The British have a phrase for cars like the Kia Forte. They call them “cheap and cheerful.” As it happens, that perfectly describes the little base model.

The KIA Forte took the place of the late, unlamented Spectra, which had all the charm and distinctiveness of your average office stapler. It was functional but don’t expect to see one at the Barrett Jackson Auction in 50 years.

But this…well just look at it. I find the Forte exceptionally good looking, especially since the 5-door hatchback was introduced. It is a clean, ungimmicky shape without a lot of design cues that make stylists happy but usually look like Lady Gaga on wheels.

And the SX model has added some genuine performance to the package.

Inside, the Forte is as roomy as my old college apartment, only with better carpet, and our sX model had the optional $1000 leather package and $800 sunroof. They add an elegance to the whole effort that makes it seem like something more than a sub-$20,000 car.

Under the hood resides a twin-cam, 1.6-liter, turbocharged four cylinder engine cranking out 201-fairly eager horses. The engine is the real deal and will hit 60 miles per hour in just over 6 seconds while burning a gallon of precious middle eastern go-juice every 28 miles in the city, and every 29 on the highway.

The 6-speed manual gearbox is not quite of the knife-through-butter variety, but is smooth enough and with the suspension upgrades and 18-inch wheels helps the little Forte 5 more than qualified to join the “hot hatch” brigade.

Satellite radio, Bluetooth hands-free capability and electronic stability control are all standard.

And the cost? Well, hey it’s a KIA. The SX model starts at $26,895, and our options took it to $27,020.

Cheap and cheerful? Well the base Forte certainly is that, and it also happens to be a pretty darned nice piece of work. But the Forte 5 SX also happened to be a very competent piece of performance machinery.

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