by: HYUNDAI MOTOR COMPANY - The redesigned 2014 Kia Forte is a looer - and that's just the start.When Datsun first entered the American market, it was accused of copying other cars. Some thought the 510 sedan was deliberately modeled after the BMW 1600, while the Fairlady sport car looked an awful lot like the MGB.

Well, so what. The Datsuns were cheaper, more reliable, and almost as road worthy as the cars they were accused of imitating — at least once the 510 was outfitted with wider wheels and stiffer shocks.

When Kia first started upgrading their lineup a few years ago, more than a few observers thought the company was borrowing its styling cues from Acura, Honda's luxury division. The exterior lines on the Kia cars and crossovers suddenly got more angular, and when the compact Forte was introduced, it looked more than a little like the Acura TL.

But not anymore. For 2014, Kia designers seem to have taken their inspiration from the sleek little Dodge Dart. The hard lines have been replaced with flowing fenders and an upturned rear end.

At first the transformation seems a little puzzling. Despite good reviews, the Dart has not sold as well as expected. But, whatever the corporate thinking, the result is an undeniable success. The Forte is now one of the best looking compacts on the market. It is also available as a five-door and two-door model called the Koup, alternatives not offered by most compacts.

I had a chance to park my test 2014 Forte EX next to last year's model side by side, and the differences are impressive. The new Forte is longer, wider and lower than the previous generation, and looks a whole lot sexier. The interior is also improved, with better materials and a better integrated central dash pod that gives it a more grown up appearance. Our optional leather interior increased the impression that Kia has stepped up its game yet again.

Interior space was impressive, despite the lower roof line. Two adults can ride comfortably in the back seat, at least for short trips. And the trunk was enormous, something that didn't seem possible in compacts not so long ago.

This year's Forte is available with three engines — an economical 1.8-liter in line four, a more powerful 2.0-liter Gas Direct Injection four, and an even more powerful turbocharged 1.6-liter four. Our test car came with the 2.0-liter engine, which was impressive on several levels. At 173 horsepower and 154 foot-pounds of torque, it was fast enough off the line and easily capable of freeway passing, even with the six-speed automatic instead of the six-speed manual. And it averaged just under 30 miles per gallon in a week of mixed driving, which was slightly better then the EPA estimated 28.

The suspension was firm enough to encourage aggressive driving without being punishing over broken pavement. The only time it seemed too stiff was going over parking lot speed bumps, which could be jarring. Slowing to a crawl helped, though.

Our test car was loaded up with just about every option except the turbocharged engine. In addition to the leather interior, they included an upgraded stereo, power run roof, a dual-zone climate control system, heated front and rear seats, a navigation system with rear view camera, and spiffy 17-inch alloy wheels that drew favorable comments. Despite all that, the cost was under $26,000, which is more than reasonable. And that includes Kia's 10-year limited power train warranty, one of the be in the business.

Compact cars aren't attracting quite as much attention as they did a few years ago, when gas prices seemed to be climbing out of control. But fuel costs are still volatile and could begin shooting up again, depending on world events. Even if they don't, the 2014 Kia Forte is still worth considering because of its styling and value. And it could prove to be an even better investment in the future.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Forte EX.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door car.

• Engines: 1.8 inline 4 (148 hp, 131 lbs-ft); 2.0 inline 4 (173 hp, 154 lbs-ft); turbocharged 1.6 inline 4 (201 hp, 195 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 25/36/29 (1.8/both); 24/36/28 (2.0/auto); 24/33/27 (2.0/manual); 21/29/24 (T1.6/both).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $16,000 ($25,515 as tested).

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