When Ford first launched the Ka, as a cheaper entry level model than the Fiesta, back in 1996, sales initially were slow. It did not take long, however, before this cheekily styled car won a significant following, and a consequent increase in sales, which kept the model selling strongly, even though it was only available with a limited number of petrol engines and in few different trim levels, for more than 12 years. The new model, first revealed in autumn 2008 shares a platform with the Fiat 500, and the universal view was that although it had benefitted from Ford’s tweaks to steering and handling, the overall package lacked that certain “je ne sais quoi” that made the outgoing car so appealing. Part of the problem, for sure must be the looks. Somehow that timeless and appealing styling has been replaced by something, which, far from ugly, just does not have quite the same cohesion of design, and which looks a bit too narrow, relative to its height. Believe it or not, I never managed to drive the first generation model, but I was offered a rental experience in the latest car, in Switzerland, for a winter’s outing in the snow and sun, and can now present my conclusions.
Endowed with the 1.25 litre petrol engine, developing 69 bhp, you would not expect the Ka to be fast. And indeed it is not. However, it is not really embarrassed, either, as the car seems to be geared to make the most of what performance is available. The engine itself is smooth and refined, and it spins willingly, without alarming your ears or your mechanical sympathies. Get caught at a relatively low speed, though, and you will pick up speed only fairly slowly. Drop down a gear or two, though, and it becomes much easier to get some new momentum. This is a car that is perfectly happy on the autobahn, and your ears will be too. It is a refined cruiser, with just a touch of wind noise from the driver’s screen pillar, but light years ahead of the standards achieved by budget cars even relatively recently. The gearlever is mounted up high on the centre of the dash, and falls perfectly to hand. The change quality is excellent, with the lever slotting from gear to gear like the proverbial knife through butter. Reverse is down where sixth gear would be, which kept catching me unawares, so used have I become to finding it alongside first. Hertz Switzerland offer this car in their “Green Collection”, so I was a little surprised to find that I got a petrol car rather than a diesel one.
That said, this Ka proved somewhat parsimonious, with an overall fuel consumption of 53.5 mpg, despite the fact that it had a long slog on the autobahn up and through the Gotthard tunnel. Impressive. Also good were the other dynamics. Whilst the steering did not quite have that special feel that you get in a Focus, it was pretty good, with plenty of feedback from the wheel, and clear indications of what the 14″ wheels were going to do. This was not the day, weather wise, to test out the handling, with plenty of snow and slush, but the Ka cornered as if on proverbial rails. Apart from a couple of rather rough sections of road, when ripples came right through the whole car, it rode well, too. The brakes were light, and effective, though I had no cause to test their ultimate prowess, as driving gently was the order of the day. There is a central pull-lever handbrake, mounted low down between the seats. Only the visibility troubled me, as over the shoulder a combination of the small rear window and shape of the side windows leaves a pretty large blind spot. On a day when the car got filthy (don’t believe the pictures – I had to wash it in the middle of the trip, it was too hard to see out of!), I ended up being able to see nothing behind me. That said the Ka is so manoeuvrable, that tasks like turning it round and parallel parking were almost a treat.
In an attempt to inject some vitality into the interior, the seats sport a swirly patterned inset to the front part of the cushion, and the centre console part of the dash moulding had some ivory coloured plastic inserts which were not entirely to my taste. The top of the gear lever was finished in the same plastic, and it also staged an appearance on the door pulls. Otherwise, the dash moulding is clearly of a rather cheaper quality than you find in other Fords. The fit is fine, and it integrates well with the door trims, so it is only when you get close to it and touch it that the cost-saving quality becomes apparent. The door casings are in two types of plastic. Choose hard and nasty and augment it with particularly horrid, and you get the general idea. I guess that cost has to come out somewhere, but it is a bit of a shame, as in other respects, the Ka comes across as far more civilised than you might reasonably have expected for a car of this class. The seats surprised me. My initial perception was that they were quite firm and almost convex, so you sat on them rather than in them, and yet, I covered just over 500 km in one day, and emerged with no aches and no strong feeling of tiredness or of need to get out of the car. I could easily have driven it far further. That is real testament to the refinement of this car.
The dash of the Ka shares some of its basic design with the Fiat 500, but you’d not really know. The main instruments are in a cluster, with dials for speedometer, rev counter, fuel level and water temperature. The main dials are a bit smaller than usual, but they are clearly marked and easy to read. There is a trip computer function, selected by pushing a button on the end of the right hand column stalk. The sizeable centre console moulding has the stereo mounted high up. Although the quality from this unit was good, using it was difficult as the buttons were very small and fiddly and required precision in pressing them for them to function. Under this you find the air con controls and the gearlever. It is a neat design, and does not reek of “cheap car” as used to be the case for entry level cars until very recently. The air vents – two in the centre of the dash and one at each end, are a rather stylised three dimensional thing which swivel round to control the direction of air, but which look particularly odd when they are closed off. There are no obvious blank areas of the dash to remind you that you have not paid extra for the top of the range model, and the overall effect is far from poverty spec, though.
Even in the entry level Ambiente trim of the Swiss spec rental car, the Ka is reasonably well equipped. Pleasingly, there is air conditioning, which did an excellent job at warming the interior, and me, even after the Ka had been parked up outside on the coldest night of the year in Zurich. The rear wiper was activated when selecting reverse gear, although it struggled to shift the ice until it had been heated by the rear window heater. Sadly, heated washer jets are not included (not really reasonable to think that they would be), and as the car got more encrusted in road grot, seeing through the screen became so challenging, I thought I would have to stop. A prolonged tunnel along the VierwaldstaetterSee was warm enough for the jets to unfreeze and perfect vision to be restored, luckily. After that the roads were dry, so I was untroubled again. Beyond that, luxury fittings are few and far between. You do get remote central locking, electric windows and mirrors, but you also get a plastic moulded steering wheel, although this was far less unpleasant than many of its genre. I was pleased to discover that after tipping the driver’s seat forward to allow access to the rear seats, there was a memory function which returned the seat to the position it had been in before. The only real visual evidence of the lowly spec are the odd grille covers in the front bumper where more costly models feature front fog lights. Reviewing the websites for Ford CH and Ford UK, it would seem that there are a lot of detailed differences in the spec levels, so the Ambiente I experienced is not a direct equivalent for the entry level Style model in the UK, offering several features as standard or available as an option that you cannot get in the UK.
The Ka is a small car, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was quite possible to sit in the rear seats, even when the front chairs were set for someone with longer legs than me. However, I absolutely could not sit comfortably in the back, as there was nothing like enough headroom. I was surprised by this, as the Ka is quite tall, and there is more than enough headroom in the front, but the rear seats are mounted higher, and my head was uncomfortably jammed in the headlining, with – thanks to the shape of the rear end of the Ka – nowhere to go. The front passengers have no such issue, with a real feeling of space from a roof that is well above your head. The boot is not particularly large, but it is deep, thanks in part due to the fact that there is no spare wheel under the floor. You can extend the luggage area by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrest onto the cushions, leaving quite a decent load space for such a small car. In the cabin, small door pockets are augmented by a regular shaped glovebox in front of the passenger’s knees, but there is no other oddment stowage for front seat passengers. There is a cupholder in the centre console moulding, but it is low down and well back, and more use to rear seat passengers (leaning forward) than those in the front.
So, a pretty good write up, then. Anyone who were to purchase a Ka would be unlikely to be disappointed. Were I in the market for this sort of car, would I buy one? Err, probably not. Although this car does not attract quite the same ambitious pricing that afflicts most of the other Blue Oval products in the UK, there are a couple of slightly cheaper alternatives that I just think I would prefer. I have to confess that I’ve not driven either of them, so I may be in for a disappointment were I to try them, but I doubt it. One of them is the Fiat Panda. And I don’t just mean the 100hp version, although I am sure that would be fun. The “ordinary” models have vast appeal for me, too, and they are just so practical, with their boxy styling. I know that the Ford might have the Panda beaten on driving dynamics, but I suspect I could live with the difference. But the car I really rather like – a lot – is the Ka’s blood brother, the Fiat 500. Yes, I know that it is supposed to be not quite so good to drive, but I just love the retro look of the thing. If the budget could stretch to the 500C version, probably even better. Time to seek out a test car to validate my preferences!