September 15, 2011 | by Joe Phillips
Hot hatchbacks

It’s hard to get excited about minivans, station wagons or other ho-hum haulers. But road trips in two different hatchbacks made us reconsider our prima donna ways. Not only were the Audi A7 and Kia Forte a blast to drive, each also offered plenty of good surprises despite being miles apart on price.

Audi A7

Audi A7

AUDI A7

$62,000

Mpg: 18 city/28 highway

0-to-60 mph: 5.4 seconds

Cargo space: 24.5 cu. ft.

There are better ways to spend 10 hours than sitting behind a steering wheel, even for auto journalists. But that was before we tested Audi’s all-new A7.

Audi A7 interior

Audi A7 interior

Funny, because this car wasn’t even on our must-drive list, especially since it meant giving up the Saab 9-5 Aero sedan, a ride so wicked good you wanted to reach into your pockets to help fund the bankrupt Swedish automaker yourself.

Yet there it was, a pearlescent black A7 that seemed to sit too low to the ground, didn’t have a large panoramic sunroof like most competitors and — horrors — came with frameless windows on the doors (just like any run-of-the-mill Subaru).

And this was the car we were taking on a 1,500-mile trek for a week?

No thanks. Or so we thought until halfway across Ohio when nirvana struck.

Maybe it was the flawless acceleration, with no herky-jerky turbo lag. Or the nifty fin-like spoiler, which rose up at 80 mph and made the A7 seem like something 007 would drive to outmaneuver a battery of bad guys. Or those BMW and Mercedes drivers who seemed to drool as the A7 cruised down the road.

Whatever it was, the A7 scored points all around. And no wonder: This is Audi’s best-looking vehicle ever and the most practical. The hatch opens and closes electronically. There’s plenty of easy-to-reach cargo space. And the car can be raised or lowered at the touch of a button for better handling.

A supercharged V6 growls seductively and despite churning out only 310 horsepower, still manages to rocket the A7 from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds.

Compare the cockpit to a Mercedes, Jag or even a Bentley, and the A7 wins hands down. Acres of matte-finished wood — a nice change from the shiny, plasticized wood in other luxo-mobiles — complement the aluminum trim. Even the dials and gauges seem fresh and exciting, especially the large, Tron-like nav screen that opens magically from its hiding place in the dash. This nav system is tied to Google Earth and shows the speed limit on any road, a big plus as we traveled rural byways.

Yet despite plenty of must-have options, like LED lighting, they add up quickly, so expect to tack on $10,000 or more to the $62,000 sticker. Still, that’s a bargain for a car that could easily top six figures if it had a V8 or, perhaps, even a panoramic sunroof.

 

Kia Forte SX

Kia Forte SX

KIA FORTE SX

$19,000

Mpg: 22 city/32 highway

0-to-60 mph: 8.8 seconds

Cargo space: 19.4 cu. ft.

If an Audi is too rich for your blood, then Kia’s five-door Forte is a fine alternative. Yes, it’s a step down from the A7 in size, handling and performance. And the Forte’s two lower trim levels — the LX and EX — are lackluster, to say the least. But the sport-tuned SX packs a wallop, with its sprightly 173-hp engine and slick six-speed transmission (a notch up from the previous four-speed gearbox). The Forte’s new look showcases its sculpted sheet metal, just like the popular Kia Optima.

Kia Forte interior

Kia Forte interior

But this car isn’t perfect: Lower the rear seats and there’s a lot less cargo space than in the Audi A7, for example. Yet the Forte also costs way less and gets better gas mileage. And it fits anywhere, as we saw when nudging into a space on a narrow Baltimore street after two sedans and a coupe gave up on the spot.

Considering this is an entry-level compact, the Forte’s handling was tight and sure, especially on highways. And the cabin was quiet, even when passing SUVs and semis.

The Forte SX may not be as glam as an Audi A7, but it’s certainly the most fun in its class.

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