Test Drive: Kia Forte Koup

Sometimes a car catches me totally off guard because it turns out to be so much more fun to drive than I expected.? The Kia Forte Koup is such a car. ?While its namesake, the Kia Forte sedan is a very good car and an excellent value, it?s not the kind of car that makes me jump up on the table and say, ?Wow! What a fun car to drive.? ?The Koup, on the other hand, got me very excited.

In late 2009, about six months after the introduction of the new Forte, Kia rolled out a two-door coupe version of the Forte, called the Koup (which I understand is a marriage of words Kia and coupe).? Because it wasn?t available in the press fleet, I didn?t pay much attention to the little coupe until several months later when I had a chance to drive it at a media event sponsored by one of our auto writer groups.

Not knowing what to expect from the stylish coupe, I was surprised by how much fun I had running it around the Mazda Laguna Seca racetrack.? Powered by the larger of two available four-cylinder engines, the Koup didn?t run up to the three digit speeds I saw on some of the faster cars, but I did see 90 mph on one of the longer straight stretches.

In the corners, the Koup was solid, staying nearly flat with a predictable front-wheel drive demeanor — slightly muted steering with a tad of understeer. ?Nevertheless, it had a light agile feel that?s even comfortable being thrown around a little more than the average owner might do.

The Koup comes in two trim levels, EX and SX, each with its own engine.? The base EX has a 156-horsepower, 2.0-liter Double Overhead Cam four-cylinder with Continuously Variable Valve Timing and the SX uses a 173-hp 2.4-liter version with DOHC and CVVT.? A five-speed manual transmission is the standard with EX, while the SX gets a six-speed manual.? A thousand dollars buys an optional automatic transmission with manual shift gate in either model, which means a four-speed automatic for the EX and a five-speed in the SX.

I recently drove the SX with six-speed manual transmission.? While the shift linkage and clutch work well together, both need some work before they are as precise as the systems in the Honda Civic or the Mazda3.

The 2.0-liter engine gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway with either transmission, while the 2.4-liter is rated at 22/32 mpg with the six-speed manual and 23/31 mpg with the five-speed automatic.? Driving the 2.4-liter with manual transmission in combined conditions for a week, I averaged 28.9 mpg.

Kia 0 to 60 mph acceleration times are pinned at 8.3 seconds for the SX and about a second longer for the EX.? The 2.0-liter GDI turbo (274-hp) offered in the new Kia Optima sedan would make a nice future edition to the Koup making it a good competitor for the MazdaSpeed3.

However, the feature that attracts the most attention to the Koup is the head turning styling.? The basic shape is similar to its two main competitors, the Honda Civic and the last generation Scion tC. ?The styling gives the car a well-balanced stance and resembles the trim muscles of a well-conditioned athlete.? The dual chrome exhaust outlets and 17-inch alloy wheels and tires intensify the performance persona. ?Even though the Koup bears the same Forte name as the sedan, the hood is the only interchangeable body part between the two models.

The interior is contemporary with an attractive large three-pod instrument cluster resembling something from a motorcycle, but then there is another visor covering the entire grouping that looks more like an afterthought than an integral part of the design.? The center stack layout is clean and well-organized with large buttons and dials. To add an extra touch of sportiness, the SX pedals are in metal trim.

Former Audi designer, Peter Schreyer, and his team created the stylish Koup which ended up being bellwether for later stylish new Kia products including the Soul, Sportage and Optima.

Like all Kia?s the Forte Koup is very well outfitted with a car load of standard features like alloy wheels, air conditioning, power windows, keyless entry, Bluetooth and audio system with satellite radio. ?Both models are equipped with stability control, traction control and several braking assists that we don?t normally see as standard equipment on cars in this price range.

Koup pricing starts at $17,290, including the destination charge, for the EX with manual transmission.? The top model SX with automatic transmission lists for $19,390, add the two major options, leather seating and moonroof and the price peaks at a very reasonable $20,990.

The Kia Forte Koup is something of a sleeper in the sporty segment, but worth a strong hard look and long test drive.? The outstanding value is further enhanced by Kias excellent 5-year/60,000 mile new vehicle warranty and the 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty.

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