kia's best styling effort seen in this part of the world. Indeed, it really looks like a car with a price tag twice as huge. No disrespect to the previous models, but this is probably the first Kia which people might look and say, "I want one!"
Getting on board
After what was a spectacular looking shell, the interior comes as a bit of a letdown in terms of design. Although the cabin is not shoddy by any standards, it lacks the same shock and wow factor that the exterior gives. There are no major faults, but it isn't very inspiring either, and a steering wheel shaped like the face of a sad cartoon does not help.
While it lacks a little inspiration, it, thankfully, does not lack quality. The buttons give very positive and upmarket tactile feel when pressed, while the gated auto gear shifter slots into positions convincingly.
The plastics are hard, but that's not an issue for the kind of money you're paying. It may not feel premium, but it does not give us the impression that it would fall apart after some years. Space is also hardly an issue, with plenty of leg and headroom for all passengers.
On the road - 1.6 SX
For the media test drive, Naza Kia sent 24 journalists to Penang, where, after setting off from Batu Ferringhi, we headed to the Peninsula via the back roads of Balik Pulau, crossing across the island to Bukit Jambul before going over the Penang bridge. Lunch was arranged at Bukit Tambun before the group headed south and regrouped at the Sg Buloh R&R and dispersed.
The 24 journalists were assigned to groups of threes and spread among eight cars - all of them 1.6. I was given a seat in the higher-spec 1.6 SX, and had the wheel for the first watch. As we took off, I was immediately impressed at how responsive it was off the line.
Along the twisty back roads of Balik Pulau, the Forte ably demonstrated its accomplished handling prowess. It responds to change of direction well, with minimal body roll when cornering at high speeds. Thanks to high reserves of grip, you can really push it at the corners. This car has good looks with the handling to match.
The good handling, though, comes at a cost. Already, the Forte's suspension is naturally firm, but with 215/45 R17 rubbers, the chassis was telegraphing the road surface conditions to the occupants way too effectively. After vacating the driver's seat, I was immediately thankful for giving the nasi lemak breakfast a skip, and being behind the wheel at that most challenging stretch.
Meanwhile, the four-speed auto did an adequate job channeling power to the front wheels, responding well to jabs of the throttle and also manual input. A point to note is the extremely long 2nd gear, which, according to one journalist, can be dragged to 110kph. I didn't attempt that, but I found that you can travel the entire stretch of the Balik Pulau backroad holding gear at '2'.
Sitting over lunch at Bukit Tambun, our pack of journalists were busy exchanging notes on politics, local food, celebrities, industry gossip, and, of course, the car. Suspecting that the 215/45 tyres to be the biggest culprit of the crashy ride compared to the suspension, we arranged to swap cars with another group who drove the 1.6 EX, which came with 196/65 R15 tyres.
The 1.6 EX
The difference was felt immediately, no doubt the thicker sidewalls filtering out substantially more of the road imperfections. It was quickly obvious that the 1.6 EX is a far more comfy ride compared to the 1.6 SX. In fact, comfort improved by far greater margins than handling was compromised.
On the highway, we noticed that wind noise was kept at a minimum, but tyre noise was roaring in the cabin. This suggests that the Forte's aerodynamics are spot on, though Naza-Kia definitely saved some money with the tyre wall insulation. Engine note was pleasantly sporty, only sounding strained at a hair's breadth away from the red line.
But, believe me, you do not need to wring the bejesus out of this car to get it going. My turn driving the 1.6 EX came after the Tapah rest stop, from which I drove all the way to Sg Buloh. Throughout the journey, there was hardly any need to apply any pressure on the throttle. In fact, the difficulty was to keep myself from applying too much pressure.
Although the Forte does not accelerate with sledgehammer force, it is surprisingly rapid. Even if you maintain feather-weight pressure on the throttle, the speedometer inches clockwise, whether you like it or not. It seemed to avoid the double-digit zone like a plague. Bringing it to 160 was a far easier exercise than bringing down to 120.
There is some difficulty in regaining lost speed when drastic slow downs are needed, but don't worry, normal service resumes in no time. The engine seemed most comfortable spinning at 4,000rpm - with the speedo indicating 160kph. Yes, it was very stable. No scuttle, no nothing. Some noise, yes, but at very acceptable levels.
Heading Home - Back on the 1.6 SX
As sunset approached, the eight cars arrived one after another at the Sungai Buloh R&R stop. That is our designated dispersion point, from which we are re-organized into the eight Fortes to be driven home. We were given the chance to drive again, with a Naza-Kia staff accompanying us to take the car back to HQ.
I found myself back in another unit of the 1.6 SX, behind the wheel again. Back on the highway, I was quick to shift to the fast lane, and buried my foot into the throttle, and.... nothing. The responsiveness I felt in the 1.6 EX earlier is gone. This car is noticeably heavier and more sluggish.
Where the 1.6 EX absolutely flew with only minimal throttle application, this one needed some shoving. Not that it lacks go, but more effort is noticeably needed. There is no doubt that the additional two inches to the wheel diameter contributed to this.
While we can't comment on the 2.0, the 1.6-litre Forte demonstrated itself to be a thoroughly capable car. The simple fact is that you're getting a C-segment car at B-segment prices.
At RM75,800, the EX version looks to be an attractive purchase. However, even though the EX is already well-equipped, the version to go for is definitely the SX - which is the one that Naza-Kia expects to sell the most.
It's not faultless, to be sure, but its competitive asking price and specifications ensures that the Forte will be a big winner for Naza-Kia. My biggest criticism of it remains as the overly harsh ride of the SX. Using 17" alloys are too much of an overkill, severely compromising comfort and performance.
The cheaper EX version with 15" rims is the far sweeter drive of the two sampled today, but the value-for-money package is the 1.6 SX - though I recommend that you down-size the rims.
Naza-Kia has today issued a press release saying that the Forte is available for booking at all Naza-Kia sales outlets for a minimum non-refundable booking fee of RM1,000.