When tallying the number of compact family sedan segment "Do-Overs" over the past two years, "Drive...He Said" runs out of fingers.
Mid-size sedans may still butter the bread for U.S. market carmakers. For now. But there's a swelling of urban Y & millenial generations. Theirs are fewer to house, feed, clothe, and educate.
Recently "Drive...He Said" buckled into the seats of four compact family sedans: the 2014 Kia Forte EX, 2014 Nissan Sentra SL, 2014 Toyota Corolla S, and 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE.
- The 2014 Kia Forte EX compact sedan is now the apple that didn't fall far from the mid-size Optima tree. Details like chrome door handles, trunk lid lip, decisively deep chin, lights swept taughtly and stunning 17" alloy wheels back are clues left by the CADCAM pen of former Audi styling Meister Peter Schreyer. EX trim on Forte also = an exterior LED lighting show.
- Forte shares that reticent to down-shift 6-speed Hyundai-designed automatic transmission with the Dodge Dart . But Forte and Dart drive like apples and oranges. The Dart 2.0L twin-cam inline four is so un-energetic toting plenty of extra poundage around. The lighter Forte EX, with the most horsepower in this group, always feels ready to be spurred. Off the line, Forte is at least as energetic as a Mazda3 2.0L .
- Forte's torsion beam rear suspension is tied to grippy low profile tires. When they meet bumps in the road the rear hops. Steering resistance can be dialed from cream puff to nervous to rigid. Four wheel disc brakes, wearing 16,000 journalist miles, still exhibited strong bite. Though being under-sprung makes for dartiness in hairpins, Forte comes with mostly predictable attitude.
- Special mention to Kia Forte for its attention to cabin details and materials. They got noise isolaltion down pat. The 7" LCD UVO hands-free infotainment touch screen is the largest in this comparison. Except when making audio tone settings, it's ease of use / versatility factor, including robust SD navigation, is unrivaled here.
Heated leather seats at each of four corners and cooled supportive power driver's seat with power lumbar. Heated steering. Driver selectable steering assist. Moon-roof. Sonar front and rear park assist. Power scissors folding wing mirrors. Rear camera. A felt-lined overhead sunglass bin. Yeah, our Forte tester stickered at $25,000. Just you try spec'ing some of these features in the competition.
- The Kia Forte EX 2.0L struggles in fuel economy. It required several runs up and down the length of the Edens [Expressway I-94] to get to 25 combined mpg.
- Body integrity is mostly there, except for some cold weather suspension noises. Build consistency had a couple misses. A rear left passenger's power window went AWOL for an entire day. Struggling to fold down the rear seat backs, released by cables in the trunk, we filled a "swear word jar."
Most Like a Mid-Sizer:
- The day we took delivery of the 2014 Nissan Sentra SL the fleet service "chase car" was Nissan's premium executive sport sedan, the 290 hp Maxima. You know what? Both were painted a similar dark red, and we could hardly tell them apart.
Trademark boomerang light fixtures blend with gently rising and falling curves. A slathering of chrome imparts elegance. Possibly the least expensive offering of LED DRLs and taillights shine could light up Broadway.
- Sentra offers the most compliant ride in this "Group of 4." Its torsion beam rear set-up seems more in-tune with winter torn midwestern asphalt, with occasional wiggle and judder. Inoffensive ride quality doesn't have to be fatal to handling. However, that Sentra is the only one in this group without a dead-pedal is ominous. But where to begin? With Sentra's loopy steering feel? The front end dive and rear-end float? Though, the linear four wheel disc brakes inspire some confidence.
- Nissan's "Pure Drive" motto roughly translates to "Whatever it takes to achieve a stellar 31 combined mpg." Despite wider gear ratio spacing, Sentra's CVT is a reluctant dinner date for the weakest engine in this group. Stepping hard into the throttle of the 1.8L twin-cam gas inline-4's produces lots of talk, little immediate action. Generous insulation spares the cabin from much of that yelling.
- Nissan surely moved Sentra's interior upstream. Eye-pleasing contrasting, good ergonomics and abundant soft materials are beset only by some Lilliputian buttons surrounding the the exclusive bird-eye view LCD touch navigation screen.
Beige velour cloth is appropriate for this compact family room on wheels and front seats starved for improved thigh cushion. Sentra's trunk has a very healthy appetite.
Some Bose-tuned audio systems out there sound stellar. Count the Sentra's version out. NissanConnect mobile applications with Google Search are welcome at this price point.
- The success of the last generation Toyota Corolla proved that mainstream family compact buyers aren't all "Shallow Hal's." Heck, rental fleet managers sure weren't going to complain over the Corolla's "Day In, Day Out" reliability. Could any AARP member could find fault with operational simplicity that a seeing eye dog could wag it's tail over?
- Corolla has cut the cord to most of the visual cues of old without offending core followers. Responding to arch-nemesis Honda with more oblique lines than a Civic. Corolla even has one of the larger arrays of front LED DRL's. Whoopee!
- A Toyota hallmark, getting into the new Corolla impresses with how quickly all controls fall to clumsy hands. The automatic climate control is well up the center stack. With a display just below the driver's road sight-line. Something that can't be said of Chevy Cruze .
There's some good faux-carbon fiber out there. But the ersatz inserts inside Corolla don't cut the muster.
The LCD infotainment-navigation display is a "tweener," between the small-fry in the Sentra and the Jumbo-tron in the Forte. Without a doubt, Toyota's Entune mobile data app suite betters even NissanConnect. And Corolla's sound system also cleaned-up among this group.
- The 1.8L 16V twin-cam all-alloy gas I-4 carries over from the previous generation. One of the smoother four-bangers includes direct injection. Low in initial torque, it now drives the front wheels through a CVT. Totally unlike Sentra's unit, the Corolla CVT comes with steering wheel shift paddles that stir forward movement.
- Corolla S upgrades include 17" alloy wheels, all-season performance rubber. Better planted in the twisties than the similarly shod Kia Forte EX, Corolla S steers quickly, with good front bucket bolstering. The "S" upgrade to four wheel disc brakes imparted tenacious braking, second only to the Kia. Firm damping, for flatter cornering, transmits jarring from last winter's souvenirs on already crappy pavement.
What Lies Beneath:
- Volkswagen Jetta's exterior is synonymous with anonymous. Some bookcases have more visual identity. MY 2014 brings a deeper chin and tweaked rectangular headlights bezels. Ah, whatever happened to the detail of the of the previous Mk. V?
- There is no Jetta control that cannot be mastered within about 5 minutes of getting inside. See what happens when optional Bluetooth hands-free connectivity is omitted? Mastery of manual climate controls comes as easy for seniors as for teens.
And hey, the rudimentary DIN-style audio head unit, sounded clear. How egalitarian that VW still offers a 2.8mm auxiliary audio jack, in case you'd rather not cough up the $200+ for the proprietary I-Pod cable.
Classic analog white-on-black gauges resemble the VDOs from luxury German clusters of old.
Finding the right driving position in this comparison's most supportive front buckets is no easy task, though. From a contort-to-grasp front seat rake lever to the laughably limited helm extension. Once upon a time...Jetta had a sliding center armrest....
- The six strips of simulated metal in the cabin - and the windows - are all that separate the Jetta from dark room.
- There enough stretch-out room to get frisky in the Jetta's backseat. Jetta's trunk still exceeds some mid-sizers in capacity.
- By such a light pedal, the clutch allows snicking the short positive throw shifter of Jetta's five-speed manual transmission. The generous torque of the new Gen. 3 EA888 turbocharged DI gas 16V twin cam I-4 prompted squealing the normally silent Bridgestone Turanzas,despite an always-on traction control. Third gear is fine for most around town driving. With 20% more torque than Corolla and Sentra it's no contest there. Up against the Kia Forte EX at a stop-light, the Jetta will prevail.
- Jettisoning Jetta's simpler torsion beam rear suspension for a four-link indie has cut some wheel hop. The Jetta SE ride is still pliable. But then our tester rode on 16" steel wheels bound in high profile 65 series tires.
Swapping the rear drum brakes out for solid rotors/ sliding calipers hasn't improved on what was already firm pedal feel.
Drum Roll Please For the Winner:
1) 2014 Kia Forte EX - this chip off the mid-size Optima's block, is about as engaging to drive. It makes more ado about interior detail than much else in the segment. Interfacing with its elaborate infotainment system is a pleasure. Even if driving dynamics aren't razor sharp, Kia Forte is darn sharp looking.
2) 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE - providing family space in spades and being a blast on the road just might vindicate flying so low under the visual radar. However, there are times when we want to be spoiled by an upscale cabin detail or two, and to the Jetta that is a foreign concept.
3) 2014 Nissan Sentra SE - it's hard to resist the beguiling Altima Junior lines of the Sentra. Or the brilliant tail LEDs. All the exterior brightwork, the plush cabin, soft ride and large trunk score high on the limousine scale. The super low fuel burn. But not very tossable, this Sentra.
4) 2014 Toyota Corolla S - Especially in "S" guise, the new Corolla has sporty aspirations and aggressive duds. Except for Entune mobile apps, the company behind Lexus didn't sweat details enough. Despite a CVT better than most and quick steering, we'd trade some ride firmness for more MPGs.
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