I’ve experienced The CC Effect before – within days of a rarely-seen Curbside Classic being posted here, I’ve stumbled upon the same make and model on the street. I’ve just never experienced it after one of my own posts went live. I shared a Ford Aspire with you, the first one I’d seen in a blue moon, on a Tuesday in late September. That Friday, I found this one in a parking lot 20 miles away. It must mean that the universe wants me to tell the Aspire’s story.
The short of it: Designed by Mazda, built by Kia, bought by people with little money who just had to have a new car, soon dumped on the used-car market, mercilessly flogged as low-buck transportation. Most got poor maintenance, so few still roll today. So it goes with most bare-bones new cars.
The long of it is a little more interesting.
Ford wanted a car to sit at the bottom of its size and price hierarchy and asked Mazda to design it. They did, and even built it in Japan starting in 1986 — except that they wore Ford badges, were sold at Ford dealers, and were called Festivas. Later, Mazda sold the car in some export markets as the 121. Then Kia started building this car in Korea under license, calling it the Kia Pride. They exported it into at least Europe as the Pride, and through Ford into North America starting in 1987 as the Festiva we all know.
The Festiva was the first iteration of Mazda’s D platform. The modern Mazda 2 is at least a spiritual descendant of the little Festiva, as it rolls on a much later iteration of the D platform.
By 1994 the Festiva had gotten long in the tooth. Ford turned directly to Kia for an update. They dropped a new, slightly longer and wider, more rounded body onto a mildly updated Festiva platform. The ovoid Taurus was two years out yet, but this car, renamed Aspire, pointed more toward the coming Taurus than anything else in Ford’s lineup.
Nowhere was that more true than behind the steering wheel, where a broad, swoopy dash greeted the driver. It was a clear nod toward things to come at Ford. The only element of pre-ovoid style here was the rectilinear center console.
I swiped the first interior photo, but this one came from my camera. You know a car is tiny inside when you press your wide-angle camera to a car’s side glass and all it can see is a front seat. I know firsthand: that cabin was cramped. I rented an Aspire for a week in the late ‘90s while my car was in the shop. Sitting inside, my head was right next to the window glass. When I closed the door, it felt thin and light and flexy. Everything about this car said “crushes on impact.”
The Aspire shared the Festiva’s 63-hp, 1.3-liter inline 4-cylinder engine. It can’t have given the Festiva much oomph, but it was a serious dog in the Aspire, which was a couple hundred pounds heavier. The Aspire I rented had an automatic transmission. Even with its four speeds, getting the Aspire up to even 30 mph took patience, and emergency maneuvers required prayer. I imagine the standard 5-speed manual transmission would have made it a little better. But still, between the tin-can feeling and underpowered engine, I felt vulnerable in this car like in no car before or since.
Such was the state of 1990s entry-level transportation. Our expectations of basic cars sure have evolved in 50 years. In 1964, you’d get a strippo model like this Bel Air – rubber floor mats, no armrests, minimal chrome trim, maybe no radio, and a wheezy six mated to three on the tree. Today, a basic car, such as Ford’s Fiesta, is pretty nicely equipped with power everything, a decent AM/FM/CD sound system with an iPod link, and a reasonably peppy four shifted by a six-speed automatic. You don’t feel quite as downmarket in a Fiesta as you would have in that Bel Air.
In the middle years came cars like the Aspire: sourced from the nether regions of global manufacturing to be made cheaply, a different car entirely from the manufacturers’ bread and butter offerings. Ford’s entry-level strategy has since reverted to offering lower-spec versions of their volume cars while Chevy has doubled down on quality and content in the cars it sources from Korea. But the results are similar: today’s entry-level cars are better equipped, more comfortable, more powerful, and offer a greater feeling of safety behind the wheel.
Here’s the Aspire I shared in September. I swear half of them were painted this color. On paper, at least, this wasn’t a bad little car for the time. We expected piddling performance in everyday small cars then. And even though shoulder room was terrible, its tallish roof gave enough headroom for taller drivers. I’m 6 feet tall and I didn’t even come close to grazing my head on the roof of my rented Aspire.
You could get these relatively tricked out at first if you ordered the SE trim, which added alloy wheels, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, and different interior bits. But that ended in 1995 and thereafter all you could get was the fleet-special base car. But even that car came with driver and front passenger airbags. You could even order antilock brakes.
Here’s the crazy thing: this car is said to have been reasonably reliable. Disbelieve all you want, but it’s easy to find stories around the Internet of people who followed the maintenance schedule religiously and drove relatively gently and saw their Aspire sail well north of the 100,000-mile mark with repairs limited to wear items.
But most Aspires were not so fortunate. This photo is quintessential: teal paint with pink sticker graphics, plus a dent. It seems like all of these were dented somewhere by the early 2000s. And then, poof, they were all gone.