The first time I saw the Kia Forte GT, it was a complete surprise.
At the 2018 SEMA show, there was a Kermit-green Forte sedan sitting in the Kia booth. With subtle side skirts, big wheels, and a black lip spoiler. And GT badges embroidered on the seatbacks. There hadn’t been an announcement of the car, and there was nobody in Kia’s booth to tell you what it was. We’d have to wait for later in the day to be introduced to Kia’s second shot at a sports sedan.
Other than the color, this was a very subtle performance car that was given a very subtle announcement. Was that because Kia wasn’t confident in their new car, or was it an example of speaking softly but carrying a big stick?
Lots More Power
The Forte GT’s stick starts under the hood. In place of the 2.0L 147 hp four-cylinder and CVT is a 1.6L turbo mill. This one’s familiar in the Hyundai and Kia family offering up 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. That’s 37 percent more power and 48 percent more torque than the 2.0, and, importantly for a compact, it does it on regular gas.
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Real Performance Transmission
Rather than the CVT of the lesser Forte, the GT comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch box. It’s not the quickest DCT around, but it’s able to make both up and downshifts pleasantly smoothly. Pull the gearshift into manual mode, and the car automatically switches the drives mode to sport. That’s not a feature we’ve seen before in other rivals and it’s one that makes sense. Use the paddles without pulling the shifter over and you maintain manual control but the drive mode stays as-is.
US vs Canada
On this Canadian Forte GT launch, the only box we sampled was the DCT because Canadian buyers will only see that two-pedal option. Instead, they’re getting a new hatchback Forte5 that offers more rear cargo room than the segment-leading Honda Civic.
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U.S. buyers don’t get the hatch, but they do get a six-speed stick GT. For some, that’s a good trade. For others, especially those who have driven the Hyundai Elantra Sport’s manual that we’d expect to feel nearly identical to the MT Forte GT, then they might rather have the option of the hatch. In the Elantra Sport, at least, the manual box isn’t one that will endear you to the third pedal. With no clutch feel and a slightly vague shift linkage.
Built to Perform
There’s more to the GT than just an engine and gearbox, though. Kia is taking this seriously and has replaced the twist-beam rear end with a multi-link independent rear. Spring and damper tuning has been revised as well, and driving this car back to back with the non-GT hatch shows that it’s definitely a stiffer (and slightly louder as a result) ride. The brakes have been upgraded too, with 12-inch front rotors a full inch larger than lesser trims. 18-inch multi-spoke alloys with lower-profile rubber round out the performance changes.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Kia Forte First Drive
The king of the compact budget sports sedan has long been the Volkswagen Jetta GLI, and the Forte GT takes more than a few pages from that car’s play book. Like subtle changes to the exterior instead of the shouting from the rooftops that defines the current Civic Si. Starting with the grille that swaps bright for dark chrome, adds subtle red accents, and holds a small GT badge. Around the side are gloss-black skirt extensions, and on the trunk lid is a gloss black spoiler. This is low-key, but if you want something a bit louder, Kia will be happy to direct you toward the Stinger. Or to the available fire orange paint.
No Detail Left Untouched
Inside, it’s again more of running through the checklist. Seats with more bolstering? Check. A flat bottoms steering wheel with shift paddles? Check. Oh, what about red piping and contrast stitching everywhere? Yup, got that too.
Those seats are comfortable, and offer more support in the corners without being overly bolstered in the way that VW GTI seats can be (especially for larger drivers). The seat does seem to be higher than the non-GT cars, especially if you’ve ticked the box for the optional sunroof, meaning that taller or long of torso drivers will probably feel a bit cramped.
But even affordable sports sedans aren’t about seats and red trim. They’re about the drive. How does this little ripper fare against the likes of the GLI and the Civic Si? Ask Kia’s execs if this is launched at those cars and suddenly things get a little quiet. And the subject changes. That’s before we’ve sat in the cars, so it doesn’t exactly bode well. On the other hand, maybe they’re just waiting to let the chassis do the talking.
Pops and Whistles
Part of the Forte GT’s package is a louder exhaust, and that’s the first thing you’ll notice when you fire it up. Especially with the windows dropped. It’s a slightly rorty burble that’s reminiscent of the GLI’s with a little less backbone. Of course, the Forte doesn’t have any artificial noise enhancement, so that could be part of the difference. So could be the half-liter less displacement. But it gives a lovely burble and pop to accompany the DCT’s upshifts; a pleasant surprise that seemed to get a bit louder through the day. Maybe getting into the feel of the car, or maybe an engine with only 300 miles starting to loosen up.
The engine is also accompanied by a delightful whistle from the turbo from about 2,000 to 3,000 rpm. It’s the kind of noise that puts a grin on your face each time you hear it. It’s powerful in this little car, and it delivers that power well across the rev-band. Despite the exhaust and turbo noise, though, it doesn’t quite have the verve and joy that the GLI and Si offer.
Steering Feel, Or Lack Thereof
Steering feel jockeys for position with the engine for the essential sports sedan feature, but here the GT falls behind the competition. My tester was a little vague just off-centre, and though the weighting was good, it lacked a sense of feel. Strangely, the non-GT Forte5 that I also drove on the event had steering that felt sharper. With a more reassuring feel on centre and quicker turn-in.
I also liked the actual steering wheel of the 5. It didn’t have the flat-bottom or thumb-cuts of the GT’s, but it also had a better diameter, softer-feeling leather, and the GT’s sharp red stitching was, well, sharp on the inside of my thumbs.
Steering aside, this is a well-damped small car. It felt solid on the highway and on the twisty single-track roads Kia found for us to wind through redwoods on. When visibility allowed, the Forte GT embraced the rhythm of the roadway. The multi-link rear stayed planted, and while it didn’t have the tail-happy eagerness to rotate of the GTI, neither does VW’s own GLI. If not eager, it’s definitely a willing playful partner in your back-road shenanigans.
Performance and Value
Kia’s big play has always been value, so of course the Forte GT does well there too. The GT starts from $22,290 with the DCT or $600 more for the stick putting it about $3,600 less than Si and $4,600 less than GLI. That gets you the GT bits plus an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment with nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A Harman Kardon audio system is optional.
All Fortes get most of the usual-suspects driver aids like forward collision warning and avoidance, lane departure warning, and lane-keeping assist. Extras like blind-spot warnings, rear cross-traffic alerts, and radar cruise control are all optional.
The Verdict: 2020 Kia Forte GT Review
Is the Forte GT the new king of the budget performance sedan segment?
No, this isn’t quite the Stinger of the segment, though neither does it seem like it’s supposed to be. Instead, this car is another strong value proposition for the automaker that’s going to give most drivers all the sport they really want without any of the compromises in ride and comfort that they don’t. It’s not the one you’re going to take to the next track day, but for many buyers in this segment, this will likely be the one that’s just right.