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2011 Kia Forte

2011 Kia Forte
2011 Kia Forte Wheelbase Media

"Fuel economy" has always brought with it the “economy-car” stigma, but there’s a definite shift going on in 2011: good on gas can also mean a good car. Maybe even a great car.

As if Kia was trying to prove the point, buyers now have a highly versatile Forte 5-Door as well as the sedan and two-door “Koup” to choose from.

The Korea-based automaker refers to the 5-Door as a hatchback, but there’s little to differentiate it from most typical wagons. Some might argue that the rear opening must be virtually vertical for a wagon to be called a wagon, while others believe the amount of storage space is the ideal determining factor. In any event, if Kia prefers calling the 5-Door (obviously not bothering to differentiate between passenger doors and rear-access cargo openings) a hatchback, then so be it.

In any event, the four-door 5-Door uses the same basic platform as the sedan and both cars are equal in width and in distance between the front and rear wheels. However, the 5-Door is actually shorter in overall length by nearly 7.5 inches and is trimmer by about 50 pounds as a result.

But the most important measurement for any practical hatch is the volume of stuff it can carry. With the rear seat folded flat, the 5-Door can swallow a fair chunk of groceries; more than the Toyota Matrix or Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback but not as much as the Hyundai Elantra Touring or the diminutive (but surprisingly spacious) Honda Fit.

Kia’s designers have done a pretty good job at loping off the sedan’s trunk and integrating the new rear end of the 5-Door. The lines remain crisp and purposeful from all angles, accentuated by the blacked-out door pillars and wrap-around taillights. From the back though, the 5-Door appears suspiciously similar to the Subaru Impreza, a vehicle that the automaker unabashedly refers to as a wagon. No wonder there’s confusion out there.

The interior shares most of its components with the sedan, including a virtually identical dashboard. Kia somehow managed to dial a bit more passenger space into the 5-Door, likely due to a slightly higher roofline.

Also common to all three Forte body styles is the two-engine lineup. The base EX Forte 5-Door runs with a 156-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder, while a 173-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder belongs to the fancier SX.

Both powerplants can be ordered with six-speed manual transmissions, or optional six-speed automatics (with extra-cost paddle-shift capability).

Fuel economy with the base engine and either transmission is rated at 25 mpg city and 34 highway. However, an optional fuel-economy package for automatic-equipped models, consisting of special low-rolling resistance tires, electric power steering and various aerodynamic enhancements, raises the bar to 27/37. Those numbers are sufficient to propel the 5-Door to the head of its compact wagon/hatchback class.

Kia is treating the 5-Door as a slightly more upscale ride than the sedan, so there’s no bare-bones LX model, which is how the sedan starts out. That means the base EX trim designation for the 5-Door that arrives with air conditioning, six-way adjustable manual driver’s seat, up-level six-speaker audio system and 16-inch alloy wheels instead of the LX sedan’s 15-inch steelies.

In addition to the more powerful 2.4-liter engine, the SX adds tilt/telescoping steering and fancier interior trim with metal pedals, fog lamps and 17-inch wheels. But perhaps the most useful SX item is the sport-tuned suspension that Kia claims delivers a firmer, more controlled ride. In addition, larger-diameter front brake discs are claimed to produce shorter stops.

Keeping a tight bottom line — the EX starts at $17,600, including destination charges — means that the 5-Door’s option list is extensive and includes climate control, leather-covered seats (heated in front), push-button start, auto-dimming rearview mirror, power sunroof and a navigation system.

Whether entry level or loaded to the hilt, the Forte 5-Door is a handsome, practical and affordable hauler. Most folks who opt for this particular configuration, regardless of its wagon or hatchback designation, will likely wonder how they ever got by without it.