In the fall of 2011, I had reached the difficult decision to trade in my beloved but thirsty Marauder in on something newer and easier on gas, which would become my girlfriend’s car while I would take over her Oldsmobile Alero (subject of last week’s COAL). The only question was what would replace it. I solicited my girlfriend’s input, since she would be driving it, and returned with three directives and a preference—it should be good on gas (and not require premium), have an automatic transmission, and should be easy to maneuver and park. The preference? She would strongly prefer a coupe.
Not a coupe in the strictest sense, depending on your ideological purity about that term. Basically, two doors. Since the halcyon days of the compact coupe in the 80’s and early 90’s were well behind us, that narrowed the selection down a good bit. I started out looking at lightly used Civic two-doors, but the price that was invariably asked for cars that were a few years old and higher mileage seemed a little absurd to me. Such is the dilemma of the used-car shopper in that realm, I found out. Buying a desirable compact in the 1 to 3 years old range generally meant either accepting undesirable mileage or an undesirable price tag.
So I refocused. The more I thought about it, the more a lease seemed to make sense. I know the arguments against leasing are many, and in many cases it’s not the most financially sound decision. But it made sense at the time—I was looking for a low down payment and reasonable monthly payments, and with the changes going on in our life at the time (my girlfriend was in the process of selecting a master’s degree program in Occupational Therapy and I was planning to propose marriage) the fixed term and opt-out possibility at the end seemed appealing. Plus, at age 31 I’d still never owned anything less than three years old, and the idea of driving off the lot in something brand new may have played a part.
Obligatory interior night shot. Pardon the fact that it needs a good cleaning!
Proceeding with that idea, I narrowed down my list of possibilities further, and many contenders were crossed off for various reasons. Focus and Veloster (troublesome dual-clutch automatics), Scion tC and Subaru Impreza (thirsty), GTI and Civic Si (too expensive), and Corolla and Sentra (too boring) bit the dust, along with a handful of others. That left me with four main possibilities: Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, and Mazda 3. First up was the Civic coupe, which was receiving quite a lot of negative press over the new-for-2012 redesign that seemed to be a retrograde step from the previous car. Having driven the older model, I had to agree with that assessment. The ’05-’11 cars were a fresh, almost futuristic design at the time, and had aged well in my opinion. The ’12 model just seemed more…ordinary. There was nothing wrong with it; it drove nicely, had the best dashboard design of anything I looked at, and was styled attractively. It just did nothing for me.
The Elantra was next, and I liked it better than the Civic. It was more expressively styled outside, with a nicely finished tan and black interior. Behind the wheel, though, it felt oddly tall compared to the other cars I was looking at, plus the suspension was clearly tuned for comfort at the expense of handling. It didn’t handle badly, but it just wasn’t sharp. And while the fuel economy was impressive (claimed 40 MPG highway) the 1.6 liter four seemed a little poky. Also, it only came in sedan format—the short-lived Elantra coupe was still a year away at this point. I had meanwhile been emailing back and forth with the local Mazda dealer about the 3i, and I was definitely interested. But I couldn’t seem to get a clear answer from them on lease rates, so I decided to stop by the Kia dealership next and look at the Forte Koup.
Leaving aside the intentional misspelling of “Koup”, it was another attractive car. The shape was reminiscent of the 8th-generation Civic coupe, but it wasn’t entirely derivative, with the Kia “tiger nose” front fasica, flared fenders, and a nifty faux hardtop roofline with concealed b-pillars. The standard alloys on the EX trim were finished in gunmetal rather than silver, a nice touch. Plus I’d seen an arresting shade of blue as one of the available colors on the web site. I stopped by my local Kia dealership and started a conversation about the Forte with one of the sales staff. He asked if there was one in particular I was interested in, and I asked if they had any Koups in Corsa Blue. They did, and we went for a spin.
Entering the car, I was greeted by an expanse of black. The Koup was only available with the black interior, and they were serious about it. A few chrome accents provided some relief, and the area around the center stack was finished in a shiny piano black rather than the matte of the rest of the dash. Other than the gray headliner, black was the order of the day elsewhere. I don’t like black interiors, never have, but I decided to give it a chance anyway. And the seats were comfortable, the controls well-placed, and it had an acceptable amount of room for a 2-door compact.
As to driving impressions? The power was adequate, with the 2.0 liter four delivering 156 horsepower and 143 lb-ft torque. The engine was mated to a 6-speed automatic that went about its business with a minimum of hunting. The only flaw with the powertrain is auditory—the 2.0 is a rather coarse-sounding affair when worked hard, Handling was reasonably sharp, and the ride was better than I’d have expected for a car that size. Concluding the test drive we talked trade-in. I indicated that I’d be selling the Marauder privately, as I doubted I could get what I wanted in trade-in. “Try me” was the response, so I came back with a number a few hundred dollars less than what I thought I’d ask private-party. He disappeared for a few moments and, rather than countering, told me they could do that. To say I was shocked was an understatement (this was $2200 higher than the offer from Carmax, for comparison’s sake). I went home, I thought about it, I asked my girlfriend if she was interested. She was, so we went back the next night for a test drive, and a couple hours later, we were driving off the lot in a Forte Koup with 27 miles on the odometer.
If you’d told me five years before that I’d be buying (well, leasing) a Kia, I’d probably have given you a funny look, if not questioned your mental competence. Their compact offering in 2006, the Spectra, was a car that sold mainly on price. It was a world better than the horrid Sephia with which they’d come into the USA market in the mid 90’s, but to say it was nothing special is generous. But ever since Hyundai took over the company after a 1998 bankruptcy, Kia had been quietly upping its game. And when the Spectra gave way to the Forte in 2008, it was the vanguard of a transformation of the Kia lineup into the kind of cars you buy because they’re competent, well-engineered, well-equipped, even – at times – compelling. Plus the well-promoted 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty helped a lot. Peace of mind is hard to put a price on.
Life with the Kia has been relatively uneventful, at least in the mechanical sense. We’ve had to take it in for warranty service only once. Sometime within the first six months, the front driver’s side tweeter speaker mount simply fell out one day when closing the door. The entire piece of plastic was left dangling by the speaker wires. Not a particularly good omen for quality control, but not exactly a big deal either. While there, I mentioned that the paintwork along the character ridges in the hood looked a little suspect, more of a “for future reference” in case it ever started delaminating or chipping there. They fixed the tweeter mount (I suspect it just needed glue) and made note of the paint.
And…that’s been it. 51,000 miles and a little more than four years in, nothing else. It’s needed only routine maintenance and, recently, new tires. Compared to the maintenance adventure that was the Alero, it was nice to have at least one car that was trouble-free. I’m a believer in Kia quality at this point. The bumper-to-bumper portion of the warranty expires at 60k, leaving the powertrain and corrosion coverages to 100k, but nothing leads me to expect trouble. The paint “problem area” looks no different after 4 years, so I don’t suspect it will ever be a problem. The engine does have a bit of a clatter on cold startup, but visiting the forums for these cars, evidently that’s something the 2.0 does pretty much universally. It doesn’t affect performance at all and the engine still has another 49k of warranty, so I’m not worried.
The other facets of life? In short, it’s been a great little car (with apologies to Mazda). My wife loves it, which is the important thing since her current job (pediatric Occupational Therapist) has her driving around pretty much all day. Between in-home visits for therapy, the car is her office, and has to be reliable. No concerns there and the gas mileage has been solid (tends to average about 27 MPG in mixed city-biased driving). I still think it’s a good-looking car, and in fact I like the looks better than the newer generation which bowed in 2013. And the paint color is fantastic—while it’s a somewhat unremarkable car in the grand scheme of things, the brilliant Corsa Blue paint gets a lot of compliments.
Despite not being the most generous in interior room, it’s also become our long-distance car, as it’s by far the most reliable and newest thing in our driveway. It does surprisingly well on the highway—while bad road surfaces (of which there are a lot in central VA) can make the ride choppy, other than that it works well. The A/C is cold and the heat hot, it has Sirius/XM radio (which I love despite the montly subscription being a bit pricey) and good speakers, and the seats are comfortable even on multi-hour jaunts. It took us to our wedding, to and from the beach countless times (a 3-hour trip from our previous or our current locations) and anywhere else we’ve cared to go.
Complaints? Very few. I wish the engine noise was a little less intrusive. The trunk is quite acceptably sized for a compact coupe, but the opening is on the small side due to the near-fastback roofline. As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t care for the monochromatic black of the interior, and the rear-seat accomodations are tight. And I wish it had a sunroof, but that would have been a $1500 premium. All minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things.
Quietly, almost without notice, the Koup has been creeping up the ranks of long-term ownership. At four years plus, it’s graced our driveway longer than anything except the ’79 Malibu, Alero, or Marauder, and it will pass the Marauder’s tenure in November. The lease term ended last February, and looking at the buyout price versus the relative value of the car on the open market, it was a pretty easy decision to take that option rather than walking away.
So with all these positives you’d think we may have found another “keeper”? Sadly, I doubt that; the main reason lies in the coupe format. Having settled in Richmond after my wife finished grad school, and having bought a home, we’ve been considering that the time to start a family may be upon us. And while we haven’t quite crossed that threshold yet, the mere idea of trying to wrangle a car seat into the rather tight rear accommodations of the Koup gives me a backache. It’s just not suited to that duty, to say nothing of the large amount of Stuff that seems to follow modern children around. Plus, despite the FWD layout, it’s not all that great in snow (and we seem to have moved to a neighborhood that is lackadaisically plowed, if last month’s snowfall is any indication). So I think the Kia’s eventual fate will be trade on a small SUV/CUV.
However we’re not there yet. And I predict that until the time when rear doors are needed, the Kia will continue its residency in our driveway. The relationship between me, my wife, and the Forte Koup has been quite a good one, and buying it was a decision that has paid dividends in peace of mind, economy, and practicality with a dash of style.