Cars and Concepts

Kia packs Forte with technology as it shifts to Mexico plant

Michael Sprague, COO for Kia Motor America, introduces the 2017 Forte 5. Kia went beyond a mere face-lift with the Forte sedan and Forte5 hatchback, outfitting them with a rich array of crash-avoidance features and the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone interfaces. Photo credit: REUTERS

DETROIT -- Kia Motors Corp.'s freshened, technology-packed 2017 Forte will inaugurate its soon-to-open assembly plant in Monterrey, Mexico, and join a growing list of inexpensive compact cars being produced at Mexican factories for the U.S. market.

Kia went beyond a mere face-lift with the Forte sedan and Forte5 hatchback, outfitting them with a rich array of crash-avoidance features and the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone interfaces.

The refresh shows how Kia plans to use its low-cost manufacturing base in Mexico to vie for a greater share of the compact car market -- something that has eluded the Korean automaker, partly because of supply constraints.

Kia sold 78,919 Forte sedans and hatchbacks in 2015 for a 3.5 percent share of the compact car segment and an 11th place finish, behind the critically unloved and heavily incentivized Dodge Dart. In contrast, Kia’s boxy Soul was America’s top-selling subcompact car in 2015 with a 22 percent market share and 147,133 sold.

The 2017 Forte hatchback

New ‘tiger nose’

Taking design cues from the newly redesigned Optima midsize sedan, the reworked Forte and Forte5 wear the new version of Kia’s signature “tiger nose” fascia, with headlights that jut outward from the grille like wings.

They also offer Android Auto and CarPlay on a 7-inch color touch screen. Available safety features include lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring and dynamic headlights that bend into curves as the driver turns the steering wheel. Similar lighting was featured on the 2017 Kia Sportage and the redesigned Elantra compact from corporate sibling Hyundai, and it is expected to become part of tightened criteria in evaluations by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Lower trim levels of the sedan will be powered by a four-cylinder, 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle engine optimized for fuel economy. Higher trim levels get a more powerful four-cylinder, 2.0-liter direct-injected engine carried over from the 2016 Forte. Both are paired with six-speed automatic transmissions.

Kia didn’t release fuel economy figures for the Atkinson-cycle engine, but Hyundai has said it expects the engine to deliver a rating of 33 mpg in combined city and highway driving in the 2017 Elantra.

In the youth-oriented SX trim, the 2017 Forte5 features a 1.6-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. It comes with sporty styling touches including red stripes on the front and rear bumpers, and has an optional “Orange Color Pack” that includes orange leather seat accents and contrast stitching on the seats and the shifter knob.

Made in Mexico

Mexico’s cheap labor and proximity to the U.S. offer an opportunity for Kia. The company historically enjoyed a pricing advantage over rivals due to low wages and favorable exchange rates in South Korea, its main manufacturing base, but those advantages have evaporated as Korea has grown into an industrial powerhouse.

Compounding matters, rival automakers already have seized upon Mexico’s cost advantage for their compact models. Nissan shifted production of the Sentra compact to its assembly plant in Aguascalientes in 2013, while Mazda started building the compact Mazda3 at it factory in Salamanca in early 2014. Ford, which currently builds its compact Focus in Wayne, Mich., has announced plans to move production to Mexico in 2018.

Kia’s factory in Monterrey, with a planned production capacity of 300,000 cars per year, is the company’s second assembly plant in North America. Its West Point, Ga., factory builds certain trim levels of the Optima midsize sedan and Sorento midsize crossover.