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Posted: September 25, 2009

Executive Wheels: 2010 Mazda 3i Touring & Kia Forte

Both Mazda and Kia have winners in the revitalized small-sedan market

Jeff Rundles

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2010 Mazda 3i Touring

Like most Americans, I too was enamored with SUVs and larger vehicles all through the 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, my experience with SUV goes back, way back.

When I was a kid just coming of age my friend's family had a 1964 GMC Suburban, one of the originals, and my friend and I drove it all over when we were in high school. Then later, in college, I owned a 1967 Chevy Suburban, this one a 4-wheel-drive model where you had to go out and lock the front hubs in place. Along with the Dodge Power Wagon and the Jeep Wagoneer, these were all forerunners of the craze that didn't really get started until 1989.

I liked trucks. My first car in Colorado, 1973, was a 1959 Chevy pickup with a floor starter. Pretty barren vehicle, and at the time very old at 14, but way cool nevertheless.

But for most of that time - the mid-1960s to the mid-1908s - I had never given gas mileage a thought. These vehicles probably got less than 15 mpg, but who cared? Gas in the ‘60s was like 23 cents a gallon (I once bought it in Detroit during high school for 15.9/gallon), and by the time I was in school at the University of Denver in 1974 it was in the 34 cents/gallon range, rising to the then-astronomical 50 cents by the time I graduated in 1976.

And as an automobile reviewer since 1984, I was one of the first to embrace the go-big phenomenon. I remember saying, over and over again, how much I liked the visibility afforded in SUVs.

In 1989, I very much wanted to buy a Jeep Cherokee -- which, along with the then-new Ford Explorer, was probably responsible for the SUV craze taking off - but I couldn't afford one. So my wife and I went one step down and bought an Isuzu Trooper. I loved it; it sat up higher than the Jeep, had great visibility, and while it lacked any power it was excellent in the snow. It also lasted quite a few years.

All through the 1990s I was fond of the SUVs, getting each new one for review with anticipation. It was as if the sedan market, and particularly the small car segment, didn't exist at all. Anybody with a really cool ride back then had an SUV. Oh sure, there were sports cars - the Mazda Miata came out, then the BMW Z3, and Mercedes had the roadster - and they were cool, but obviously the major trend was in the SUV market.

Of course, even the car companies had this attitude. What small cars there were, sucked. Remember the GEO Metro? The Yugo? Yeah, Toyota and Honda and Nissan hung in there with their small cars, but even they grew in stature all during the period.

My son now has a 1989 Honda Accord and it is smaller than today's Honda Civic. And remember, it was during this time that the most famous small car of all time - the VW Beetle - ceased to be offered in the US.

No car company went out of its way to put any innovation, much less thought, into the design of small, lower-priced cars because, basically, all the profit was in the truck/SUV market. This attitude was so damaging that I read recently that Chrysler, Ford and General Motors were right now just figuring out how to make a profit on small cars.

But a few years ago my economical/ecological side - I'm not sure if it's my "yin" or my "yang" - started coming out. It began, I remember, with the New Beetle - I really liked, like, that car. It had most of the romance of the old Beetle, but you could actually hear the radio when you were driving, and it felt safe.

Still, though, the public stayed on the SUV bandwagon and there was scant little product on the market in the small-car category that was worth a darn.

That all started to change a few years ago - before the huge hike in gas prices, but as the so-called "green" movement was taking hold. The real explosion came at the smaller-than a-Civic level. The Honda Fit. The Toyota Yaris. The Nissan Versa. The Suzuki SX4. Hyundai and Kia also weighed in.

I am convinced that these vehicles - all very fine cars, with a lot of innovation, led directly to the Ford Focus and the Chevy Aveo, both great and almost up to par vis-à-vis the competition. All of a sudden there were real, viable choices in the under $20k and even under $15k market.

It has only grown. Now, you see the engineering and marketing focus shifting from trucks and SUVs and being targeted squarely on the small-car market. As a result, of course, the prices are on the rise - but so too are the amenities. It used to be that you bought an econo-box and got bare bones; now, you can get a small car with a sunroof, and a Bose stereo, and trunk space, comfort, and style.

I'm still not sure GM gets it. The Aveo is a beginning, in that it is very much like the competition, the cars I mentioned. And Chrysler, of course, has nothing until the Fiat thing, whatever that is going to be, kicks in. But if you go to the next platform stage - the Civic/Corolla arena - what GM has is the Cobalt, and that is just a miniature regular American car and won't do much in the marketplace until it gets more Honda-like/Toyota-like.

So leave it to the Japanese and the Koreans.

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What we're talking about here are cars in the sub-compact market, but slightly larger than the little ones mentioned. Small sedans. The Kia Forte, according to the EPA statement, is a "mid-sized" car; the Mazda3 is listed as a "compact."

As I mentioned, I really like the Civic, and the Corolla is a Toyota; enough said. But a couple of the latest releases really stunned me.

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Inside the Mazda

Mazda of late has surprised me. I absolutely loved the mini-minivan Mazda5, and I think the Mazda6, the family-sized sedan, is a worthy competitor in the Nissan Maxima/Honda Accord territory. I drove the Crossover Mazda CX-9 and thought it was a way cool, very nice vehicle, but an odd car for Mazda; it's very large, for one thing, and as crossovers go a confused one that is very van-like.

I wasn't a big fan of the RX-8, Mazda's ode to its rotary/Wankel engine past, and I think the Miata MX-5 - not even Mazda knows what to call the little roadster anymore - is just a toy, and it has taken on the reputation of being a "chick car" for some reason.

So anyway, the experience has elevated my opinion of Mazda as a serious carmaker. But when they told me they were bringing the Mazda3, the small sedan, my pre-inspection/pre-drive impression was that they had probably thrown all the innovation into other things and had this little car as a placeholder in the small sedan segment.

Wrong. I knew I was wrong the moment I got into the car. Handsome, comfortable, roomy, nice design inside and out, huge trunk, great dashboard - everything seemed way above average.

Now, having said that the car companies are putting innovation, finally, into the small-car categories, that much is true. But you'll have to look to the Europeans for distinctiveness in styling.

Knowing what is on my agenda, I decided to wait on doing a review of the Kia Forte because the Mazda3 was coming and I thought they'd make a great side-to-side review. The truth is, though, that side by side they seemed like the same car. Same styling, really, inside and out. Without the badges on them, you'd be hard pressed to tell them apart, and like many cars in this segment, they all take their styling cues from Toyota.

This is not an accident; the sub-brands - Mazda, Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, and Mitsubishi - they want to sell you a car for less than Toyota (and Honda) that evokes the major brands. If you want something different in style in this category, you have to go European: there is no mistaking a VW Jetta, for instance, and there is plenty of styling distinctiveness in Volvo, BMW, Mercedes and Audi. They are all unmistakably what they are. For the Japanese and the Koreans, however, you have to get real close and see the badges.

Some of this plays well for the consumer. The Toyota Corolla, for instance, with the engine that competes with either the Kia Forte or the Mazda (for Corolla this would be the 2.4-l I4 with 158 hp), the base price starts at $18,860 and $20,050. The Honda Civic features a smaller engine - 1.8-liter with 140hp, and the trims that would compete here all carrying a base price of over $20k, sometimes substantially so. So, when you go with one of these sub-brands (my term), you get more car for the money.

The real question is not that they are more car right off the showroom floor, but whether they will have the proven reliability of the Toyota and the Honda, and not only hold up for the long term, but hold their value as well. Being a new-car reviewer, I can't really talk much about them down the line, but I suspect they are every bit as good because they have to be.

A friend of my stopped by my house the other day driving a small Hyundai she's had for five years, with plenty of miles on it, and she loves it. My guess is that if Kia or Mazda or Hyundai had long-term problems and didn't stack up over time, it would be major news, and you don't hear that. So, from a reputation point of view, these "number 2s" have to be better and it serves you, the buyer well.

So, the Mazda 3. I was coming to work the other morning thinking what a great car the Mazda 3 is, and I happened to pull up behind a new Corolla, then I got along side of it. It, the Corolla, is definitely skinnier and looked a little tinnier. Taking away all of the reputation trappings, I preferred the Mazda.

Besides, except for the styling thing which I wish was more distinctive, I can't rave about the Mazda 3 enough. Roomy. Comfortable. Quiet. Huge Trunk. I loved everything about the car. Very fun to drive. 

There are seven trims in the Mazda 3, ranging from the I SV 4-door, with a 2.0-liter I4 with 148 hp, to the s Grand Touring 5-Door, with a 2.5-liter I4 with l67 hp. The base price range is $15,300 to $22,000.

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I drove the I Touring 4-door, right in the middle, with the 2.0-liter engine with 148 hp, rated at 24 mpg city/ 33 highway, with a combined rating of 27. What impressed me the most was that I would have thought this car had much more engine, because even with the 5-speed sport automatic transmission, this car went beyond zippy and into the near-muscle territory.

I loved it. It was fast in the city and in the highway, and it drove beautifully. The steering radius is excellent, in that it can make quite a u-turn in a small space, it zips in and out of traffic, never seems to lean, and has great driver feel.

This is what I have been talking about. In these small cars you used to get no power and crummy steering and handling. But no more. These are just small versions of the larger cars; luxury, or near luxury, at an economical price.

The Mazda 3 I Touring is front wheel drive, comes standard with "dynamic stability control," which must work since I had no stability issues in any conditions, and traction control (I didn't drive it in any bad weather, but I would bet it is excellent.) One of the things that has improved the handling and the stability of these smaller cars is that they no longer equip them with 14" wheels; this on comes standard with 16" wheels.

Also standard are great cloth seats, a 60/40 split rear seat (that opens to the trunk), a wonderful stereo with CD and MP3 and 6 speakers, Bluetooth hands-free phone jack and auxiliary audio inputs, steering wheel audio controls and Bluetooth controls, tilt and telescope steering wheel, two 12v power outlets, and power windows, mirror and doors locks (and remote keyless entry).

The Mazda 3 also has standard such nice details as ABS brakes (wonderful brakes), a tire-pressure monitoring system, and all of the safety features you expect in modern cars. For that, the base price is $18,350.

On my test-drive model they added fog lights for $350, Sirius Satellite radio for $430, and a package for $1,395 that included a great moonroof, and a 242 watt Bose 10-speaker surround sound system that also upgrades the CD to an in-dash 6-CD changer. The sound was magnificent (it helped that the car was very quiet). So, with $670 in destination charges, the bottom line here is $21,170.

The KIA Forte is a little more problematic. I drove it now three weeks ago and the memory has faded a bit. Part of that is its striking similarity to the Mazda 3 and part of it is its overall lack of distinctiveness. Don't get me wrong; the Kia Forte is a great car, but there is nothing about it that would necessarily scream "Kia" to the world. It's a knock-off, plain and simple. A wonderful knock-off, but unoriginal.

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2010 Kia Forte

Having said that, if what you're looking for is a smaller sedan with all the right stuff, the Kia Forte is something you must look into. It's all new for Kia with the 2010 model, the line's first foray into this category, and they have done it right. Because Kia is Kia and made a few mistakes in the early years (they have overcome them and they make great cars), they still suffer from the hit on their reputation so they go the extra mile.

For instance, the Forte comes in five trims, ranging from the LX - base price $13,695 with a 2.0-liter I 4 engine with 156 hp - to the Koup SX - base price $17,695 with a 2.4-liter I4 engine with 173 hp. So, as you can see, here you get more base power for less money. I drove the SX with the large engine, rated at 23 city/31 highway and 26 overall.

Also, they have loaded the car on standards. 17" wheels, alloy, ABS, stability control and traction control, tire-pressure monitoring, Sirius radio, Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary inputs, power everything, telescoping and tilt steering wheel - everything is in here. The base price for the SX model I drove is $18,195.

They added here a leather package that included leather seat trim and heated front seats, for $1,000, and a power sunroof for $600. Add in the $695 in destination charges, and the bottom line here is $20,490.

The Kia Forte was also fun to drive, had plenty of power, was very comfortable and quiet, and handled much better than I expected. I loved driving it and would feel no buyer's remorse if I bought one.

However, taking nothing away from the Forte because I did, indeed, like it a lot, I just preferred the Mazda 3. I don't really have any good reason for in all intents and purposes these two cars were virtually alike.

I suppose the nod to Mazda is somehow based on reputation - I guess I trust Mazda more than Kia in spite of ample evidence that Kia is all that. And the Mazda was somehow more fun to drive. Easier to maneuver, the controls for all the gadgets just a tad more sensible, and the interior of the Mazda 3 was just a little bit more attractive.

But it was close. I truly believe that of 10 people doing the comparison, 5 would go with the Mazda 3 and five would go with the Kia Forte. And hardly anyone else could tell the difference.

But one thing stands out with both cars: given what is offered in this segment of the market, these both stand a bit above the Toyota and Honda offerings on what you get for the money. That's new car to new car.

Overall, it's just exciting to see the car companies pay attention to the details in the small sedan segment. The consumer is the winner, and both Mazda and Kia have winners here.


RATINGS:

2010 MAZDA 3: FOUR WHEELS-PLUS (OUT OF FOUR)
2010 KIA FORTE: FOUR WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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