The Kia Cerato Forte is the flavour of the month for local motorists, especially those who (a) took part in the well-received online guesswhatcar.sg contest, and (b) are ready to spend nearly $50,000 on a new ride during a deep recession.
The Forte is undoubtedly a lot of saloon for the money. If you were to walk from the Kia showroom over to the Mitsubishi side of the Cycle & Carriage complex, the same sub-$50,000 budget would get you only a 659cc mini-car with some change to spare. More interesting, perhaps, to the Kia punter is the significant premium, COE notwithstanding, that the Forte commands over its immediate predecessor, whose final stocks sold out mere weeks before the newfangled replacement was launched.
To rate the improvements Kia made to its bread-and-butter model, we took out the older Cerato Variant 2 and the new Cerato Forte SX. The older model is the so-called Premium edition, which is almost as well-equipped as the newcomer and, therefore, its closest in-house competitor.
So why isn’t the new Kia just called the Cerato again? Apparently, Kia’s export markets are supposed to call it “Cerato”, while the principal has reserved the “Forte” name just for South Korea. Kia’s headquarters even refused to supply “Forte” badges from the factory for distributors in Singapore to retrofit to the cars. But the enterprising Kia agent here still wanted the “Forte” name for the cars, so they did the next best thing: they manufactured the metal badge locally and affixed it during pre-delivery inspection.
Badging “problem” aside, it’s obvious the latest Cerato looks much more modern than the previous one, a 5-year-old design with shades of the Sephia still in its shape. Where the Cerato looks generic, the Forte looks fantastic, particularly that handsome nose and the sophisticated cut of sheet metal between the bonnet and front fenders. Although there is a passing resemblance to the Toyota Allion, the Forte has its own excellent sense of style. Peter Schreyer – Kia’s design chief who was headhunted from Audi, where his most memorable work was the original TT – has done a great job with the exterior.
Inside the vehicle, the Forte again overshadows the Cerato, but not as completely as you would expect. Both cars, for example, employ a similar remote key, digital climate control, automatic headlights and twin airbags. But the Forte edges ahead with its classy steering wheel (complete with audio controls unavailable in the older Cerato), upmarket red dashboard illumination (instead of dated green), factory-fitted reverse parking sensors (the other car uses a local set, which also lacks the Forte’s neat in-dash parking assistance display) and a multi-mode trip computer. An attractive, big-buttoned hi-fi panel, with an integral 6-disc changer and iPod/USB plug-and-play, takes pride of place in the Forte’s cockpit.
The Cerato’s strongest response to the Forte’s equipment onslaught is a standard electric sunroof, but this is only part of a surprising return salvo. For starters, the Cerato’s aftermarket 2-DIN head unit might look less impressive than the Forte’s integrated system, but its sound quality is reasonable, it sports an electric antenna and upgrading is easier.
The Cerato is also equipped with variable illumination for the instrument meters (ditto for the Forte), a glovebox light (none in the Forte), a 3kg utility hook beside the glovebox (again, not specified for the Forte) and an electric internal release for the boot lid (it’s a cheaper manual lever for the Forte). However, actual boot space is more commodious in the Forte, with the added advantage of a snappier quick release for the split-fold facility.
Last but not least, the Cerato’s Venetian blind-style air-con outlets can be closed flush, which cannot be done with the Forte’s vents, and they are also more effective at directing cooled air to the back-seat passengers. Back there, the Forte offers greater space for legs and shoulders, but the headroom is similar to what you’d get in the Cerato.
Interestingly, the superseded cabin also provides more comfortable rear armrests and greater practicality, thanks to dual seat back pockets (the Forte only has one), pull-out cup holders at floor level and a storage box built into the centre fold-down armrest. The Cerato’s front door bins are also a tad bigger than the Forte’s.
Speaking of doors, the Cerato actually has a bright lamp placed at the corner edge of each front door. This not only warns other drivers about an open door, but also illuminates the ground below for safer entry and exit in the dark. The Forte uses less thoughtful red reflectors. Still on the doors, the Forte’s chrome openers are flashier but strangely flimsier than the Cerato’s handles, and the newer doors shut with a less solid thud.
Behind the wheel, the Forte’s driving position is more agreeable and comfortable, helped by a tilt-cum-telescopic steering (the Cerato’s only adjusts for rake). Drivers with big feet, however, will be happier shuffling their shoes in the roomier footwell of the Cerato, while those who tend to drive quickly will appreciate of the Cerato’s seat bolstering, which is a lot sportier than the Forte’s in its shape and support. Outward visibility, especially over the shoulder and towards the rear, is a bit better in the old model, thanks to its lower waistline. But the Forte’s side mirrors are larger and, therefore, provide a clearer view from the “inside”.
On the road, the outright performances of the two 1.6-litre Kias are quite similar, but the additional 3bhp and 3Nm in the Forte engine feels slightly sweeter at high revs, and its gear changes are generally smoother. Insulation against road noise is clearly superior in the new model, even though the Forte runs 215/45 R17 tyres vis-a-vis the Cerato’s 205/50 R16s. On the flip side, the Cerato cuts through air on the highway as quietly as the Forte, and its hydraulic power steering is more naturally weighted than the Forte’s electric system. Both cars exhibit tidy handling, but the Forte has noticeably tighter body control and generates a little more grip.
It is a no-brainer that the Forte is a brilliant budget saloon. The real surprise here: The old Variant 2 is still a decent budget saloon that can be compared with its all-singing, all-dancing successor without getting destroyed.