The 2014 model year brought redesigns of two compact sedans that each seemed to have the potential to shake up the market: the Kia Forte and the Toyota Corolla, the bottom two finishers in this reviewer's 2011 comparison review.
The latter's significance is more readily obvious – long one of the class's two best-sellers, the Corolla had fallen behind newer competitors with an antiquated four-speed automatic transmission, drab interior décor, and sloppy ride and handling. The 2014 redesign brought sportier styling, many new features, and new powertrain technology that yielded a significant fuel economy boost.
Also showing great promise was the Forte. Although Kia doesn't have the strongest reputation, many of its recent new products have been award-winners for blending style, technology and value. The company has even launched two premium large sedans, one priced from $60,000, to critical acclaim. These are all signs that the new Forte was going to be a major upgrade from its bottom-dwelling predecessor.
But weeklong test drives in each the Forte and Corolla suggest that, despite major upgrades, neither is likely to seize the best-in-class crown. The Kia suffers from mediocre crash test scores and fuel economy, and the Toyota is noisy and still doesn't drive especially well. It will take a comparison of more than two cars to pick the real winner in this class – expect it later this spring.
To look at
With a shimmering blue paint job and some sharp styling details, the tested Kia Forte EX can look like a style leader in its class, at least from a few angles. But this disguises an overall shape that's rather generic among today's compact sedans, a rounded sleekness that's particularly anonymous from the rear. Losing the tested car's $300 upgraded alloy wheels further makes it disappear into the crowd. Actually look at the car closely and you'll see a sharply rising window line and downward-sloping roof that avoid some competitors' chunkiness, but this doesn't jump out at a glance to make the car look distinctive.
The tested Corolla LE Eco, meanwhile, wears a humble dark green and plastic hubcaps – not exactly a beauty-contest model. The Toyota's shape though is more distinctive than the Kia's, though. It's not necessarily more attractive, but the Corolla's designers use more sharp edges than the always-smooth Kia, lending it a chunkier and at times more aggressive appearance. (Higher-trim models can also be dressed up with fancier wheels and other exterior trim.)
Inside, the tested Forte has a cohesive interior design brightened by slick electronics displays – crisp gauges and a large infotainment screen – that are both flashy and functional. However, most of the dash is simply gray plastic of varying textures, which looks and feels a little drab. Models without the big screen – which will be most of the Fortes sold – are even more low-rent. This is unusual for a new Kia, as the brand has generally gone out of its way lately to make its cabins stylish. There are also too many plastic trim pieces meeting at roughly the same place on the dashboard, above the driver's right knee, and not meeting seamlessly either.
The Corolla's interior, meanwhile, isn't as cleanly laid out as the Forte's, but there's a lot more visual interest. As with the exterior, not everyone will love the design – it's blocky and rectangular, and yields a high dashboard that reduces the airiness of the cabin, but it doesn't have the Kia's expanse of unbroken gray. Electronics aren't as spiffy as in the Forte, but the best stuff is more widely available across the Corolla line. Materials quality is mostly good, including padded surfaces on the relatively low-end tested car. Some cheap-feeling plastics adorn the door panels and steering wheel, though; additional investment there would not be out of line fore a more complete premium ambiance.
To sit in
The Forte has spacious, comfortable front seats (trimmed in black leather on the tested car) with excellent lateral support in cornering. Rear visibility is diminished by the sloping roofline and high trunk, though. This roofline also cuts into rear headroom, though even tall occupants will have head clearance if they sit bolt upright rather than relaxing into the overly-reclined seatback. There's good legroom, but the seat cushion is uncomfortably low. In an odd error, the front-passenger floormat has just one front attachment point – at the center, rather than on either side – which means the mat doesn't like flat against the unevenly shaped floor.
The Corolla has wide, comfortable front seats that are trimmed in a warm tan-orange cloth in the tested car, which Toyota calls “amber.” Like the Forte, rear visibility could be better, and as noted before, it has a fairly high dashboard for a compact car. The rear seat has good legroom for a compact car, and a high, comfortable cushion. Tall occupants will need to bow their heads, though.
Although both cars have decent passenger space, Kia has a significant advantage for cargo – the Forte's trunk is 14.9 cubic feet, and nicely shaped, whereas the Corolla's is a class-competitive but unremarkable 13.0 cubic feet and with some intrusions. The Corolla also lacks an interior pull-down for the trunk, a disappointing omission.
On the cabin technology front, Kia's Uvo system tops Toyota's Entune for speed, style and functionality – but there's a catch. The Corolla has Entune included on nearly every model, whereas only a basic system is available on lower-level Fortes. Entune is better executed in the Corolla than in some other Toyotas thanks to the incorporation of more physical buttons, which are more responsive and easier to use than controls only offered through the touchscreen.
Although both Kia and Toyota would like drivers to think of their respective compact cars as sporty, neither has the driving dynamics to hold that claim. Both cars have unnatural steering that responds slowly and is backed up by middling agility.
Turn the wheel in the Forte, and you'll have to wait a bit to see where the car goes as a result of your input. You don't get any feedback through the steering system, nor do you get quick responses. The system is mushy and vague, and the wheel is slow to return to a straight-pointed position when you let go. Spend enough time fighting with the steering system and you'll be rewarded with the decent agility that's almost inherent to a relatively small and light automobile, but fun-to-drive it is not. The tested Forte, like most other Kias today, offers adjustable steering modes; this adjusts the weight of the steering but not its response.
Rarely will the Corolla's steering be held up as an example of superiority, but Toyota beat Kia in this case. The Corolla isn't sporty either, but everyday driving feels more natural than in the Forte. The steering is light at low speeds for easy parking maneuvers but gets heavier when you've gotten moving. Never does it share any feedback, though, and it's not especially quick. The Corolla isn't especially agile, and there's surprisingly little warning before the front end starts to plow sideways instead of going where it's pointed; if nothing else, most economy cars' tires squeal well before this point.
The tested Forte EX has a 173-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission that yields a bit more zip than the economy car norm. But while the engine is smooth and decently quiet, it doesn't exactly feel like a performance machine. And that's a pity, because it drinks fuel like one: 28 miles per gallon in mixed driving, one of the poorest EPA ratings of a 2014-model compact sedan. The base LX comes with a 1.8-liter engine with 148 horsepower that gets just 1 mpg better.
Curiously, although the tested Corolla is the economy-focused Eco, it's actually the powerhouse in the model's lineup, at least relatively speaking. Its 1.8-liter four-cylinder has 140 horsepower, up 8 horsepower from ordinary Corollas. Unlike many competing fuel-efficiency models, the Corolla Eco achieves its gas mileage gains by using a more sophisticated engine as opposed to aerodynamic tricks. It pays off with outstanding EPA ratings that beat the Forte by 7 mpg: 35 miles per gallon in mixed driving, including a 42-mpg highway rating. Ordinary Corollas get a still-impressive 32-mpg overall rating. During weeklong tests, the tested Forte and Corolla returned 31.2 mpg and 35.9 mpg, respectively, in mixed driving, though not in any standardized conditions.
The Corolla can't match the Forte's refinement, though; the engine roars under acceleration while offering only adequate pep, and highway driving yields elevated wind and road noise. Nearly all Corollas have CVT automatic transmissions, which lack fixed gear ratios, but Toyota masks this well by programming the car to mimic a smooth-shifting conventional transmission. The Corolla's suspension does an outstanding job at absorbing bumps, particularly for a small car, but the Forte feels more substantial and planted on the highway.
Although all modern cars meet high safety standards, some do better than others. Neither the Forte nor the Corolla is particularly impressive by today's standards, and the Forte – despite being new – falls at the bottom of the class.
The Forte earned four out of five stars overall in National Highway Traffic Safeway Administration testing, which includes a frontal-impact crash test, two side-impact tests, and a rollover-resistance computation. Its weak point was a particularly unimpressive two-star score for protecting the front passenger in the frontal test. The Kia also failed the demanding small-overlap frontal crash test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety with the lowest rating of Poor, though like most competitors it earned the highest rating of Good in the IIHS's other tests.
Meanwhile, the Corolla earned a solid five-star NHTSA score, and eked out a rating of Marginal in the IIHS test – the second-lowest of four ratings. That's class-competitive overall, as many small cars have struggled in the small-overlap test, but it's still not outstanding.
Although Kia is known as a value brand, the Forte and Corolla have not-dissimilar price tags. Comparably equipped, a Forte EX and a Corolla LE Eco Plus have sticker prices of $20,415 and $20,210, respectively, and estimated transaction prices of $18,210 and $18,617.
Those prices include such features as power windows, locks, and mirrors; 16-inch alloy wheels; backup cameras; infotainment screens with voice-recognition controls; and LED headlights. The Corolla also includes automatic climate control at that price.
Where the two diverge on the value front is that the Forte offers a much broader array of optional equipment. The tested car was loaded up to a sticker price of $25,515, bursting with such features as a navigation system, a 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat with memory, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, power-folding exterior mirrors, and a proximity key. The Corolla, too, offers navigation, heated leather seats, and the proximity key, but none of this optional equipment is any longer outside the norm in this class.
If you're measuring cars based purely on features for the money, a fully loaded $25,515 Kia Forte EX looks compelling, especially in its dazzling blue paint. Not many cars give you that much luxury equipment in this price range, and the car is comfortable for the driver, has well-designed tech features, and drives quite well in a straight line.
But there's too much gray plastic for $25,515. There's too much steering slop. There's too much fuel consumption. There's not enough crash-safety performance. And indeed, these issues remain even when you strip out all the fancy features and compare it against such lower-priced competitors as the Corolla.
The Corolla, meanwhile, is a comparatively sensible car with competitive pricing and outstanding fuel economy. It's roomy, it's comfortable, it's well-finished, it's decently tech-laden. But it lacks the overall polish of competing small sedans that are quieter, nimbler, and generally more sophisticated for their styling, interior quality, and driving dynamics.
There are reasons to shop both of these cars, but shop them carefully in a class with a lot of tough competition.
Photo gallery of the 2014 Corolla and Forte
Comparison review: Ten 2012 compact sedans
Review: 2014 Kia Sorento SX
Review: 2013 Kia Optima EX
Review: 2012 Kia Rio SX
Review: 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited
Review: 2013 Toyota Camry XLE
Review: 2012 Toyota Yaris SE
All Cars Examiner reviews
Vehicles tested: 2014 Kia Forte / 2014 Toyota Corolla
Vehicle base prices (MSRP): $15,900 / $16,800
Versions tested: EX / LE Eco
Version base prices (MSRP): $18,700 / $19,500
Vehicle prices as tested (MSRP): $25,515 / $19,510
Vehicle prices as comparable (MSRP)*: $20,415 / $20,210
Estimated transaction prices as comparable**: $18,210 / $18,617
Test vehicle provided by: Kia Motors America / Toyota North America
Key specifications (Forte / Corolla):
Length: 179.5 inches / 182.6 inches
Width: 70.1 inches / 69.9 inches
Height: 56.5 inches / 57.3 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches/ 106.3 inches
Weight: 2,837 pounds / 2,855 pounds
Trunk volume: 14.9 cubic feet / 13.0 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.8 feet / 35.6 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.0-liter I4 with 173 horsepower / 1.8-liter I4 with 140 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed automatic / CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 24 miles per gallon / 30 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 36 miles per gallon / 42 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 28 miles per gallon / 35 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 31.2 miles per gallon / 35.9 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Korea / Canada
For more information: Kia website / Toyota website
* "Prices as comparable" reflect models with automatic transmissions; cloth seats; power windows, locks, and mirrors; an in-dash infotainment system; and alloy wheels.
** Transaction price estimates are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.