Economy battle: 2019 Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback vs. 2019 Kia Forte EX vs. 2019 Mazda3 Premium AWD Sedan.

Catching up: Last week, we looked inside the three models, including fuel-economy numbers; this week, we go for a spin.

Up to speed: The Corolla’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder creates 168 horsepower, which makes it pretty fast by Corolla standards. Motor Trend says it goes from 0 to 60 in 7.5 seconds with the stick, 8.5 with the CVT.

The Kia Forte is no Stinger getting to 60 mph, but no one really expects that. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine provides 147 horsepower. The 0-to-60 time is 8.2 seconds, according to Motor Trend.

The Mazda3 has a 0-to-60 time of 7 seconds, according to Car and Driver, a little slower in the front-wheel-drive version. And while I can confirm it does go quickly from a standing start, it loses its oomph in the real world. It’s not a fun companion for winding country roads, never feeling as if it catches its breath quickly enough, and on corners it automatically downshifts to third, but really needs to be in second. The gears are too tall and widely spaced.

Shifty: I was blessed to get hold of a six-speed manual version of the Corolla Hatchback, and it made the test drive a bit sportier than otherwise.

Most of you are going to get the CVT, of course, but I’d encourage you not to. Sure, the six-speed’s gears are not exactly creating any tremendous forward momentum, but it’s easy enough to shift. The clutch is a bit of a pain, though, but I didn’t stall the Corolla once.

The Forte does have a whole new sumpin’-sumpin’ going on in the gearbox. Kia says its “first in-house designed and built Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT) introduces new line of Smart Stream technologies designed to help increase fuel efficiency in a variety of situations.”

I noticed it after just a few drives. It felt like an automatic, but I could feel a sense of CVT under there as well. It actually seems as if it combines the best of both worlds, although it’s a little early in the game to make that pronouncement.

Strange part, though — Kia press materials say there are seven gear settings, but I got up to the number eight while clicking through them. I guess that makes me the Spinal Tap of car reviewers — “these amps go up to 11.”

Sport mode shows off its best features as well. Normally I feel cars will linger in lower gears when I drive them in sport mode without shifting my own gears, but the Forte I tested just felt more powerful than before.

The 2019 Mazda3 hatchback is also a handsome and versatile model, but a less attractive sedan version faced the Mr. Driver's Seat test.
Mazda
The 2019 Mazda3 hatchback is also a handsome and versatile model, but a less attractive sedan version faced the Mr. Driver's Seat test.

I believe the Mazda3’s Achilles’ heel could be the 6-speed shiftable automatic. Unless I pushed the car to its limits in each gear, it was a long wait for the transmission to kick in. I’d love to try a stick and see if that satisfies my need for more speed.

The shift mode can be operated through the lever or paddle shifters.

Not sure if this is engine or transmission, but a chug or surge reared its head often enough to be a concern.

Advantage, Corolla.

On the road: The Corolla Hatchback as tested came with 40 series tires, which are seriously low profile for such a tiny car. Expect to lose a few to potholes and, for winter’s sake, buy a set of rims built to hold 55 or higher series, so you might actually get a grip in the snow. Carmakers are sending us some tires worthy of the racetrack nowadays, so you have to know what you’re doing.

It’s hard to say what handling might have otherwise been in this Corolla Hatchback. But the minimal joys found in a winding road were not worth the trade-offs these tiny tires will require.

Likewise, the Forte did not make curves feel lively. The car moved fast through them but without much feeling.

The 2019 Kia Forte looks the most average from behind.
Kia
The 2019 Kia Forte looks the most average from behind.

The Forte also suffers from Kia’s standard-issue Exceedingly Bouncy Ride package, first perfected in the Soul. It’s free, although Dramamine will cost extra. Lots of cars are bouncy, but Kia’s Soul and now its Forte just take this to a whole new level.

Either other cars are getting much better or the Mazda3 ain’t what it used to be, but its steering feel and fun quotient seem to have dropped off over the last few years. Car and Driver and I vehemently disagree on this assessment, but I’m just not feeling it anymore.

The little car can still haul around turns quickly, but the zoom zoom is gone gone. And the Mazda3 provides a serious thump over many Pennsylvania road features.

Toss-up.

Where they’re built: The Corolla hails from Aichi, Japan; the Forte from Pesqueria, Mexico; and the Mazda3 from Hofu, Japan.

How they’re built: The Corolla and Mazda 3 both get a predicted reliability of 4 out of 5 from Consumer Reports; the Kia gets a 3.

In the end: It feels awkward as a car guy to admit this, but I’ve never been afraid to march to my own drummer.

I’m partial to the Corolla Hatchback. It’s comfortable; its stick is fun to operate; it’s kind of fun to drive; and it’s people-sized. It’s also the bargain of the three.

The Mazda just didn’t offer enough wow to make up for its tight spaces, frustrating radio, and disappointing economy. And I’ll venture that a Toyota “4” from Consumer Reports is going to last longer with fewer repairs than a Mazda “4.”

The Forte is not bad, and the fuel economy is attractive.