The Ford Ka was the iconic turn-of-the-century bubble car – a Mini for the new millennium that was intended to be better looking and better engineered than the competition.
Introduced to the Australian market in 1999, its “cute” styling had been widely commented on since it began production in Europe in 1996. Ford had hoped that it would be a roaring success, but the small hatch market is crowded and it’s what’s beneath the bonnet and the price tag attached that are more important than looks alone. The Ka is a super-looking vehicle, but trying to convince the market that its assumed superiority should also translate to a bigger price tag proved to be quite a challenge for the manufacturer to meet.
The Ka was viewed by many as a successor to the popular Festiva and although that was not actually the case, it did of course invite many comparisons. Of course this meant that the Ka beat the Festiva hands down on every count, except of course on cost.
The Ka offers a single body style – a three-door hatch – and comes with plenty of added kit to set it apart from the competition, though little in the way of optional extras. Fuel economy is good, as you would expect for a small hatch of this type.
The Ka offers a single engine type, with manual transmission and a 1.3-litre engine giving 43kW of power. The engine was a throwback to the Ford Escort engine of the 1970s, albeit with a degree of modernisation, including plastic inlet manifold and electronic multi-point fuel injection. In comparison to more modern engine designs of the same era, however, such as the Toyota Echo’s 1.3-litre DOHC multi-valve, it was somewhat behind the game.
The ride is fine for a small hatch. It is zippy around town and runs well on the open road. Take to the hills, though, and you may find that you need to change down a gear or two in order to handle more than the average gradient. It has good handling that originates from the rear wheels, which are pushed right out to the far corners, providing a responsive feel that belies the relatively conservative power beneath the bonnet.
Solid front disc brakes and drum brakes to the rear do an average job in the absence of ABS, so its braking abilities are just fine for a car of this size while not being especially notable. Safety-wise the Ka boasts a number of structural features that are said to enhance driver and passenger safety, although an inspection by the NRMA Industry Research department identified several question marks around the frontal design, indicating possible higher-than-average crash repair costs.
The interior provides plenty of legroom to the front, less so to the rear – but plenty enough for a couple of children or teens. The driving position offers little in the way of adjustment, with no steering wheel tilt or driver’s seat adjustment for height, so a test drive is vital to be sure it suits.
The Ford Ka is well equipped for a car of its type. It was offered with a choice of colour and few other options, including colour-coded bumpers. Air conditioning, dual airbags, a sunroof, power steering, a single-disc CD player, and an immobiliser for security were all fitted as standard, but it misses other pieces of kit that would help to make the drive more comfortable. You will not find models with extras such as antilock brakes, central locking, or power-operated windows and mirrors, because they were not offered.
The interior echoes the bold, curvy looks of the outer body styling. Luggage capacity in the boot is limited, but it can be increased by folding down the rear seat back.
Look for the models with body-coloured bumpers if you are considering buying an older-model Ka. They score higher on the aesthetics and will hold their value better than the models sporting charcoal grey bumpers.
The Ka competed in a crowded market at launch and still has a lot of competition. Ford’s own Festiva was not strictly its predecessor, but does draw comparison and beats the Ka strongly on price. If you are considering buying the Ka, others on your list may be the Toyota Starlet, Nissan Micra, Holden Barina, Hyundai Excel, and VW Polo, the last probably being the leading small hatch on the market, with plenty of style to back up its credentials.