Larry Printz: The 2018 Kia Forte SX is the enthusiastic understudy of hot hatches

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

November 6, 2017

Even as the digital world alleviates our need for paper, there was a time when offices were overwhelmed by it and needed to hold sheets of it together. In the 19th century, this meant using straight pins, which jabbed the fingers of office workers while puncturing precious documents with holes.

The solution came in the form of a late 19th century invention: the paper clip. Thereís some argument as to who invented it, but the one that youíre thinking of is known as the Gem, named for the British Company that popularized it, Gem Manufacturing Limited.

While there are many variations of the paper clip, itís the Gem thatís the essence of great design: simple, functional, and defying improvement.

Great design in automobiles is very much the same thing. Consider, for example, a classic two-seat sports car.

While there have been many stunning ones produced over the years, you pay a heavy price for its prowess. Usually, there are only two seats, which means leaving your children or mother-in-law at home. For some this is a relief; for others itís out of the question. Furthermore, the carís lack of cargo space renders them utterly useless for anything other than a toothbrush and a box of condoms.

This is what made the hot hatch the perfect solution.

By taking an everyday four-door hatchback and enhancing its speed and agility, you get a car that has saved many a relationship. One gets the performance of a great sports car while the other can use it for a trip to Costco.

The 1976 Volkswagen Golf GTI established its form, and itís a model still envied and copied. Todayís example: the 2018 Kia Forte5 SX.

This five-door hatchback is offered as the base LX for $18,200, mid-level EX at $22,100, and top-of-the-line SX for $23,800. But the differences among models are more than meets the eye.

LX and EX models are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission generating 164 horsepower. The better option is to opt for the pricier SX. It provides an additional 37 horsepower from a turbocharged 1.6-liter four matched to a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters, a sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch alloy wheels.

Now you may wonder how the competition stacks up; and thatís a good question.

All have six-speed automatics and approximately 200 horsepower, but there are differences. The Honda Civic Si sedan costs $300 more and has 205 horsepower, but if youíd rather not shift for yourself, you must settle for a continuously variable automatic transmission Ė and thereís nothing sporting about that. The Mazda3ís larger 2.5-liter engine makes do with a mere 184 horsepower, while the Ford Focus ST has 252 horsepower, but doesnít offer an automatic transmission option for the shiftless. The original hot hatch, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, costs $1,795 more, has 210 horsepower, a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, but requires premium fuel. But the GTI performance abilities maintains its title as the king of the hill, with the sort of options that only make a great car outstanding. By comparison, the Forte5 SX is at best an enthusiastic understudy. Itís good, but not as convincing as the star of the show.

The engineís turbo lag is evident, particularly when operating in the comfort driving mode. Switching to the sport mode makes it much less noticeable, as does shifting the transmission manually, but itís ever present. Transmission behavior is exceptional. Thereís plenty of power, especially given that it returned 26 mpg in mixed driving. All Forte5s use regular unleaded fuel.

Ride is comfort is impressive for a compact, yet itís firm enough to make the proceedings fun. The steering could be sharper, and its feel robs the Forte5 of some its fun factor. Body lean is fairly well controlled, although the suspension set up reveals the tiresí limitations as understeer begins to set in. Most likely you wonít notice unless pushing the car to extremes. Road noise is minimal.

Opting for the SX nets some exterior upgrades, including unique front and rear fascias, and dual chrome exhaust tips. Unlike some hot hatches, the SX doesnít overdress for the occasion, with a visual flair thatís sporty, yet tasteful and decidedly European in outlook.

That sense of sporting restraint can be found inside, where red accents enliven the black trimmed cabin. Better yet, despite the many features this car offers, the controls are simply designed, proving easy to understand operate.

The test car had the $3,600 SX Premium Technology package, which transformed this mainstream hatchback into a premium commodity by adding 10-way power adjustable driverís seat with two memory presets, auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink, blind spot detection, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert, dual-zone automatic temperature control with rear vents, power sunroof, UVO infotainment system, SiriusXM Traffic, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration and ventilated front seats. That said, carpeted floor mats cost an extra $125. Standard goodies include leather seats, heated front seats, push-button start with Smart Key, and perimeter approach lighting, LED taillights, UVO infotainment system with 7-inch color touchscreen.

And letís not forget that the car is covered by a 5 year/60,000 mile basic warranty and roadside assistance, while the powertrain is covered for 10 years/100,000 miles.

But the Forte5ís basic design is so good you might find it hard to improve upon, much like a paper clip. You might even be tempted to nickname it Gem.