Curbside Outtake: 2004 Ford Ka – Ford’s Capable Gremlin?

(first posted 9/8/2017)       Put yourself in Ford of Europe’s shoes in 1993-4. You had been so beaten up for the disappointing Mk4 Ford Escort that even a major facelift in 1992 and the first Ford Mondeo could not, on its own, rebuild the reputation. Yes, it was a good car to drive, but the that appeal was hidden behind a bushel of some uninspiring and predictable styling. The smaller Fiesta was starting to look like yesterday’s answer against the newer VW Polo and Renault Clio. Ford had a plan, albeit one that brought a complication.

The Escort was be to swept aside, in 1998, by the first Ford Focus. This was the car that Ford’s engineers had determined would be the best in class, not just the best Ford in the class, and which was styled in Ford’s then favoured New Edge philosophy. That style was going to be such a major break from Ford’s previous that a warm up act was needed , and the space in the market for a pure city car offered it. Ford took the 1995 Fiesta Mk IV (above) and trimmed 8 inches from the overall length, although the 96 inch wheelbase was left untouched, and built on that platform.

The new car was styled by Brit Chris Svensson, who had styled something very similar at the Royal College of Art in 1992, and was previewed in the Ghia Saetta in early 1996. Power came from the existing 1.3 litre four cylinder OHV Fiesta engine, the lineage of which was traceable to the 1950s. Chassis engineering and tuning was led by Richard Parry-Jones and reached the levels Ford of Europe were by then setting themselves.

The interior was clearly styled to attract a younger clientele than the Fiesta. You might have learnt on your Mum’s Fiesta but you didn’t want to be seen driving it. Strong shapes, broad sweeps of painted metal on the doors, simple no moving parts vents, an integrated radio/cassette player and two compact gloveboxes in front of the passenger. The intended market was clear – perhaps best defined as “those younger people at whom the Fiat 500 is now aimed”, although the car did not have the personalisation options Fiat (and others) now offer

Ford kept the car and its range very straightforward – there was only ever one engine and trim levels were all managed by clearly identifiable add on equipment. Power steering was initially an option, as was air conditioning and features such as electric windows and central locking. Anti-lock brakes also followed in 1997 and in 2002 the engine was changed to the later Endura-E, with a stiffer cylinder block.

The Ka had an issue, it always seemed. How do you ask for it at the dealer. The “Ka”, as in “cat”, the “K-A” or the “Kar”? Ford were inconsistent in their use just to help….

Over the years, the Ka changed little. Painted bumpers came for some versions, as did differing wheel trims (the feature car has some aftermarket trims) and interior finishes and the final versions had painted contrasting bumpers.

There were two variants we should also note – the Sportka 1.6 litre variant with a mild body kit and typical sports makeover. This had 95 bhp and a 0-60 time of 9.7 seconds, so was no sluggard. Maybe not a MINI Cooper but still an appealing package. A smarter interior, a range of special colours and sharpened handling helped the appeal too, as did a series of sharp details such as the reversing light disguised as a central exhaust. This ran from 2003 to 2006.

The other was the StreetKa – a folding top version of the SportKa which was built by Pininfarina for Ford. The hood was manually operated and there were just two seats. The specification was generous, with air conditioning, CD, remote door locking, electric windows and mirrors, and a removable hard top was also available. This car was sold as sub-MX-5 roadster, against the MGF and unashamedly at a female audience. The SportKa was aimed at the boys. Some old habits die hard.

Production of all versions ended by 2008. The Ka name continued in a new model, built on the platform of the Fiat 500 by Fiat in Poland, and sold in the same part of the market.

This was replaced in 2015 by the Ka+, once again a Ford product and sold worldwide (Asia, Europe, South America) under both the Ka+ and Figo names, and is built in Brazil and in India, where Europe’s cars are sourced.

But the original 1996 car is the one that made the impact.  For a remodel of a 1995 car, itself a remodel of a 1989 car, and with an engine from the 1950s, to survive to 2008 was quite an achievement. One that few other than Ford would perhaps push as a fashion accessory.