Kia has made great strides in the US automobile market in recent years, thanks in large part to its bargain prices and 10 year/100,000 mile warranty. Unfortunately, it hasn't made a whole lot of vehicles that you'd actually want to drive that long or far, so buying one has always been a bit of a compromise.

That's starting to change, quickly.

Hot on the heels of the super-fashionable Kia Soul crossover, the Korean automaker is in the process of replacing its painfully below average Spectra compact sedan with the overachieving Forte. Car names don’t often go with the car they are on, but regardless of what language or context you put it in, Forte seems to fit this one quite well. It has many strong points, even ones without a "for the money" qualifier.

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Looks aren't everything, but the Forte has them in abundance. In particular, its face is very distinctive, but not as a Kia's. Just about any automaker's logo would look right at home on the grille, and I'm certain that a number of them wish that theirs was. If this is the stylistic direction that Kia's lineup is heading in, here's hoping that they stay on track.

Kia's interior designers have also been busy crafting a cabin that compliments the exterior with an upscale appearance that manages to come across as both mature and youthful. High praise, considering it's constructed almost entirely of hard plastic.

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There is a lot of room to go with it, too. The interior of the Forte is larger than most competitors, including the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, and stuffed full of goodies. Even the base $13,695 LX model gets a list of standard features that includes Bluetooth phone connectivity, Sirius satellite radio, a USB outlet, and twin 12-volt sockets located in a center console cubby that's wide enough to fit two Blackberries side by side.

Power isn't typically a priority for shoppers in this segment, but, like it or not, you get plenty of it with the Forte. The sedan comes with the most potent base engine in the compact class, a 2.0 liter 4-cylinder with 156 horsepower. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard, while the mid-level EX model that I tested was fitted with an optional 4-speed automatic which adds a grand to the $15,795 price tag. Fuel economy is the same with either choice, 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.

If that's not frugal enough, an extra $600 will get you a special efficiency package that includes a 5-speed automatic transmission, electrically-assisted power steering, low-rolling resistance tires and a few aerodynamic tweaks that boost mileage to 27 city/36 hwy. At current pump prices that will save you about $100 per year, so if you hang onto it for the full warranty period, you'll make out fine.

You can probably live with out it, though. Aside from a few occasions where I was merging onto a highway and the Forte felt like it was in the wrong gear, or perhaps in need of another, the 4-speed was more than adequate. The power on hand isn't as overwhelming as you'd expect from the class leader, but it does the job, and the engine doesn't make any offensive noises. Unless you’re really burning up the road, the Forte is a relatively quiet car, overall.

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For the truly power-hungry, the top of the line Forte SX offers a 173 hp 2.4 liter engine, which almost sounds like too much. As it is, with the 2.0 liter the Forte exhibits a noticeable amount of what’s known as ‘torque-steer’, that feeling that the front tires are tugging at the steering wheel whenever you give it the gas. But besides needing to keep your hands on the wheel - a good idea anyway - the handling is actually very good all around. You won't mistake it for a sports sedan, but a firm suspension keeps body motions in check without pounding the passengers. It could just be that the Forte is the economy car version of one of those fighter planes that's designed to be unstable so it is more responsive, but probably not.

An ejector seat is not available, but all Forte's do come with seat-mounted and side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and a number of other safety features that really make you wonder how Kia can squeeze any profit out of the car. Five years of free roadside assistance can't be cheap, either.

On paper, it’s tough to match the Forte for value, but that's often been the case with Kia's. The difference this time is that now it has a compact that holds its own on the road, too.

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2010 Kia Forte

Base Price: $13,695

As Tested: $19,290

Type: Front-engine, front wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan.

Engine: 2.0L 4-cylinder

Power: 156hp, 144 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

MPG: 25 city/34 hwy

What do you think of the Forte?

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