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Test Drive: 2015 Kia Forte5 SX a winner

t’s nice to see continued attention on hatchbacks for the unconvinced U.S. market.

Recent good example: Kia’s 2015 Forte5 SX hatch, a companion to the Forte sedan and an upgrade to the non-turbo Forte5 EX. What makes SX special is the go-fast turbocharged engine.

That’s the same 1.6-liter, 201-horsepower, four-cylinder that corporate affiliate Hyundai introduced earlier in its Veloster sports coupe. It’s dandy, transforming a competent but ordinary small hatchback into an appealing daily driver.

Hatchbacks also are called five-door cars, the hatch being the fifth door, and that’s the source of the Forte5 name.

Americans seem cool to hatchbacks, which buyers elsewhere love for their practicality. The U.S. attitude partly is left from the days when hatchbacks were the cheap model, marking owners either as cheapskates or hard-time folks, such as college students.

When people got jobs and didn’t need the hatch to carry beer kegs and small couches from one college apartment to another, sedans with trunks seemed more grown up.

A bit of that prejudice remains in the market at large.

But, you can argue, the SUVs we love are just high-riding hatchbacks by another name.

When Kia unveiled the Forte5 at the Chicago auto show in February 2013, Michael Sprague, head of marketing at Kia in the U.S., said, “The combination of a useful hatchback for carrying cargo and the sportiness of the turbocharged SX trim make the all-new Forte5 a dual threat in the segment.”

We’ll buy that.

Though don’t try to push the sportiness bit too hard. We power-whipped an SX around a road-race course in Peoria, Ill., and muttered “thank goodness” when the final lap was over. Body lean, understeer, delayed downshifts from the six-speed automatic transmission. Unpleasant, to be charitable, on a race course.

That was part of our Cars.com/USA TODAY/MotorWeek $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge. But it’s also not like anything most people ever do, so we feel no restraint about cheering how the Forte5 SX performs off the track, on regular roads.

If you hold yourself to what we’d call vigorous but not gonzo race-track driving, the sporty feeling’s there.

Kia says it sold a mere handful of 2014 Forte5 SX models because its 1.6-liter turbo engine was in short supply. The 2015 that went on sale this summer is the first SX that’s widely available.

Forte5 is a good example of why you can’t buy a car from a specifications sheet. The stated head room and rear leg room numbers aren’t great, yet the Forte5 delivers a roomy feel for its overall size, with no sense you’re being crowded into a too-tight compact.

That’s a good attribute for a car you drive daily. It suggests Forte5 could be a viable family car until the kids get the growth spurt that makes basketball coaches take notice.

Interior spaciousness, in our view, is a key component of premium feel. By contrast, lack of space gives a decidedly econobox feel, which few find appealing.

Here’s why we think Forte5 is a good deal, in every sense:

Stuff for the money: The test car was $26,865, which passes for a moderate price these days, being roughly $5,000 less than the average transaction price for a new car in the U.S. It came with two pricey option packages that provided leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats and heated steering wheel, navigation, satellite radio, high-intensity-discharge headlights, automatic climate control and sunroof. And a few other tidbits.

We don’t recall ever thinking, “Gee, it’d be nice if this car had…”

Comfortable ride: Not pillowy, just very nice. That’s hard to do in a small car. We don’t believe it’s necessary to sacrifice handling for ride, or vice versa, but it’s sometimes done.

Seats seem unexpectedly comfy, too.

Interior design: You spend most of your car time inside, so it should be exceptional there. Kia executes with a straightforward dashboard, big and small knobs instead of obscure buttons or on-screen controls, and a logical infotainment system.

Styling: Reasonable people often disagree on matters of taste, but Test Drive’s eye finds the Forte5 attractive. SX comes with 18-inch wheels, big for a small car, and they look great. Black trim in front also enhances the seriousness of the car’s countenance.

Mileage: In the day-long Challenge gas mileage drive with eight drivers, the car registered 29.5 mpg, better than the government highway rating of 29 mpg, even though the route had plenty of non-highway miles.

If you like the Forte5 formula, but want a lower price and better mileage, the EX version will satisfy those desires. We didn’t test it, but can’t imagine, however, that the EX would have the same effervescent personality as the SX.

If Test Drive were shopping for a compact, the list would be hatchback-heavy, and Forte5 SX would be a top contender.

WHAT STANDS OUT

Practicality: Hatchback-handy.

Go-power: New turbo engine is good fun

Value: Lots of features per dollar

ABOUT THE KIA FORTE5 SX

What? Turbocharged SX model of front-drive, five-passenger hatchback that adds a higher-performance version to the mix. Non-turbo model is called EX.

When? SX on sale widely since June as a 2015 model; a limited number of 2014s sold. The EX has been on sale since December 2013 as a 2014.

Where? Made in South Korea.

What makes it go? 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine rated 201 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 195 pounds-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm.

EX (not tested) comes with 2-liter non-turbo four, rated 173 hp at 6,500 rpm, 154 lbs.-ft. at 4,700 in most markets

Six-speed manual (SX only) or six-speed automatic (SX, EX).

How big? Similar to Ford Focus hatchback.

Weighs 2,912 to 3,122 lbs.

Max cargo space, rear seat folded: 23.2 cu. ft.

Turning circle diameter, 34.8 ft.

How thirsty? Rated 21 mpg in the city, 29 mpg highway, 24 mpg combined.

Test car registered 29.5 mpg (3.39 gallons per 100 miles) in mostly highway driving with some city and suburban miles by eight drivers during Cars.com/USA TODAY/MotorWeek $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge this summer.

Burns regular; tank holds 13.2 gallons.

Overall: Sweet daily driver, but no corner-carving sport-mobile.

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