Sega to Saga: Ford’s Kompromised Ka

The forthcoming junior Ford represents the model’s biggest creative departure since the original version debuted twenty years ago. But is it really a Ka at all?

Nu-Ka - coming soon. Image: mostreliablecarbrands
Nu-Ka – coming soon. Image: mostreliablecarbrands

The original Ford Ka was a landmark small car. Intelligently designed, if poorly built; it sold strongly despite being saddled with an asthmatic nail of engine and a spectacularly rust-prone body. But in a sector up 10% over the first nine months of 2015, the current Ka held a less than mighty 13th position in the minicar sales table, with the Smart Forfour and Skoda Citigo nipping its heels.That means 48,368 Ka’s left the showrooms last year; figures that hardly amount to the stuff of dreams.

The incumbent Fiat 500-derived Ka hasn’t worn particularly well you see, Autoexpress describing it as; “expensive, poorly equipped and less fun to drive than other Fords”, giving it a meagre 2 stars. Carbuyer told its readers the Ka is “pricey, not that cheap to run and available with only one engine”.

And it's slow-selling forebear. Image via g1.globo
And its slow-selling forebear. Image via g1.globo

The costs versus returns developing mini-cars such as these are such that most manufacturers do so either by combining with rivals as PSA/Toyota do, or spinning off multiple derivations like VW. Ford, having decided for its own reasons to go it alone this time, has opted for a world car – to be sold in Europe, Latin America and possibly China. This partially explains nu-Ka’s appearance and its availability in five door format only.

In fact it’s rumoured not be called Ka at all. Ford has abandoned the style market, the PR line being they’re targeting budget-conscious buyers who are more interested in practicality than looks. Unpicking this statement suggests they have little choice – leveraging a vehicle aimed at developing World markets will never amount to a European style statement, as only a cursory glance at nu-Ka can confirm. No wacky colourways or appliqué decals here. It is however, likely to become a fixture at a retirement hotspot near you.

Expediency is the mother of all manner of inventions, suggesting Ford believes whatever appeal nu-Ka may have for Europeans can be offset by sales in developing markets. All of which might make sense if it wasn’t for Latin America’s recent downturn, Russia’s ongoing depression and China’s increasingly bumpy landing.

Further study should also have centered around Nissan’s recent Micra experiment. Having eschewed the cost of developing a dedicated European model, the current Micra donned sackcloth and ashes; targeting customers in such diverse locations as China, Indonesia and Mexico. But Europe appears to have little appetite for World cars and with sales down more than 50%, Nissan has been forced to think again; soon to launch a new car, designed primarily for European tastes.

One Ford has its exponents but to those of a less credulous mien, it seems to be about saving its parent money. A case in point being the Ecosport CUV; a vehicle that appears to exist merely to give European dealers something to sell until something better can be dreamed up. Nu-Ka must compete for customers who remain firmly wedded to more sophisticated offerings such as Fiat’s dominant 500/Panda twins or VW’s UP! triplets. The risk is that buyers will feel they’re being patronised by an automotive superpower offering the least it can possibly get away with. Micra or masterstroke? We’ll know in about a year’s time.

Read Driven to Write’s views on the World car phenomenon here.

Sales data: Left-lane.com 

Since this piece was published, 2015 sales data modified to reflect Jan-Dec figures.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Sega to Saga: Ford’s Kompromised Ka”

  1. The picture of the current Ka shown here is flattering. One usually gets used to cars, but every time I see the Ka’s dumpy profile I am annoyed. So, based on the ‘only way is up’ school of thought, nu-Ka looks better, which is a very, very thin veneer of praise.

    Do Ford planners ever drive their cars? Ka1 was not a hard riding hot hatch, it had a broad range of owners, but it was a pleasure to drive. Ka2 was not, it was just super adequate, which is the best I’d expect if I was foolish enough to base a car on a Fiat platform. So, Ford engineering it all themselves, and even going for a 5 door version, is a positive step.

    Of course sales figures are different from profitability. Splitting the development costs with Fiat for the current version, and selling a car engineered for all markets, means that they don’t have to worry so much about getting anywhere near to the top of the sales charts. Just keep them in a corner of the showroom, try to get the punter interested in the Fiesta but, if they insist, there’s €795.27 of guaranteed profit when all other costs are taken into account (figure courtesy of my imagination).

    But it’s a pity that Ford, who raised themselves from flogging acceptable dross to actually setting standards for other makers to envy, have reverted to their cynical ways.

    1. ‘Figo’ sounds like the sort of word that is a profanity in several European languages.

  2. This car was presented to the press more than 2 years ago. Is it definitely going to reach these shores? I was hoping it wouldn’t.

    1. I realise now it was over 2 years since I saw ‘official scoop’ photos. It’s hard to imagine, but judging by the Mondeo, Ford seem comfortable with sitting on things for a year or so. So maybe. Certainly Ka 2 is in need of replacement.

    2. It´s not a good trait, is it? The expected competitive life of some cars is in the 36-48 months range. Every month a car is not on sale means X thousand lost sales. And it also shortens the life of the incoming car by a corresponding amount.

  3. Is it a Ka? Not in the sense of having any important shared traits. Ford´s recent behaviour is quite distinctly different from the earlier of mode of “selling cars and having fun”. I got the feeling what Ford was serving up cars with a grin and now there´s a corporate dourness which shadows all their offerings, reminiscent of the kind of facelessness you associate with Opel. The cars aren´t bad yet you feel they are the result of people turning up to work out of habit. I am certain loads of people at Ford love their work and want customers to get a good deal for the money. It doesn´t come across though. OneFord is unable to allow humans to peek out from behind the Oval in the way they did during the Parry-Jones era.

    1. Whenever I consider Ford’s lost lustre, I always find myself thinking of Richard Parry-Jones. I’m no Ford historian but, in time, it will be interesting to discover how influential he actually was. He rose high in Ford to oversee product development but, essentially, was a chassis man. But once he’d ensured that Ford was actually known for setting standards in road behaviour, rather than just seeing how little they could get away with, this must have encouraged a certain pride throughout the organisation that filtered through to all things. But now Ford seem to have lost confidence.

  4. You´d wonder why they lost confidence. Reviewers and customers loved the products at this time. There was a real “buzz” about the brand related to the striking styling of the Puma, Ka and Focus along with the fun-to-drive. DCDQ, as Ford said. Dependable, contemporary, driving, quality.

    1. The previous decade’s Euro-Fords were well-regarded, good to drive cars, but were expensive to develop and probably didn’t garner much of a return for the Blue Oval. Certainly they failed to make serious inroads into VW’s (up) market – witness the Golf and Passat’s utter dominance of their respective sectors. Retrenchment came about largely through necessity – the cash bonanza that saw their expansion into what became the Premium Automotive Group and heaven help us, Formula One, was over and management elected to throw as much as they could carry overboard to restabilise the business.

      Out went PAG, Reitzle, Jac Nasser and the European arm’s engineering autonomy. In came Mullally, One Ford and a return to a US-centric mindset. I get the sense amongst Ford enthusiasts on US sites that this has been a welcome decision. The decision to go the appliqué route with Vignale is possibly a result of this – much more cost effective to sprinkle glitter than to engineer class-leaders. Cynical or not, Ford is back doing what it does best. Nu-Ka won’t be a bad car, it just won’t be a very remarkable one.

    2. I see your point Eoin, and it’s a credible reason for Ford’s retrenchment. Richard and I are probably being too idealistic. But I always felt that Ford didn’t learn from the likes of, for example, Audi who were banging their heads against the door marked ‘Premium’ for years before they finally got through. Though, of course, to many in the UK at least, a Ford will always be a Ford, however good it is.

      I can well see why US customers want proper US Fords, just as we want proper European Fords and Brazilians want proper South American Fords. OneFord might work financially, but speaking personally I’m as likely to want one as I would want to buy a Big Mac in Rome.

  5. The current Ka is one of these typical examples of a car that was designed to appeal to young people. Unfortunately, there are not many young people who have the money, so it doesn’t sell. And the actual customers (elderly people) get scared away by the extreme design and the general unpracticality, so it doesn’t sell… That new third world Ka has a bigger chance since it is a bit more practical (for old people) and priced lower (for young people).

  6. The 1.3 OHC Rocam engine in the final few years of proper Kas was very good – better than anyone could reasonably expect in such a cheap car. Constant (indicated) 100mph motorway cruising was a suprprisingly relaxed experience, obviously in a gentler time when such things weren’t against the law.

    I won’t shed any tears at the passing of the Tychy Ka. However, Ford insisted on “Parry-Jonesing” the Panda / 500 ‘Mini’ platform to meet their standards, and, according to someone close to the matter, some of the improvements were adopted by Fiat for their own cars.

    So some good came of the “Fiat” Ka. Also one of the great automotive pub quiz questions; “Which car factory produced Fords and Chryslers between 2011 and 2015?”

    1. The engines fitted to the later versions of Ur-Ka were a good deal lustier than the asthmatic 1.3 litre Endura E unit, a near relative of the 997 ‘Kent’ engine fitted to the 1959 105E-series Anglia. It even sounded similar. I could never understand how they only managed to extract 50 bhp from Endura E, when the 957cc Kent unit fitted to the first series Fiesta managed a whopping 45 bhp.

      Ford lost a lot of sales owing to taxation regimes in many European countries, like Ireland for example. The 1.3 litre engine capacity placed the Ka in a higher bracket and for a buyer on a budget, that mattered. Ur-Ka was always a rare sight here, although given our climate, they’d have rusted away within weeks.

      My own Ka experience – detailed elsewhere on this site – was amongst the worst of my automotive life, but despite this, I still rate ur-Ka as a great little car. Before it was side-swiped, it steered and handled beautifully. Incidentally, I saw a Tychy-Ka earlier today. The styling never really gelled did it?

  7. The Fiesta’s Valencia was a narrowed down, three main bearing version of the Kent. The bore centres were reduced (by around 7mm), but the Kent’s water-jacket dimension was maintained. It eventually got back those two bearings when it went out to 1.3 litres for the 1986 facelift Escort. Considering that the thing had to be totally re-tooled for production at Almusafes, it’s disappointing that Ford didn’t make something a bit more advanced – the Peugeot XA and VW EA111 were already well established.

    That said, despite the pushrods, paucity of main bearings and all-iron construction, the Fiesta’s unadventurous lump did its job pretty well, especially in its heroically oversquare (77.0 x 55.4) 957cc form, which had a VW Beetle feel of unburstability about it.

    I agree about Ford’s failure to offer the Ka in tax-friendly capacities. They did it in Brazil, so why not Europe?

    1. In some ways the Kent and its derivatives was Ford’s equivalent to BMC/BL’s A-Series. Despite their antiquity, they were thermally efficient and of course had amortised themselves over many decades.

      BL didn’t replace A-series because they couldn’t afford to – (and had ran scared from Issigonis’ 9X creation) – whereas Ford didn’t replace Kent/Valencia because they realised they could get away with not doing so.

      If memory serves, the HCS Kent/Valencia engine fitted to the Mark 4 Escort produced 60bhp. Too much for the Ka to handle, clearly.

  8. The A series simply was not as other engines. It should not have lasted as long, or grown as large as it did. I see it as a sort of Porsche 911 of engines, fundamentally compromised, but somehow able to answer every question which was asked of it, and defy every attempt at replacement.

    There were numerous BMC / BLMC development projects for A series successors, none of which were produced because they did not provide sufficient benefits over the old pushrod all-iron unit to justify the investment. Under-capitalisation and industrial paralysis may also have informed the decision-making process.

    Those A series conceptual flaws; having the camshaft and pushrods on the same side as the inlet and exhaust ports never seemed particularly clever, but stayed for the life of the engine, as did the siamesed (or should we say conjoined?) ports. The 1275cc engines’ 70.61mm bore was only achieved by offsetting conrods, it had worked in oversquare racing A series, then production Cooper engines, and became a mainstream capacity, produced in huge numbers. The downside was that the crankshaft of the enlarged engines was no longer than the original 803cc version, restricting bearing widths.

    And yet it all worked well, both in terms of efficiency and mechanical integrity, more surprising given how many of the units shared their oil with the gearbox. Achieving durability required expensive materials and production techniques. The 1979 A+ was pretty much a Cooper S specification; stellited exhaust valve seats, nimonic exhaust valves, and fillet rolled crankshaft. Not a cheap engine, yet still made in huge numbers.

    I’d say the nearest modern equivalent of the A series is the Fiat FIRE series. Very similar in size, widely used, and nearly 31 years in production. Production numbers probably now beat the A series’ 13.2 million. The timespan of large-scale A series production was 1951-92, after which only small numbers were made for the last Maestros, and a few thousand Minis a year.

    Something like a FIRE was needed by BL around 1980, instead the far more technically ambitious K series came along, which promised a lot, but delivered humiliation and failure.

    1. That would have made a good article. Are you channelling the spirit of Setright by any chance? Archie Vicar once wrote that the British were good at taking a good idea and ruining it while the Germans were good at the reverse, making a bad idea work as well as it could. It seems Vicar was wrong in part.
      This A-series is a lovely metaphor for Britain: on paper it seems flawed but manages to manage in practice and for longer than you’d expect.

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