On Autos: Korea’s compact cars offer user-friendly value

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The redesigned 2019 Kia Forte compact sedan brings classier styling, more safety features, an improved driving experience and better gas mileage — and continued low prices. Photo by Brady Holt

Last week, we tested the Honda Civic — a spacious and fun to drive compact sedan that offers wide appeal at affordable prices.

You could argue that the Civic is a bargain in some respects. Most cars with this much space in the rear seat and trunk, and such polished driving dynamics, are more expensive than this popular Honda.

But for bargain-hunters who are more focused on the bottom line, two budget-friendly Korean competitors might be even better options: the newly redesigned 2019 Kia Forte and the updated 2019 Hyundai Elantra.

These two compact sedans equal, or at times even surpass, the Civic for safety, technology, and everyday comfort and ease of use. And while they’re not as downright delightful as the Civic can be, they’re more fun to drive than you might expect. Best of all, they tend to sell for thousands less than a comparably equipped Civic.

The fully redesigned Forte comes out swinging with a suite of advanced technology as standard equipment, even on the base model that costs $18,715: a forward collision warning, emergency automatic braking, a lane-departure warning and automatic lane-keeping steering assistance. On the entertainment front, all models have a big 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.

Although some folks still think little of Kia, the Forte isn’t merely about stuffing a lot of features into a cheap, junky car. It earned top crash-test scores and has an advanced powertrain that achieves some of the highest EPA fuel economy ratings in its class: 34 miles per gallon in mixed driving on most models. And its new redesign shed the old model’s anonymous curves in favor of a more upscale exterior.

That’s not to say the Forte is fancy. A few competing compact sedans ride more smoothly and quietly, and have richer interior materials, such as the Mazda3 and the Civic. The Forte just costs several thousand dollars less.

It’s not just about the money, though. The Forte also has more user-friendly controls than the Mazda or Honda, with advanced infotainment but a straightforward design with simple buttons and knobs. It’s also roomier than the Mazda. Overall, it’s a highly sensible, economical compact sedan for folks who aren’t looking for something that inspires great passion.

Another choice in that vein is the Hyundai Elantra, a mechanical cousin to the Forte that’s often even less expensive to buy, thanks to frequent discounts. For 2019, Hyundai replaced the 2017-2018 Elantra’s classily conservative front and rear ends with edgier triangles.

The 2019 Hyundai Elantra compact sedan is newly updated with edgier bodywork and more affordable safety features. Photo by Brady Holt

But the bigger difference for the new Elantra sedan is its upgraded safety content. Until now, most advanced safety features on the Elantra were restricted to expensive fully loaded models. Now, all the Forte’s standard safety features are included at no extra charge on nearly every Elantra — all but the base $18,120 SE model.

Hyundai throws in a blind-spot monitoring system with a rear cross-traffic alert, a system that the Forte restricts to its top trim level, and the Civic doesn’t offer at any price.

On the road, the Elantra behaves much like the Forte. It’s not a class leader for zippy driving fun or for maximum cushy quietness, but it’s class-competitive in both ways. Its interior design is a little more conservative than the Forte’s, which some buyers might consider dull but which others could find more natural.

The Forte’s main advantages over the Elantra are a bit of extra legroom and slightly higher gas mileage. Most Elantra sedans have an EPA-estimated 32 mpg in mixed driving, a decent but unremarkable showing. That’s due to change for the 2020 model year, when the Elantra swaps out its six-speed automatic transmission for a new continuously variable automatic that’s already in the Forte.

Note that these strengths unfortunately don’t apply to the Hyundai Elantra GT, a stylish and functional five-door hatchback that continues to have poor fuel economy and hard-to-find advanced safety features.

For a Hyundai hatchback with fantastic gas mileage, though, the brand does field an appealing option: the Ioniq, which has been on sale since the 2017 model year to challenge the Toyota Prius.

The 2019 Hyundai Ioniq is a five-door hybrid that can easily get more than 50 miles per gallon. Photo by Brady Holt

While we’ve coaxed the Priuses we’ve tested to higher fuel economy than the Ioniqs, particularly in city driving, both have reliably returned more than 50 miles per gallon. Moreover, the Ioniq costs several thousand dollars less than the Prius, rides more quietly, and has a more advanced and user-friendly infotainment system.

For 2019, the Ioniq has followed the Elantra in making advanced safety features more widely available; the Elantra’s safety lineup is now standard on two of the Ioniq’s three trim levels.

Ioniq prices start at $23,320, approximately the price of the priciest Limited trim of the Elantra sedan. But for many buyers, the extra expense will be worth it not only for the fuel savings, but also for the versatility of a five-door hatchback body. The latter point is also a key advantage over the quiet, fuel-efficient, and affordably priced Honda Insight hybrid, which is sold only as a sedan.

To see more photos of the tested 2019 Kia Forte, you can visit tinyurl.com/forte-current. To see more photos of the tested 2019 Hyundai Elantra, you can visit tinyurl.com/elantra-current. To see more photos of a tested 2018 Hyundai Ioniq and two of its rivals, you can visit tinyurl.com/hybrids-2018-current.