Piers Ward22 October 2008

Ka loses the art of kart

The new Ford isn't nearly as fun to drive, and not a future icon

New Ford Ka

It's ironic that after 12 years of sales, no one really knows how to pronounce Ford Ka. Even Ford people mix it between K-A saying the letters separately, Ka with a short 'a' or Ka as in car. And all this despite the fact that it's racked up 1.4 million global sales, a staggering 500,000 of which have been in the UK. It's almost like not knowing how to pronounce Coke.

But fear not, we can keep practising getting it right (or wrong) in the future, because the Ka has been replaced with a brand new version. It's been developed in conjunction with Fiat, so the Panda and new 500 share a fair amount of engineering with the Ka. All the Ka's engines are supplied by Fiat - no bad thing, since Fiat does small petrols and diesels really well. And there aren't any worries about Fiat supplying any sort of build-quality issues these days - the Italians have really turned this sort of thing around recently.

So, buy a new Ford Ka and you'll get the choice of a 1.2-litre petrol or 1.3-litre diesel. There's no word on the Fiat 1.4 petrol, but I'd imagine it will be offered at some point. As will an ECOnetic version of the Ka. Given that the larger and heavier Fiesta ECOnetic manages 76.3mpg and 98g/km, the green Ka should be about as eco-friendly as they come.

Four trim levels are being offered - Studio, Style, Style Plus and Zetec - but there's more to the Ka than this. Just as you can personalise a 500, so too with a Ka. You get a choice of Tattoo, Grand Prix and Digital Art, all of which cosmetically alter the interior and exterior. For example, on Digital Art, you get lots of green stripes all over the outside - think of it as a kind of eco-Zebra.

But this doesn't bode well. The genius of the last Ka, and the reason it lasted a staggering 12 years and was still the most popular car in its class even at the end, was because it was engineered and designed fantastically well. Simple stuff, but done brilliantly. It always fills me with dread when manufacturers bung a load of cutesy design packages at something - what are they trying to compensate for?

And in the case of the Ka, Ford has got something to hide - all that Fiat DNA. There are solid economic arguments for sharing technology with other manufacturers, but cars should still feel different. Otherwise you end up with the Golf/A3 situation, where the two almost morph into one.

Ford claims it has engineered the Ka differently to the Panda and 500, so that it still feels like a Ford. But the simple fact is they haven't done enough on those initial touch points. The key is from a Fiat, the indicator stalks are Fiat, even the smell is Fiat. Geeky, but true.

Not that we should complain too much. The current 500 has won awards all over the place, including here. The 1.2-litre engine is a gem - it's smooth, and despite only getting 68bhp and 75lb ft, the Ka doesn't feel underpowered. It's good because you can drive leisurely in high gears, but then when you want power, you don't have to drop it down a cog. Even accelerating from 70mph in fifth is fine. The only downside is that because you've only got five gears, fifth is reasonably short to keep the car responsive. As such, at 85mph the engine's spinning away at 4,000rpm - it's hardly raucous, but you can hear it buzzing.

Another bonus of platform- sharing is that interior room is pretty impressive. I hopped from a Fiesta five-door into the Ka, and the latter had far more leg- and headroom - no wonder really, as the new Ka is 10cm taller than the old one. What's more, the quality of the plastics and interior design are light years ahead of the last Ka. The classic teardrop dash has disappeared to be replaced by a Fiat 500 one, so all the major controls are right by your hand, including the dash-mounted gearstick. The design is good, even if it lacks the last little bit of 500 chic.

But it's not all brilliant news where the tie-up with Fiat is concerned. As I mentioned before, the touch points all scream Fiat, but so also do the ride and handling. Ford claims to have done all the set-up work on the Ka itself, so the steering and suspension should be very Ford-like. The only thing I can think is that there were a lot of Fiat engineers masquerading as Ford employees whilst this happened, because the 500 and Ka feel almost identical. OK, so the steering in the Ka is slightly heavier and doesn't quite have that electrical assistance that you get in a 500 or Panda. And the ride is not quite as bouncy as it is in the Fiat's, but we're talking fractions.

But that crucial go-kart feeling that you got from the last Ka, its major raison d'etre, USP - call it what you will - is now gone. The new Ka is nowhere near as chuckable as the last one - all that fluidity from the steering and chassis has disappeared. I jumped into a Fiesta after the Ka and immediately felt so much happier - even the gearbox felt tauter.

Ford can do modern and fun- handling cars, but not with this Ka. It's odd, because I love the Fiat 500 and Panda so much. They're brilliant cars. And, to a certain extent, the new Ka is as well. It looks OK, if a little bit tall from the rear, drives OK, fits four people OK. But you buy a 500 because you want those cheeky looks. You buy a Panda because you want practicality and value. And you should buy a Ford because of how it drives. Ford has transformed the brand into standing for that - even the Kuga SUV handles well. But this new Ka doesn't do that. It's not got the Ford branding, the Ford DNA. And it'll never last 12 years, no matter how you pronounce it.

 

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