Getting (back) Into the KA

To mark the 20th anniversary of Ur-Ka’s debut, we don’t write about it. 

Image: mobile.de
Image: mobile.de

We’ve spilled a good deal of ink over the Ka on Driven to Write over the past couple of years – too much, some might say. But with the car’s 20th anniversary now looming, one has to be seen to be doing something. So rather than retread old ground, the opinions of the foremost UK auto journalists of the time will have to suffice. Failing that of course, there’s always the narcotic Laurie Anderson soundtracked launch commercial – which is notable for showing no footage of the Ka at all. 

Let’s begin with Russell Bulgin writing for Car in 1997, who said, in his sadly much imitated style; “Ka is terrific because it comes packed with sass and verve and a real sense of urban driving zest… Intriguing but not cute: in a tiny car, that distinction is critical… The tenor of Ka is practical without being dreary, useful without being obsequious and fun without coming on as being unbearably wacky. Ride and handling? ‘Taut’ is the adjective which covers this best – the Ka feels as if the dampers are a smidge bloke-biased. Good performance need not rely on blistering acceleration: the Ka is fun in a nippy, essentially usable way.”

Image: rac.co.uk
Image: rac.co.uk

Meanwhile, journalistic éminence grise, LJK Setright, essaying on the subject of character in the same issue noted; “Consider the Ford Ka. Nothing ostensibly comparable can hold a candle to this pert little character. Whether it may be judged to look funny, or pretty, or quirky, may be beside the point: since people notice the Ka and all who see the Ka smile, it must be pronounced a successful work of styling. Yet if to those looks were wedded a chassis which betrayed the driver into haplessly erratic ways, then that same styling would have to be condemned as deluding and derisory.”

“As it happens, the Ka behaves impeccably… Thus despite the shortcomings of the engine and transmission – it really should have had the two-stroke engine and CVT upon so much Ford time has been spent – the Ka emerges as characterful, the bravest thing Ford has done since the launch of the Sierra.”

Now, speaking as a former Ka owner, I can say with some authority that both writers are essentially correct in their assertions – ‘karpet’ texture included. Conceptually speaking, Ka offered more than it strictly needed to in a package that spoke of the future without a shred of retro or pastiche. New or nearly new, Ka was close to being the perfect compact consumer durable. It was the second or third owners who bore the brunt of Ford’s corner-cutting. With better execution, it could conceivably have grown into a cool urban sub-brand – think of Smart, but with credibility. Instead Henry’s boys bottled it and stuck the cork back in. The fools.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Getting (back) Into the KA”

  1. This is a car I never get bored looking at. To expect as Setright did a wierd engine and wacky transmission shows up his one character weakness, a near-complete understanding of marketing or economics. The Ka had to have a Fiesta core otherwise it would not have made money.

    Some designs are a one-off. I’d rather Ford called their Ka Mk2 something else. And you might say I don’t get marketing because the idea was to carry customers over from Ka1 to Ka2. My riposte is that Ka2 wasn’t the same product like a Golf is from generation to generation.
    Selling Ka2 as a Ka raised expectations that Ford couldn’t meet.
    What would a Ka sub-brand look like? I feel that far from being a flexible concept, the Ka was utterly of it time and not suited to being a millimetre different. The Mini is a good example.
    I wonder why Ford didn’t use the current Fiesta as a basis for the “Ka” mk 2 – cost? width? One thing I can agree on is that the present Ka is a pretty uninteresting thing, and neither nicely feminine like a 500 nor cold like an Up.

    1. Funny how you start to froth at the mouth about the Ka 2 or new-Ka before anyone even mentioned it… 😉
      Easy for me to say though as I find the original way overrated, so I don’t care much about how they recycled the name.

    2. Ka mark 2 was indeed a product of the harsh economics Setright had little conception of. Although it was indeed a super Ka, Ford struggled to turn a profit on their smallest motor. So instead of ploughing an infertile furlough, the Ford bean counters dictated that Mark 2 would be a reskinned Fiat 500, or nought. And now it looks like Ka Mark 3 will be a rehashed Ford from Brazil, which wouldn’t be a bad idea in itself except the styling will have precisely none of the charm of the Mark 1.

      I am also not entirely sure if Setright was correct about Ford’s intention of giving the Ka a two stroke engine. I seem to remember that a Mazda sourced Wankel was seriously under consideration, but did not stack up economically both in terms of cost or MPG.

    3. It has been said before and I cannot verify this, that ur-Ka was a profitable model line owing to the high degree of parts commonality between it and the contemporary Fiesta. Couple to this was the fact that the ancient Endura E engine had been amortised decades previously. As Chris points out, the infinitely better Ecoboost would have been a far superior power unit but perhaps the business case simply wouldn’t stack up. Having said that and at the risk of repeating myself, ur-Ka’s prospects were certainly dampened by the road tax regimes in many European countries.

      Regarding the two-stroke, Ford had spent a lot of time and money developing a variant of the Orbital unit, which was garnering rave reviews in the early ’90s – not least from Setright himself. But whatever chance of a modern four-stroke, this engine would never have made financial sense in a car at KA’s price point.

      To answer Richard’s question regarding Ka mark two, I’d imagine the idea was that having it developed and built by Fiat in their Tychy plant, it would cost them less than anything they could dream up on their own. By then the Fiesta had grown as well, which would have ladled further cost to the programme. Nevertheless – if the folklore is to be believed – Ford ended up paying the lion’s share of the development cost. It has been said that the deal Marchionne struck saw the 500 virtually developed for nothing. Inferior sequel-Ka also suffered from being forced to share the 500’s hard points – Sergio apparently got the better of that one in just about every way imaginable.

    4. There’s always one isn’t there? Someone who just goes out of their way to disagree with the consensus. Someone who won’t accept that The Italian Job is the best movie ever, that Burger King are better than McDonalds, that Peroni is the best lager, that Casio make the best watches or that Ka is the best car design of the last 350 years. And it would be Laurent.

  2. As an aside, in the same way as they don’t make KA’s like they used to, they certainly don’t make car ad’s like this any more…

    1. That Orbital engine must have been the last hurragh of the engine experiements at Ford and generally. Since then the major changes have been incremental (stop start) and in diesel. The twin air from Fiat is also an incremental improvement. I get the feeling back in the 70s engineers were furiously trying to think of new formats and wierd variations. As I see it that talk of an Orbital was just vapourware and had no chance of seeing the light of day when a paid-for engine sat waiting on the shelves, so to speak.

    2. No, they don’t. Did those feet in the water belong to Grace Jones?

      Yet even more impressive was the fact that the run-up to the KA’s introduction started as early as 1988, when the car’s/KA’s name was sneakily included in A Fish Called Wanda, in a particularly canny case of product placement:

  3. Ford engines have always lagged behind the vanguard. I seem to remember that Ford leaned heavily on Yamaha for development in the 1990s. All this makes the 1-litre three pot Ecoboost something of an anomaly, being developed totally in house by Ford UK.

    1. Very true. Disguised behind these meaningless, non type specific, names – Zetec, Endura, Duratorq etc – were engines from anywhere but Ford, either supplied complete, or designed by other manufacturers. Cosworth, Mazda, Peugeot, Volvo immediately come to mind.

      Mostly good engines, apart from the appalling LT/Lynx/Endura-DE, designed by Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz around redundant Kent tooling.

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