Finally, a third pedal
THE GOOD
  • Sleek and stylish
  • Impressive handling
  • Finally, a manual
THE BAD
  • No satellite radio
  • No pedestrian detection
  • Interior lacks colour, character

When Kia stuffed a turbo motor into its compact Forte5, it created a very likeable little car that could almost be considered a hot hatch.

A plucky five-door with impressive performance acumen for the price, the Forte5 GT proved to be plenty fun to push around while serving admirably as a daily driver. Believe it or not, that’s an increasingly rare combo these days as cars like this one are put out to pasture at an alarming rate. It was, however, short of one simple-yet-significant element: a manual gearbox.

The 2021 Kia Forte5 GT addresses that issue with a slick-shifting six-speed that’s not necessarily better than the now-optional automatic, but it’s unquestionably more engaging – and arguably more fun. It’s also a quick way to save some cash.

Value: 9/10

The price of this pseudo hot hatch was already compelling, but the addition of this three-pedal version – as well as the discontinuation of the mechanically identical Hyundai Elantra GT N Line – makes it a downright bargain. Factor in the non-negotiable freight charge of $1,645, and the $27,540 sticker price is just plain cheap.

While the manual transmission only comes in a single Forte5 GT trim, a similarly equipped Toyota Corolla five-door rings in at $29,230 before tax, while a Honda Civic hatch is $32,100 – but neither of those cars feels quite as perky and playful as this Kia. Then there’s the forthcoming 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI, which is a proper hot hatch that’s priced at $33,445 including freight.

Power: 9/10

Of course, in the case of the GTI that price premium is justified by a healthy serving of extra engine output (not to mention a more performance-oriented car overall). But the turbocharged 1.6L motivating the Forte5 GT is admirable in its own right, doling out 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque of its own.

More importantly, the full serving of torque hits at just 1,500 rpm, resulting in plenty of pull the moment the clutch engages. There’s a sport mode, too, which makes the throttle that much more responsive. Dump the clutch with traction control switched off and the front tires will spin freely as all the torque tries in vain to find a footing.

Driving Feel: 9/10

While that’s true of just about any manual-equipped car – even this author’s diesel-powered wagon is capable of such shenanigans – there’s an added element of excitability to this little four-cylinder. Once again, this isn’t a proper hot hatch; there’s no trick limited-slip differential helping that torque in its journey to the ground, nor does the six-speed feature automatic rev-matching like the Corolla’s. But it’s appropriately eager to take off from a standing start while feeling even punchier on the move.

The clutch pedal is perhaps a little on the short side but the action is precise. The same is true of the shifter, which doesn’t feel especially substantial, but it’s easy enough to slip it in and out of gears without missing a shift. There are easier cars in which to heel-and-toe downshift, but it’s not impossible with a little practice.

And despite those minor grievances over how this six-speed setup operates, the steering manages to impress with its satisfying weight despite a lack of genuine feel, while the car’s sport setting further adds artificial resistance to the proceedings. It’s exactly the kind of playful pushback a sporty little hatchback should provide, with all kinds of car control to go with it.

Comfort: 8/10

Suspension tuning lends well to the Forte5’s agility, but it manages road imperfections with equal equanimity. While other compact cars – including the base version of this Kia – utilize torsion beams in the back this multi-link setup performs admirably, keeping the rear end from skipping its way across broken surfaces. The 18-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tires they’re wrapped in result in the occasional cringe-worthy thud, but this is a far cry from compact Kias of old.

The same goes for the seats – not exactly among this brand’s hallmarks over the years. Providing just enough bolstering and plenty of support, they’re perfect for casual commuting or spirited sideroad driving. They’re also heated up front, as is the steering wheel, though they aren’t ventilated and the rear seats aren’t heated; those features are reserved for the automatic-only GT Limited trim.

Features: 8/10

The rest of the equipment that comes fitted to this most affordable Forte5 GT is reasonable, though there’s at least one exception. While an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system is standard, as are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections, it goes without satellite radio. The omission is disappointing on its own, but it’s particularly notable since it’s included in the same trim with the optional automatic transmission – a $1,700 upgrade.

Safety: 8/10

Advanced safety equipment is much the same, with lots to like along with a couple letdowns. Forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking is standard, for instance, but there’s no pedestrian detection to go with it. This version also skips adaptive cruise control in favour of a conventional system, but lane-keep assist and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert are both here and work without too many alarm bells.

More basically, there are six airbags throughout the cabin, including side curtains, a government-mandated back-up camera, and a hill-start assist system – always handy in a car with a clutch pedal. It will keep the car from rolling back when the clutch is released, while the advanced systems like lane-keeping and blind-spot monitoring can be switched off via buttons near the driver’s left knee.

User Friendliness: 9/10

It’s not just those safety systems that are easy to switch on and off but everything else inside, too. The dual-zone automatic climate control system uses buttons, dials, and a dedicated LCD display, while the infotainment system is as simple as they get. A row of buttons beneath the touchscreen is bookended by knobs for volume and tune, while the interface itself lacks flair but offers plenty of logic.

The display is responsive to inputs while graphics are crisp and easy to read. Plugging a smartphone into a USB port on the console calls up either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay systems, while speech for phone calls and dictated directions is recognized flawlessly. There’s also a smattering of switchgear on the steering wheel that makes plenty of sense, while a handy shortcut button can be programmed to call up those phone-mirroring functions with the press of a thumb (there’s another programmable button on the centre stack).

Styling: 9/10

The cabin could use an extra splash of colour on the dash or doors instead of bits of silver plastic, but it’s a stylish space that looks reasonably contemporary and sporty. Round HVAC vents flank the dash, while the flat-bottom steering wheel is a nice touch. And the seats offer the character the rest of the cabin lacks, with red piping and GT embroidery up front to go with stylish red inserts both front and back.

Those subtle red accents carry outside, with the grille and wheel centre caps getting the same treatment, but this is a car that stands out for its very shape. Long and low, there’s nothing else on the market that looks quite like the Forte5, GT or otherwise, with the bean-like Mazda3 hatch coming close but lacking the finesse found here.

Practicality: 9/10

The shape of this hatchback’s hindquarters cuts into its usability a bit, with the sloped glass reducing the amount of upright space. Officially, cargo room behind the back seats is listed at a rather generous 741 L – for reference, the outgoing Golf GTI’s boxier space was listed at 645 L – but offers a decent area to fill with stuff, while the folding the 60/40 bench opens up 1,335 L.

In-cabin storage for small items is reasonable, too, with door pockets all around, a small covered console bin, and a cubby beneath the HVAC controls that also houses a wireless phone charger. And for what the Forte5 lacks in height in the cargo area it makes up for with a tall cabin. Headroom up front is hampered slightly by the sunroof, but there’s plenty of space overall, while the rear seats are surprisingly spacious. While Kia’s Seltos subcompact crossover offers even more room in the back – and it can be had with this same engine – the brand’s sleek hatchback can hold its own when it comes to interior accommodations.

Fuel Economy: 8/10

It can do the same at the pumps, too. According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), it’s good for 9.9 L/100 km in the city, 7.6 on the highway, and 8.8 combined, none of which are especially impressive. The more powerful GTI is rated slightly worse, while the Civic and Corolla hatchbacks are better across the board – and so is the automatic-equipped Forte5 GT, which is good for 8.9 L/100 km in the city, 6.9 on the highway, and 8.0 combined.

However, even when goading this peppy little commuter at times during testing, it turned in results that were better than advertised. An initial evaluation drive spanning some 200 km spread across major and secondary highways, winding country roads, and urban streets resulted in a consumption rate of 6.9 L/100 km, while a full week of testing spanning some 450 km ended at 8.1 L/100 km.

The Verdict

Just as before, the 2021 Kia Forte5 GT is no Volkswagen GTI fighter. But then it’s not supposed to be. The addition of a manual transmission does give this Kia two important points in its favour, however. For starters, it’s undeniably more engaging to drive than the same car with a dual-clutch automatic while also offering more enjoyment for those who prefer three pedals over two.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s taken this car’s most impressive attribute – its value proposition – and made it even better. And if that wasn’t enough, it manages to be buttoned-down and fun to drive without feeling like much of anything has been left on the table.

It’s not often a sub-$30,000 car offers those traits these days. In fact, the Kia Forte5 GT might well be the only one that does. It lands somewhere between commuter-first hatchbacks like the Corolla and Civic and fully hotted-up ones like the VW GTI, providing a rare blend of practicality and driving pleasure for a reasonable price. Very likeable, indeed.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 1.6L   Model Tested 2021 Kia Forte5 GT
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $25,895
Peak Horsepower 201 hp @ 6,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 195 lb-ft @ 1,500–4,500 rpm   Destination Fee $1,645
Fuel Economy 9.9 / 7.6 / 8.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $27,890
Cargo Space 741 / 1,335 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$250 – Gravity Blue Paint, $250