There is a vast and seemingly endless sea of car buyers out there, and no two are exactly the same. Each has distinct needs and preferences, and car makers have risen to the challenge by offering a diverse array of vehicles for shoppers to consider.
This diversity is present even within specific vehicle segments. One segment that has grown and evolved in recent years is the affordably priced compact-car category. Many of the choices in this segment offer tremendous value, delivering lots of style and amenities for a low price.
Two top picks in this segment are the 2017 Kia Forte and the 2016 Mazda3. While both models share certain similarities, each has its own distinct personality. We decided to see how these models stack up in certain key areas.
Two Flavors of Eye Candy
You don’t have to sacrifice sleek sheet metal if you’re shopping for an economically priced compact, and both the Kia Forte and Mazda3 are proof. Each car offers its own unique take on style.
Sporty good looks will never go out of fashion in the world of automotive design, and this is the classically seductive package delivered by the Mazda3. There is a sex appeal present in cars whose sheet metal offers the proposition of outstanding performance, and the Mazda3’s low-slung stance and aerodynamic profile are a siren call that’s hard to resist.
The Kia Forte’s designers emphasize uniqueness and modernity. The car’s tiger-nose grille makes a bold statement, and its fluid curves are on the leading edge of design trends. In addition to being current-looking, the 2017 Forte serves up swank glamor that isn’t always part of the deal when shopping in this price range.
Choose the Mazda3 for a conventionally sporty aesthetic. If your tastes run toward a look that’s singular, contemporary and somewhat upscale, the Kia Forte will likely fit the bill.
Both the Kia Forte and the Mazda3 offer performance crafted to satisfy most car buyers. However, each car provides its own distinctive spin on the driving experience.
Mazdas have a history of emphasizing engaging performance, and the Mazda3 is no exception. If you’re an enthusiast on a budget, this is the car for you. Our Mazda3 s Grand Touring featured a 2.5-liter inline four good for 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. In our review vehicle, this engine was paired with an optional six-speed automatic transmission, but a six-speed manual is standard.
The engine was a remarkably capable and willing companion, easily getting the car up to speed during freeway passing maneuvers and on serpentine back roads. Our car’s reflexes were sharp as tacks, and shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission were seamless and well timed. No journey was mundane in our Mazda3, and even trips to the grocery store were imbued with a sense of whimsy and fun.
Our Kia test car was the Forte S trim. Newly launched for 2017, the Forte S features a sport-tuned suspension for a more performance-oriented driving experience. A 2.0-liter inline four lived under the hood of our test model, and it generated 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. S models like our Forte come standard with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The Forte S had the power to inspire confidence in all driving situations, and handling was pleasing and responsive. However, while the Forte S will certainly delight the average car buyer, it isn’t quite as enthusiast-friendly as the exceptionally keen Mazda3.
Neither of these cars is a loser when you’re behind the wheel. However, if you’re looking for a model in this segment with performance transcending the norm, the Mazda 3 is the car for you.
View from the Pump
While gas prices are currently low, fuel economy remains a top priority for many Americans. Consumers have seen gas prices rise and fall, and they know the smart approach is to pick a vehicle equipped to take future fuel-price increases in stride. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 53 percent of American vehicle owners expect improved fuel economy with their next car purchase.
Fuel economy numbers aren’t yet available for the 2017 Forte5 hatchback, but sedans like our S model – with its 147-horsepower 2.0-liter engine and six-speed automatic transmission – have an EPA rating of 29 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. The Forte sedan is also available with a 2.0-liter engine good for 164 horsepower, and this inline four is rated 25/33 mpg city/highway.
With the Mazda3 hatchback, you can expect fuel economy of 30/40 mpg city/highway with the 2.0-liter engine and automatic transmission, while the 2.5-liter engine in s Grand Touring models gets 27/37 mpg with the automatic transmission. When equipped with a 2.0-liter engine paired with an automatic transmission, Mazda3 sedans get 30/41 mpg city/highway, and these numbers drop to 28/39 mpg city/highway with the 2.5 liter and an automatic transmission.
Select the Mazda3 if fuel efficiency is a key priority.
The Take on Technology
The wealth of technology offered in economically priced cars these days is nothing short of amazing. A few short years ago, certain amenities were exclusively reserved for luxury models, but today’s car shoppers can enjoy the latest and greatest technological advancements at all price points.
Standard features on the Mazda3 include a 7-inch touch screen and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity. The standard six-speaker audio system features a USB port and HD radio.
Our top-of-the-line s Grand Touring test car was equipped with amenities such as push-button start, a navigation system, satellite radio and a premium nine-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system. The navigation system was user-friendly and simple to maneuver, and sound from the car’s audio system was crisp and satisfying.
Our 2017 Kia Forte is one model year ahead of our Mazda3, and it’s also a step or two ahead in terms of the range of amenities offered. Base models come with a four-speaker sound system, Bluetooth connectivity and satellite radio, and a navigation system is available on upper trim levels. Our Forte S test car featured an upgraded six-speaker audio system, and we enjoyed its vibrant soundscape.
The big news with the Forte is the addition of optional of Apple CarPlay (with late availability) and Android Auto for 2017. These platforms represent the latest in innovation, and they facilitate seamless smartphone integration that allows you to easily carry out functions such as sending text messages and streaming music.
Both the 2016 Mazda3 and the 2017 Kia Forte offer impressive technology, but for the most current amenities, select the Kia Forte.
Inside the Cabin
Both the Forte and the Mazda3 feature nicely appointed cabins.
Base Forte models come with woven cloth seats, 60/40 split-folding rear seats and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. Our Forte S sweetened the deal by throwing in sport black-cloth seats with contrast stitching, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a bevy of soft-touch panels. These amenities combined to give our review car’s cabin a look of quality.
With a base Mazda3, you can expect standard features such as a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and 60/40 split-folding rear seats. Our s Grand Touring model spiffed things up by adding attractive leather-trimmed sport seats.
While neither car offers luxury-car levels of opulence, materials quality in both was quite good, and cabin design was modern and agreeable.
Though these are compact models, there is a decent amount of room for your belongings. With the Mazda3 hatchback, you get 20.2 cubic feet with all seats in place, while the sedan provides 12.4 cubes. The Forte sedan provides 14.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity, while the hatchback offers 23.2 cubes with the rear seats in place. These numbers give the Forte an edge when it comes to cargo space.
The Forte also provides a bit more room for passengers. Both models offer similarly generous legroom in both rows, but the Forte offers more headroom, which would seem to make it a better choice for taller drivers. Keep in mind, though, that numbers don’t always tell the full story when it comes to driver comfort is cases like this. If you’re looking for a vehicle suited for taller frames, we’d recommend spending time in both the Forte and the Mazda3 to see how each model fares when it comes to meeting your needs.
Both the 2016 Mazda3 and 2017 Kia Forte earned a perfect five star rating overall in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash tests.
Standard safety equipment on both models includes brake assist, traction control and a full complement of air bags. The Mazda3 offers a standard rearview camera, but to get this feature on the Forte, you’ll have to step up to the S trim.
The Forte offers a slightly wider array of available active safety features, giving you the choice of blind spot detection with lane change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, lane keep assist and forward collision warning. The Mazda 3 offers available blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning and forward collision mitigation.
Price and Value
Pricing on the 2017 Kia Forte sedan starts at $16,490, not including a destination charge of $850. S models like our test car start at $19,200. Pricing isn’t yet available for 2017 Forte5 hatchback.
With 2016 Mazda3 sedans, pricing starts at $17,845, while hatchbacks start at $18,545, and there’s a destination charge of $835. For an s Grand Touring model like our test car, pricing starts at $25,445 for hatchbacks and $24,745 for sedans.
Both cars offer outstanding value. However, for the most price-sensitive shoppers, the lower-priced Kia Forte will be a more compatible selection.
How to Choose
It’s hard to go wrong with either the Mazda3 or the Kia Forte. Each model has compelling strengths, and deciding between the two will depend on your needs and preferences.
Performance used to come at the expense of fuel economy, but that’s no longer the case. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly compact offering both riveting driving dynamics and superb fuel economy, the 2016 Mazda3 will win your heart.
Relative to the Mazda3, the 2017 Kia Forte offers more cargo capacity, more current technology and a slightly lower price tag. It also provides more headroom, which makes it a good choice for taller drivers. If your priorities fall within these areas, the Forte will put a smile on your face.
There’s never been a better time to buy an economy-priced compact car. Both the Mazda3 and Kia Forte illustrate it’s possible to get ample features, style and driving enjoyment for relatively little cash.