Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Driven #45:- 2009 Ford Ka

When the first generation of Ka was coughing and spluttering its last few sales in 2008, it had been on the market for over eleven years. The Fiesta it shared its oily bits with had been consigned to the scrapheap several years earlier and various “improvements” had been nailed on to try to iron out some of the wrinkles. It only partially worked; the sheer familiarity of the Ka was enough to make it feel like a seriously old car.

So, what did Ford replace it with? Well; this. The new Ka was built not in Spain but in Poland, in a facility shared by Fiat. In fact the same production facility also grinds out 500s and Pandas. This raises the first question; does the fact that Poland is rather more familiar with crappy weather than Spain mean that the new Ka has half a chance of not rusting into tiny little pieces? Only time can tell. Second question is; well, is it any good? And is it still a Ka? Today I finally got the chance to spend a decent amount of time behind the wheel of one.

Underneath the Ka is a thoroughly re-tuned version of the 500 foundation which has been tinkered with to be a bit more Ford-like. The engine is a four cylinder overhead cam unit of 1.2 litres and 69hp, so power is basically just as the old model finished up. There is a diesel available too, though, if you want your urban zinging around to have the soundtrack of two pensioners tap-dancing in a dustbin.

Style-wise Ford have moved away from the old edge-design philosophy of the first Ka, instead sticking with their current Kinetic design ethos; you can see what they've tried to do, the Ka essentially resembles a miniaturised Fiesta. The problem here is that the Fiesta is already a small car; and it uses all of the size it has at its disposal to help carry off that styling; which is generally regarded as the sharpest on the small car market. Unfortunately Ford couldn't just build an 85% scale Fiesta, there are bits that just can't be shrunk any further. Bits like the place that the passengers sit.

The result is that the Ka ends up looking rather tall, rather under-wheeled and a little awkward. There's no sleekness, but more worryingly (for a Ka), there's no single part of the design that has its own specific identity. I can't help but wonder how a set of big colour-toned plastic bumpers would look. It's a shame, too, that Ford thought to fit that somewhat gormless, depressed looking front grille. It does nothing to grant the little car much charisma or dynamism. And I don't think I'm even being biased. Ford could have done something radical with the new car, like they had in '96; but they didn't.

The doors are big and open wide, allowing excellent access to the interior. The seat fabric is attractive and appears hard-wearing, and first glance reveals the dashboard to be a far more mature proposition than the Ka ever offered before, so you take a pew in the fairly high-set drivers seat and survey the view. First thing you notice is how far away the windscreen is; this is a cab-forward design and the “A” pillars are distant, as if you're in an MPV. The second thing you notice is that the instrument binnacle, with its four gauges and digital readouts, is far more comprehensive than it used to be.

The third thing you notice, and you might not even notice it at all, depending on your past experience with cars, is how bloody horrible everything is to the touch. Here comes my first serious disappointment with the new Ka. I mean, the old one didn't have Rolls-Royce class interior appointments, but I swear it didn't feel as bad as this, especially not the early ones. It's an impressive looking dashboard with architectural ideas in common with the Fiesta, and some switchgear layout recognisable from the Fiat Panda. Unfortunately the tidy looks are executed in the haphazard manner that a teenager completes her physic homework before going out of an evening.

The old car had acres of bare, painted metal which at least felt honest in how it reflected the exterior. The new car has plastic covering every interior surface; nasty plastic. Ford has made a big thing about having radically coloured interior features which is all well and good, and very mobile-phone-like and personality-centric. Sadly, they've used lowest-bidder materials for it all. The stuff on the doors is especially abysmal, made from the thinnest, scratchiest plastic imaginable and given the same texture as ceiling artex. It's built to a price; about the same as a Happy Meal. Such a shame because it's otherwise one of the better looking small car interiors.

The steering wheel only offers tilt adjustment, so a malproportioned lummock like me will either have problems getting properly comfortable or just look comical. Certainly, with me installed there is zero room behind me so the car has become a three seater. It has to be said, too, that the wilfully flat, uncontoured rear bench looks somewhat unappealing to sit on.

Conventional old-school key in the slot, twist and the little mill zings into life. Waves of relief flood over you; the new Ka is still terrific to drive. The pedals are well balanced and, for me at least, well placed. I'll even say that the gear-change, via a stick that sprouts from the lower dashboard and not the floor like on the old car, is one of the best I've felt this year. It's a short throw and laser quick from one gear to the next. It's slightly crunchy, but that just proves that there's some mechanical action going on in there. I like it.

It seems a little quieter than the old car, to me, today, but if I drove them back to back I probably wouldn't notice much difference. Mind you, there was an annoying rattle from deep within the dashboard; the kind of rattle you get when lots of bits of cheap shitty plastic aren't quite put together well enough. Annoying indeed.

It handles very well indeed, there's a lot of grip and a crisp turn-in and the steering is very responsive if maybe slightly too light. There's also a bit more body roll than I expected to find, though this might have been a side effect of sitting so high up in the car. I've not driven a current, tiny car that felt any more willing or capable. Yet, still I swear it comes in short of the extraordinary playfulness of the original car.

However miserable your frame of mind you the old car still felt like it wanted to have fun whether you were going to get involved or not. The new one is up for a laugh too, but only if you are. It won't do anything unless you give it the green light. The old car felt like an oversize go-kart; the new one feels like an extremely well-sorted shopping car. You can more or less see this from the outside; the Mk1 had its wheels placed almost absurdly close to the corners, and the track was visibly extremely wide for the size of car. In comparison the new one looks far more normal.

It's a good little car, overall. I can't reasonably say anything other than that. It hurts me, though, considering my relationship with the old Ka, how many things I dislike about the new one.

The car I had today was the Ka Studio. This is the entry-level car, bereft of such niceties as air-conditioning, electric windows and central locking. This is absolutely fine with me, I want my basic car to come fitted with only those rudimentary systems that are absolutely necessary for it to function as a car. I feel that this was part of the original Ka concept; the idea of a small, simple yet brutally effective car. The magical thing was that, despite the almost 2CV levels of featurelessness the Ka never felt especially basic; it had everything anybody could legitimately need as a driver.

Unfortunately it feels like Ford have gone out of their way to remind you how basic the Studio is compared to other models in the Ka range that you could have bought for a few thousand pounds more. Blanking plates stare up at you; the one-piece moulded plastic steering wheel feels clammy in your palms and the (very good, actually) stereo is an uncomfortable ergonomic stretch away with no fingertip remote control. You get the feeling that the original buyer of this car probably bought it on the scrappage scheme; they probably traded in a lovely Scorpio for this, the £2000 discount helping to bridge the gap still further towards the cost of the cheapest car Ford could sell them.

I think Ford have missed a trick here. If they had been brave enough to pitch the Ka as affordable, basic, fun, classless transportation then they would have had a unique place in the market. Alas, it's turned out to be another overcomplicated, fashion-led micro-limousine. I'm secretly glad because it makes my arguments in favour of the original car all the more valid.

And I don't like the new logo, either. It looks like the “A” is being kicked in the balls.