It’s not unusual for an old car to continue be produced in developing nations long after its original run is over. The 1956 Morris Oxford famously became the Indian Hindustan Ambassador, for example, and was sold right up until 2014. The 1987-91 Mazda 121 was produced in both China and Iran well into the 2000s, but what was more surprising is this 1980s subcompact was sold in Western Europe right up until 2000.
It’s amazing how Kia was able to turn its image around. Today, a full lineup of handsome Kias are available with modern powertrains and safety features. But during the 1990s when the brand was establishing itself, its entry-level model in Europe was the 1987 Mazda 121, badged as the Kia Pride. The hatch was identical to the 121 but for some minor trim and badging, but select markets received this curious wagon version photographed for the Cohort by So Cal Metro in Prague.
Kia and Hyundai weren’t part of the same corporate family until 1998, and Hyundai’s rise to respectability was markedly different. Although they continued to use Mitsubishi components well into the 1990s, each Hyundai model received entirely new sheetmetal to go with its bargain basement pricing. The Pony/Excel, for example, had a body designed by Giorgetto Giugario.
By the late 1990s, Hyundai was making even more of an effort with styling, as exemplified by the striking ’95 Elantra, ‘98 Sonata and ‘96 Coupe/Tiburon. But Kia, perhaps due to a smaller budget, plodded along with the dated Pride at the bottom end of its range, although it added the more contemporarily-styled Mentor/Sephia and Sportage SUV in the mid-1990s.
The core goodness of the 121 remained, including its reliability and headroom, but by late-1990s standards the Pride was woefully outdated. Subcompacts had come to ride a lot more compliantly, while the Pride was bouncy. Despite some minor safety updates, its rivals were safer too. The Pride sold purely on price and it was relatively successful in the UK, a supposedly sophisticated market that had nevertheless made modest hits before out of outdated cars like the Lada Riva and Daewoo Nexia.
You’d expect then that the Pride would have been the cheapest car on sale, right? After all, it was a dated design from a budget brand. By the last few years of its run, the Pride range opened at around £6000 in the UK. That wasn’t a huge saving from a Fiat Seicento or the handsome new SEAT Arosa, both of which retailed for a few hundred quid more. While the Pride undercut the 1988-vintage, Hungarian-built Suzuki Swift, it was itself undercut by the Perodua Nippa. The Nippa was in fact the cheapest car on sale in the UK at under £5000, and was a 1990 Daihatsu Mira built in Malaysia and introduced to the UK in 1997. Back in the day, a 121 was arguably better to drive than a Mira but such dynamic subtleties would have been happily ignored by a new-car buyer looking for the lowest price.
Besides the wagon and three- and five-door hatches, Kia also developed the aesthetically-challenged Pride sedan. The Kia Avella – better known to North Americans as the Ford Aspire, or Australians as the second-generation Festiva – had been developed to replace the Pride but was not launched in Europe and could not replace the Pride in South Korea due to the older car’s enduring popularity. But both Pride and Avella were axed for 2000, replaced by the Kia-developed Rio. The Pride was the last Kia to be a rebadged Mazda.