Even at the base level, the Kia Forte Koup is a well-equipped car

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      When it comes to attracting younger buyers, Kia has its work cut out for it. The new 2014 Kia Forte Koup, for example, is up against the likes of the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3, Scion tC, and Honda Civic Coupe. It can’t just be as good as the competition; it has to be better.

      After spending a full day navigating the seemingly endless tight turns and switchbacks of Highway 79 between Los Angeles and Borrego Springs in southern California, I’d say the new Koup is pretty close, but it could still use some refining—specifically in the manual shift-linkage department.

      Time and time again, I found myself trying to pull away from a stop light in third gear when I was sure I’d put it into first, and by the end of the day this was getting pretty old. Kia needs to clean this up and make the gate between first and third a little less ambiguous. Compared to that of, oh, a Honda Civic, the Koup’s linkage is crude and difficult to get along with.

      That said, this is a modestly priced car, starting just under 25 large. For that, you get standard equipment including four-wheel disc brakes, tilt/telescoping steering, air conditioning, heated front seats, cruise control, electronic stability control, and hill-start assist. Even at the base level, this is a well-equipped car. You can also choose 18-inch wheels and tires, a ventilated driver’s seat, heated rear seats, leather interior, and a cooled glove box. Making it a six-speed automatic adds $1,200 to the price tag.
      The market the Koup is aimed at—buyers aged 25 to 54, with the emphasis on younger consumers—tends to be careful with its money, and according to Kia Canada vice-president Maria Soklis, one in four of these buyers is a first-timer. Maximum bang for the buck is paramount, and the higher the standard equipment list, the better.

      You can get the Koup in three different trims: EX, SX, and SX Luxury. Like most offerings from Kia, the options list seems to go on forever, and prices range from $22,480 to $29,780 before taxes and extras. One weird note: there’s no spare tire. What you get instead is a “tire mobility kit” that plugs into the power outlet and pumps up the afflicted rubber. The industry is moving away from spare tires, Kia claims. Stupid idea, regardless.

      Helping the Koup duke it out in this fiercely competitive market segment are two new engines: a normally aspirated 2.0-litre and a turbocharged 1.6-litre. These develop 173 and 201 horsepower, respectively. To put things in perspective, Volkswagen’s famed GTI develops just nine horsepower more than the turbo Koup, and Honda’s Civic Si with the larger engine has the same horsepower output but less torque. The normally aspirated version, meanwhile, is more powerful than any of its rivals.

      How does this translate when the rubber hits the road? Pretty damn well, actually. The turbo version may be the smoothest of its kind I’ve ever driven. The usual drawbacks of forced air induction—nonexistent bottom-end grunt, throttle lag, and understeer—aren’t present, even when you’re giving it some welly. The turbo model, in particular, just does not feel like a front-drive turbocharged automobile, and all the usual attributes of a good-handling car—predictability, balance, power delivery, and braking—make for a non-stressful, surprisingly civilized driving experience. Of course there are tauter, more tossable models on the market, but not at this price.

      Of the two models, my vote goes to the turbo version. Yes, it’s about $4,000 pricier than the normally aspirated model and slightly thirstier, but it offers better performance by a country mile and comes with Kia’s intriguing FlexSteer as standard equipment.