Just Listen to the Rhythm of the Gentle Bossa Nova

Continuing this month’s Ka-fest at DTW, we turn our thoughts to a South American curiosity. While Ford of Europe outsourced the difficult second Ka iteration to Fiat Automobiles S.p.A, Ford do Brasil did things rather differently.

The Brazilian Novo Ka went on sale in January 2008, nine months before the European replacement for the 12 year old original. The European car is not really a Ford at all, while the Brazilian car placed an ingeniously re-worked superstructure on its predecessor’s B platform, which originated with the 1989 Fiesta.

From disappointing beginnings, the B platform had been ameliorated under Richard Parry-Jones’ tutelage into an effective and fecund component set, also underpinning Fiestas, Pumas, and the Courier and Bantam LCVs.

The cleverness of the Brazilian design is undeniable. While retaining the doors and inner structure and leaving the generous 2450mm wheelbase unaltered, 214mm has been added to the body length, mainly at the rear, turning a two-plus-two into a marginal five seater, with a rear bench wide enough to warrant a central seat belt. The styling is pretty effective too, notwithstanding some wilful deviation from the ‘New Edge’ rulebook.

The design has a ‘shoestring’ character to it, but works well. Ford could have invested more but chose not to, which is surprising given that in the final years of the last decade Brazil was vying with Germany as the fourth largest light vehicle market in the world.

The engine line-up is of some interest. The previous Brazilian Ka adopted the new RoCam engine (also called Zetec RoCam) in 2000, replacing a pushrod unit which had evolved from the first Fiesta’s Valencia engine. The RoCam is sometimes erroneously described as a simplified Sigma (or Zetec SE).  It isn’t.

It is more closely related to the Kent and Valencia series, and uses some of the tooling for these engines. The block is cast iron, with an alloy cylinder head, and a chain driven camshaft operating two valves per cylinder through finger rockers with roller cam followers – hence the RoCam name.

The European Ka got its RoCam in 2003, an oversquare (82.1mm x 75.5mm) 1.6 litre used in the StreetKa and SportKa At the same time, with scarcely a mention, the 1.3’s pushrod engine was replaced by a 1299cc RoCam with the same 74mm x 75.5mm dimensions as its Endura –E predecessor.

Both capacities were sourced from Ford’s Port Elizabeth, South Africa factory, and named Duratec 8V for European consumption.

(I know that it is illegal to hate anything these days, but I hope an exception can be made for Ford’s engine naming ‘system’, which bewilders in order to deceive.)

The Brazil-built RoCam range did not include a 1.3, but started off with a tax-friendly 999cc capacity with unfashionably oversquare (68.6mm x 67.4mm) proportions, with the 1.6 as the only other option. Most Novo Kas were sold with the smaller engine and, following a facelift in 2012, the 1.6 was reserved for the Ka Sport 1.6, which featured Mustang-inspired retro livery in five colour combinations: white with black stripes, red with white stripes, silver with black stripes, black with white stripes and orange with black stripes.

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This flamboyant addition to the range lasted only one model year.  The humbler versions continued until the arrival of the third generation ‘One Ford’ Ka+ in August 2014.  A bewildering range of personalisation packages was offered;  Fly , Somma , Prestige , Neo , Class , Performer , Pulse. 

This marketing vigour reflected the competitiveness of the Brazilian market, as the established players, GM, VW, Fiat and Ford faced Japanese and Korean newcomers. The darker side was cost-cutting and de-contenting to remain competitive and profitable. Novo Ka quality suffered and two major recalls blighted its reputation.

The first two generations of the Brazil-built Ka were not considered a sales success in the Latin American territories where they were offered. Production from to 1997 to 2014 was around 900,000, but this has to be seen in the context of the scale of the market. In 2013, at its absolute peak, the Brazilian motor industry produced 3,712,380 passenger cars and LCVs.

Nevertheless, the Novo Ka more than paid its way in the Mercosur territories, most of which had an insatiable appetite for small, inexpensive cars, but could it have worked in Europe in place of the Fiat-built pretender? It’s an appealing hypothesis, lightly adapting the Ford do Brasil design to meet European rules and expectations, and making it in Almussafes or perhaps Craiova.

The first counter-argument is that the more capacious Novo Ka would have been too close in size to the Fiesta. The Ka was always useful showroom-bait to attract customers who could be easily persuaded into a roomier, more practical, and more profitable Fiesta.

Ford Motor Company Brasil Ltda Lançamento do Novo Ford KA 2008 Dezembro/2007

The second challenge is that Latin America’s emissions and safety rules were widely at variance with those of Europe, and compliance with upcoming standards would have required a major rework of the Brazilian design. The simple and worthy eight valve RoCam engine would be difficult to adapt to comply effectively with ever more stringent emissions standards, although the extraordinary, and similarly constituted Fiat FIRE manages remarkably well.

Although the Brazilian Ka would have struggled to thrive in Europe, we should regret that the joint venture with Fiat produced a Ka which was neither a satisfactory replacement for its well-liked predecessor, nor a commercial success.

European production of the first generation Ka from 1997 to 2008 was just short of 1.4 million. According to carsalesbase.com, the Tychy Ka production numbers are 507,887 from late 2008 to 2017, or around 60,000 per year, which translated to a promising 108,342 in the first full year, declining to 48,368 in 2015 and 21,333 in 2016, by which time Ford, Fiat, and the broad mass of the buying public had well and truly lost interest.

Source: Ford Motor Argentina

For the third Ka generation, the axis has shifted.  The design of the 2014 car was led by none other than Ford do Brasil, who created a textbook “developing world” product range. It looks to be a thoroughly competent rival for the Dacia/Renault Sandero/Logan and Hyundai i20, and its home market seems to agree, as it is currently Brazil’s second best seller, albeit well behind the Chevrolet Onix.

What the new car is not is a real Ford Ka, in the spirit of the toy-like, dynamically entertaining, little car which beguiled us in the mid-nineties, when Ford reigned as Europe’s most interesting, and most driver-focused mass-market car manufacturer.

The world has changed, and I suspect that reviving the spirit of the original Ka is nowhere on Ford’s global to-do list.

19 thoughts on “Just Listen to the Rhythm of the Gentle Bossa Nova”

  1. Isn’t it fascinating that single individuals still have such a profound effect on an industry as vast and complex as the automotive sector? Ford (of Europe) lost most of their traits and qualities once Richard Parry-Jones wasn’t there anymore to lend the cars his special touch, as Robertas pointed out. Mercedes-Benz lost their single-mindedness once Werner Breitschwerdt had been ousted. Ferrari is preparing an SUV in the wake of Luca di Montezemolo’s firing… and so on and so forth.

    With ’emotional’ products, such as the automobile, it’s still up to people to make the right choices.

  2. The car makers are pulled in two directions when it comes to small cars.

    On the one hand, the trend for ‘premium’ small cars, with big car features and options on a smaller footprint. Think MINI and Smart – only one of which has been profitable.

    On the other, the demand for mobility: the biggest possible car for the smallest possible outlay. Developing world markets have pushed this type of car, particularly the Indian sub continent and South America. But European buyers also show a real fondness for this kind of machine.

    Interestingly, Renault also has a big presence in Brazil, but its big sellers are essentially Dacias branded as Renaults.

    Suzuki, the small car specialists, offer a huge range of different flavours of small car, seemingly happy to let each individual market decide which one it likes best.

    The Ka has clearly bounced between these two stools. The dealer’s challenge is to upsell a Fiesta not because it offers more space, but because it offers more sophistication.

  3. I love reading about Brazilian market vehicles, especially Ford ones.

    My favorite is the Ford Del Rey; it’s a FWD Ford Sedan, that’s underneath a Renault 12, powered by a Renault engine grandfathered in and revised by Ford, or a VW engine. But the exterior looks weirdly like a Ford USA product (Are those Fox Body Mustang headlights?).

    1. Yes – it’s good to see what’s available in other markets. I wasn’t aware of the Del Rey – it reminds me of a mk2 Ford Granada.

      Brazil is an interesting market and I have a soft spot for the small VWs which are sold there. I particularly like the Fox – I think it looks smart, in a ‘chunky’ sort of a way and seems to be nicely finished and well equipped.

    1. I think we can add to that list the Peugeot 205/309 sharing all doors and the Alfa Romeo Alfetta/Alfa 90 and Alfa Romeo Giulietta/Alfa 75 as well.

    2. @Simonstahel I think he meant the Scorpio vs the Granada but isn’t it a name-change only in this case rather than 2 different models sharing the same doors ? I’am not too familair with Ford’s old U.K range.
      The same goes for the Alfa Romeos I mentionned, both the 75 and the 90 were just deep refreshes of the Alfetta and Giulietta so I’am not sure if they belong on the list too.

  4. The Marina didn’t share its doors with anything apart from the Ital.

    The ADO17 1800, on the other hand, shared doors with the Maxi and Austin 3 Litre, and the Panther De Ville.

    There were some BMC examples before, and BLMC examples after: The BL Triumph SD2 and TM1 prototypes look as if they use SD1 doors, and the R6 Metro / Rover 100 uses the LC8 Metro doors unaltered, probably the only major original pressings carried over.

  5. There was also the matter of the R17 Rover 800, the late 1991 re-work of the 1986 Honda Rover joint-venture. The original XX doors were carried over as a cost-saving measure, despite bolder design proposals showing new side pressings and apertures. As it turned out, the tooling for the doors was worn out, and new dies were required anyway.

    Missing opportunities was one thing at which BMC/BLMC/ARG/Rover truly excelled.

  6. Returning to matters Ka, let’s not forget that the European version of the original and best started out as a not quite upmarket Fiesta alternative, and by the end of its 12 year span was just about the cheapest new car you could buy.

    In April 1997 a base Ka cost £8015, the Ka2 £8860. The cheapest Fiesta was a 1.3 Encore at 8440. For Sigma power, entry level was £9495 for a 1.25LX. In these pre-MINI days, Ford were not quite bold enough to give the Ka an Adam or 500 type placing, by charging more for a less functional, but more stylish car on the same set of mechanical parts.

    In 1997 the tight-fisted could have a new Fiat Cinquecento S for £6262, a Kia Pride 1.3 Start for £5489. A Lada Riva was £3515, a Škoda Felicia 1.3LX £6299.

    By the middle of the first decade of this century, a new Ka could be had in the UK for a few pounds less than £5000. Folk history claims that at the end of a sales month a biddable dealer would put one on the road for less than £4000. It’s also said that as long as the lines were kept running, the unit cost of production was in the order of £1600. In any case, the Ka’s only competition was Malaysian Peroduas and Indian-built Suzuki Altos.

    The final Ka base specification was damn good for something so cheap – that RP-J chassis with sharp hydraulic power steering, and the gutsy 1.3 RoCam which allowed 100mph cruising before it was against the law. I put 2000 miles on one in a week in the summer of 2005, and only deplored the absence of a tachometer and RDS on the radio. Simple pleasures, the like of which we may not see again.

  7. I didn’t know these two Ka shared the same doors. I’am as surprised as when I realised the previous generations Dacia Sandero and Duster also shared the same front doors.

  8. Come to think of it even the current versions of the Sandero and Duster also share the same front doors.

  9. NRJ: The 1986 Scorpio was sold as a Granada in the UK and Ireland. In 1995 it was comprehensively redesigned and called Scorpio across the EU. That pretty much was a new car at either end but with the Granada doors.

    1. Thank you Richard. Where is that list you talk about then ? They’d better be an actual, up-to-date list Richie chéri because if this is a scam….i will sh*t on Opel’s name all over the internet.

    2. I was joking, you listed some “carried over syndrome” names and tought you may have a full list somewhere.

    3. Oh, I forgot that the Scorpio was first called Granada in the UK. In my eyes, the fish-eyed, um… , ‘thing’ from 1995 was only ever a thorough facelift. So, no carry-over for me. How a name change can influence perceptions…

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