Volkswagen’s Golf is arguably the world’s most refined, most thoroughly complete four-door hatchback from a mainstream manufacturer.

A close second is Kia’s Forte5. But a skilled debater could argue that the Kia has an edge over the Golf.

2017 Forte5 cabin: refined, well-conceived.

The case for Kia starts with an anti-VW argument. “Dieselgate” has turned VW into a felon under U.S. law – for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and stating falsehoods. For some, buying a car from a criminal is a non-starter.

But not for many. VW’s 2016 sales jumped 3.8 per cent. The company remains profitable and is investing billions in “clean” technologies as part atonement, part image rehabilitation.

VW brand head Herbert Diess recently told reporters that the German automaker would target one million electric car sales by 2025. VW plans to take on Tesla, in fact.

2017 Forte5: balanced proportions.

“Tesla is a competitor we take seriously. Tesla comes from a high-priced segment; however, they are moving down,” Diess said, referring to the coming $35,000 (U.S.) Model 3. “It’s our ambition, with our new architecture, to stop them there, to rein them in.”

My point: even though not a single senior VW executive will likely ever do jail time, the automaker has paid a price for its criminality: tens of billions of dollars to compensate wronged owners and the general public, and billions more on a technological push designed to cast a “green” halo over VW.

The brand story matters; the car market is loaded with brand-conscious buyers. And if it’s purely a brand contest, Kia has plenty of its own ammunition.

2017 Forte5: decent room in the back seat.

The Kia brand is ranked higher by Consumer Reports than VW. Kia also finished No. 1 in J.D. Power and Associates’ most recent Initial Quality Study (IQS) and well above average – and well above VW – in J.D. Power’s latest long-term Vehicle Dependability Study.

As well, the Forte is ranked second in its class in the IQS – just behind Toyota’s Corolla and tied with the Forte’s corporate cousin, the Hyundai Elantra. No Golf in sight. By third-party measures, Kia beats VW, and the Forte is a better quality car than the Golf.

Nonetheless, we can agree that the Kia brand lacks VW’s heft and history. For some, Kia is a kind of recently-bankrupt, low-rent Toyota- or Honda-wannabe. They see Kia as a brand lacking cachet and in need of an owner’s explanation.

I’d urge them to give the Forte5 a chance, head-to-head, against a similarly priced Golf. A Forte5 SX 1.6L when uniformly equipped with a Golf 1.8 TSI Highline is about $600 cheaper, primarily because the VW buyer needs to add the optional $1,400 six-speed automatic.

2017 Forte5: strong design.

That still leaves the Kia with a gearbox edge, however. The Forte’s seven-speed autoshift manual is a real gem, superior in performance and execution to the Golf’s less sophisticated automatic. And the Forte5’s four-cylinder, direction-injection turbo is considerably more powerful – 201 horsepower versus 170 for the Golf.

If you want a VW gearbox comparable to the Kia’s, you need to jump up to the Golf GTI, with its beautifully refined six-speed autoshift. But if you do that, you’ll pay another $7,500 in all to get a VW uniformly equipped against the Kia.

The Kia, in fact, is a terrifically refined hatchback with loads of room, quick responses, and superb technological ideas and execution. The cabin materials are wonderfully refined, the seats are almost as comfy and supportive as the Golf’s and the infotainment interface is easy to manage – less fussy than the Golf’s.

No question, the latest Golf is an excellent automobile. But to get a Golf as well-equipped and powerful as a Forte5, you’ll need to spend thousands more – and give your money to a Dieselgate-stained automaker.

Perhaps it’s time to give Kia and its Forte a chance, a test drive. You might be surprised and illuminated, even if you end up with a Golf and the Dieselgate conversations that come with it.

2017 Kia Forte5 SX 1.6L

Price range: $29,895. Freight and PDI: $1,560.

Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged (201 hp/195 lb-ft torque).

Drive: front-wheel.

Transmissions: seven-speed autoshift manual.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.4 city/7.9 using regular fuel.

Comparables: Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Golf, Chevrolet Cruze, Fiat 500L.







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