(first posted 11/19/2014) 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.
These are quite common here with Mazda or Autozam badges they are very cheap to buy fairly cheap to run and seem to keep going.
Autozam? Sounds like the JDM Ford-badged Mazdas which were sold at Ford Autorama dealerships in Japan.
That’s correct; we get an enormous number of used JDM imports here every year, so Autozam-badged (or stickered) cars are common here.
Notice how the originals were 2 door models. Modern Mazda 2s and Ford Fiestas can only be had in a 4 door model, which prevents me from buying one. One can only wonder why small 2 door economy cars do not exist anymore, there were once zillions of them.
Interesting question. My guess is, buyers of this class are more concerned about practicality than before, or maybe they’re young families who need to deal with legally-mandated child seats.
Probably the latter, although I know there is a three-door Fiesta in Europe. I’m a little surprised that the U.S. Fiesta ST is a five-door, although I imagine the rationale has something to do with production or certification logistics.
The Mexico plant doesn’t have the tooling for 5 door. The Fiesta ST fanboys not happy about that.
Does the EU have mandatory child-seats? If so, then maybe smaller avg. family size, older buyers, or perceived lighter weight & efficiency might explain it.
Honda doesn’t market their Civic 2-door hatch anymore in the NA market, only elsewhere. Their 2-door Coupe has a more sporty than practical vibe.
I am not surprised at all about the lack of a 3 door in favor of a 5 door ST. Ford can reach more customers with the 5 door ST then a 3 door. Besides the 5 door Fiesta is cramped enough let alone a 3 door.
The market for coupes is dying. I think the Honda Accord coupe is the only one left in the non luxury midsize car market in the USA.
Exactly, The European ST hasn’t had to justify its’ purchase vis-a-vis a strippo Mustang.
The flip side of that is when I tried the ST with Recaro seats at an auto show my wide butt had no problem with the seats themselves but climbing out over the bolster couldn’t be done non-clumsily. The standard seats weren’t a problem, though.
I hate 4- or 5-door configurations on small cars — the front doors end up being so small that you need gymnastics training to get in without bumping one bodily surface or other.
Part of it is that outside of sports cars, 2-door cars hardly exist in the U.S. Even the regular cab pickup is becoming a bit of a rare bird.
Hopefully that will change at some point. I’m looking at buying a used Ford Mustang V6 to get a 2 door car. I would much rather have that old Bel Air than any modern car, but then I’m a vintage car enthusiast. Looked at the Toyota Yaris, they have a 2 door model, but it does not come with cruise control, and being disabled I need that. The upscale SE model has it, but is only available with 4 doors. No thanks. I’m driving a 4 door 2001 Malibu right now, that I bought cheap as an air conditioned transportation car. I’ve had it for 4 years, and want rid of it bad. I will never even consider another 4 door car. It looks like it needs a TAXI sign on top.
2 door trucks? About the only way to get them is through fleet sales. It may not be long before they are no longer available to the general public. Late model used ones that aren’t trashed are almost impossible to find.
I knew somebody who upgraded a Yaris to cruise control simply by buying the interior stalk switch and installing it.
The underhood components for cruise are already there, believe it or not. It was plug and play.
Most cars are like that now, it seems. For the Kia Soul, if you bought one with a manual transmission cruise control was off the table, but it was a matter of buying a steering wheel with cruise control buttons on Ebay, and just plugging it in. The clutch disconnect works, everything is already there.
EDIT: oh god, i’m responding to a comment from 6 years ago
6 years later, and regular cab pickups are still around, if someone really wants one.
They also did a 5-door hatch, of both generations. I wouldn’t say the 1964 equivalent was the cheapest full-size Chevrolet – these were much further down the totem pole than that, probably more comparable to a VW of the day.
The world needs awful cars to remind us just how good the good ones are.
Except that these weren’t awful. Yugo’s were awful. First generation Hyundai’s were awful.
These were merely uninteresting, dull, barely desirable four wheeled appliances. Reliable and forgettable. Corolla’s without the “God’s own car” reliability reputation, smug feeling of having bought a ‘perfect’ car and being blessed by Consumer’s Reports, and stiff purchase price (and resale value). Cars that sold to people who didn’t give a damn about cars, or bought by well-off parents to punish spoiled brat offspring who’d trashed their last (desirable) gift car.
All in all, I’d rather have a Yugo. At least they’ve got personality and a reputation.
Last I checked, CU wasn’t crazy about Corollas, & they didn’t get the best reliability stats, either. Some yrs ago when I tried one, its roadholding was so dull & flabby, it may as well have been a Buick. So you’re right, it’s a car for folks who want a transportation appliance rather than fun.
Now my 2010 Civic is the opposite extreme: very firm chassis, quick steering, & pretty noisy on certain road surfaces, though excellent on Interstates. The Mazda 3 is probably better balanced, but at the time I didn’t want its bigger, more thirsty engine & less spacious interior.
BTW if my info is outdated now, I’m open to correction.
You know that a car is truly crap when people compare it favorably to a Yugo.
I wonder if cheap , simple cars could regain popularity in the US someday. If so, most if not all makes playing there wouldn’t have something to offer in this part of the market. And then coulda came the Chinese…
But I doubt it, because of the spectacular fuel economy cars have today, and the tighter safety standards. You can’t be very light and cheap anymore, and it’s not necessary, anyway.
I doubt it. Many internet bloggers may CLAIM they want an inexpensive, simple car; but the truth is that they really want the nicer bells and whistles that come standard nowadays. They just don’t want to have to pay for all that stuff, so, they whine loudly that nobody makes a car priced like a bare bone Chinese-built POS.
Hi Syke. A used larger car with more bells and whistles can be cheaper to buy than a new one of these. There is leasing too. Cheaper payments and walk away to a new car, with a lease. I’m with you, but we are becoming the minority.
I’m still holding out for a US spec Tata Nano, that thing is just cool…
Ford Aspire – Aspiring to be a car! One needs to “Probe” to find it…
Truth be told, absolutely correct in comparing bare-bones cars of yesterday to today – or even 15 years ago. You get so much more nowadays. Whoda thunk A/C would ever be standard equipment?
My 1961 Bel Air 2 dr. sedan had rubber flooring but the hump was carpeted – go figure. Manually-tuned AM tube radio – no push buttons. 235 cu. in. 6 cyl. 3-on-the-tree and nothing else – but the rear glass did roll down, albeit slightly over half-way.
My, but hasn’t Kia come a long way. In less than 20 years they are building cars that go head to head with Ford.
This is the kind of car that belongs here. If not here, nobody would ever tell it’s story.
Those Kia, er, Ford Festivas were actually nice little cars, well equipped in the LX version, could actually handle with the kind of aplomb that I’m used to with my first gen xB (once you got rid of the OE Yokohama tyres) . . . . and memories of that car is why the fiancee risked a Kia for her current ride. Followed my my Sedona minivan.
Good memories of old cars do sell newer ones.
I forgot how appealing a Geo Metro could look next to these things. Actually, I forgot how appealing walking a long distance in the snow could look next to these things.
In all seriousness, thank you Jim for sharing this car’s story, as they are easily forgettable. It’s amazing how far economy cars have come, especially just in the last 10 years. All-power accessories, leather, heated seats, back-up cameras, no wonder luxury cars need things like self-adjusting multi-contour seats, cabin fragrance systems, wi-fi hotspots, and touch screens as big as your family room TV.
I think Federal mandates have caused some of the accessories/options that you found of high dollar luxury cars to trickle down to the bottom feeder cars. ABS, Back up cameras are set to me standard in cars in a few years.
In the past air bags were items reserved for options or luxury cars.
Incidentally as much as people say the Aspire was rubbish. it was the first subcompact car to have standard dual airbags and offer ABS as an option.
Nyaah…backup cameras…What’s wrong with windows you can see out of??!
I used to see one of these (this color too) parked on the street next to a friend’s house. I don’t know if the owner was trying to be ironic or was just ignorant but the Aspire had a bumper sticker to the effect, “Buy American, the job you save might be yours”. I would always enjoy the chuckle I got from reading that.
After you posted the first one, I saw a red one in the junkyard about a month ago. Then, the day after Halloween, I was in Iowa City and saw ANOTHER red one, this one, parked at the Ford-Lincoln dealer on Mormon Trek Blvd.
So I blame you for seeing these things everywhere all of a sudden. 🙂
While these cars have pretty much disappeared, it seem as though whenever I see one I soon see another. And yes, it does seem as though 90% were “twins” to the pictured car.
While watching news reports that originated overseas (can’t remember if it was on NHK or DH) I saw taxicabs in the background that appeared to be 4 door Festivas and even a model that was 4 doors with a “proper” trunk in some Asian country.
As for why car manufacturers no longer offer 2 door sedans…..it’s because the market for them is gone. My 20-21 year old niece recently traded her much loved 2 door Civic for a newer 4 door because with a new baby putting the car seat in the back of a 2 door is a pain. Ironically, given that a Ford-badged car is the subject of this story, Ford builds a 2 door (or 3 door if you include the hatch) Fiesta in Europe but not the U.S.
BTW, good write up but perhaps you could have linked a photo of the 121 that came after the Festiva as a sort of counterpoint to what the Aspire might have looked like without the heavy Ford Taurus influence?
Truly a CAFE inspired product. The economy was good, gas was cheap, SUVs were cool. These didn’t sell very well, and would not seem to appeal to anybody except cheapskates.
Go back to 1971, and entry level “small car” transportation could be optioned to taste and be quite appealing. Think Plymouth Duster or Chevy Nova tricked out to your personal desires. Even a Pinto with the right drive train had a little scoot and it looked pretty good to 1971 eyes.
There were no options available to make these desirable.
I find it interesting that, even here in the Land o’ Rust, I see Festivas semi-regularly. Aspires? Seldom.
BTW, there was a 5-door Aspire sold alongside the 3-door in the US.
I’ll take the ’64 Bel Air.
My old 1964 Chevy (sold it over 41 years ago) was MUCH nicer!
I’d be happy with a 1964 Bel-Air if one were available. Preferably a sedan or a station wagon.
“bought by people with little money who just had to have a new car”…
.. and by rental car companies who wanted a car so bad that you would pay extra to “upgrade” to an Escort.
Looks like the wrongly named Pontiac LeMans from the early 90’s
My brother owned one. I drove it sometimes. I liked it WAY better than the Aspire I rented.
That body first came out in 1984 as the Opel Kadett. Sort of makes the Aspire about 10 years behind the times.
ASSPyre. Worst car I ever rented. Slow w/ terrible mpg. Got 18 in that Ford.
A clown car.
Drove it like you hated it, huh?
Nope. Drove it from the airport on the Merritt Pkwy. The crapfest Ford had to be flogged to keep up w/ traffic.
Those turds aspired to be the Festiva’s replacement… and failed miserably.
The ‘Expire’ — an unfortunate case where the successor was substantially worse than its predecessor.
I rented one of these once in the late-90s, and it was the worst new-ish car I’ve ever driven. I have a fondness for basic, practical hatchbacks and can overlook many of their limitations, but this penalty box just made me miserable. Mediocre in every way — slamming the door sounded like the tin shed where I store my lawnmower. The tachometer needle would move around the dial and stick there, frozen at 4000rpm even after I turned the engine off.
Cheap materials, noisy, wheezy and underpowered, a car to make you hate driving and hate life. If this vehicle was anyone’s aspiration, they must have had a very sad existence.
They were sold in Australia as the Ford Festiva. Very popular when new, and still not an uncommon sight. There’s one just around the corner from my place; it’s there most days. A bit hot for a walk right now, or I’d go grab a photo.
Yep, in it’s heyday, the Festiva was the 8th best-selling car in Australia (from 1995-1998). They were sold right up until the year 2000. Still very common – I still see several on the roads each week.
Yeah I’ll take the chevy over the assfire any day
I had one, it didn’t look anywhere near this nice when I got it. An Aspire enthusiast and his enthusiast son bought it.
CC effect: saw a yellow gen1 3-door Festiva in town last week (rough condition, full of teenagers) as well as a purple gen2 5-door (in great nick, full of old folks). Our gen1s all seemed to be red (except the afore-mentioned yellow one in town) and our gen2s all seemed to be purple or an irridescent pale pink.
The Aspire was also the basis for the Kia Rio. The interior of this thing is almost exactly like the 2002 Rio wagon my partner had. Cute as a button, but it was the worst car ever. That, plus terrible dealer service turned him off the Kia brand forever.
I remember when these came out, and the blistering reviews they drew. All the odder as the Festiva had garnered significant respect form the same reviewers.
As Frank commented, the platform was again reskinned as the Kia Rio. The wagon version was dubbed the “Cinco” for it’s 5 doors. Even cuter after the 2003 refresh, with a semi Civic looking face and upgraded interior and instrument panel
Notice the faded taillights, that seemed to happen to all of them after a while.
I’ve seen them worse than that, they go orangey-yellow, here in Korea I can tell instantly when I’m behind one at night, the few that remain, anyway.
One thing I didn’t mention the last time I commented on this car – in this market, although they were badged as Kias when they popped up in 1998, four years after the Aspire, for whatever reason the ignition key had a Ford badge on it. They were sold for about two years until the original Rio was introduced.
I see these all the time here in Australia – they’re a dime a dozen, as you Americans say. They were sold right up to and throughout the year 2000. This makes the newest ones now 15 years old, potentially with many years of life still left (if well maintained). However, this green colour wasn’t all that popular here. In Australia, car makers charge extra for metallic paint, so most people chose white to save money. After white, silver was probably the next most common, since it was a very trendy colour back in the late 90s.
I acquired my first aspire and even tho it’s the ugly ducking of sorts on 4 wheels. There is something I love about it. Maybe that it doesn’t take much fuel to fill her up. Not really sure tho
In the small Mazda line up you forgot the 121 badged version of the Mk4 Fiesta that was sold in parts of Europe and, I believe, South Africa. Purely an excercise in badge engineering, the purpose of which I do not know, especially considering it was sold alongside the identical Ford……
I remember a c/d article reviewing this car when it debuted and I dimly remember it having a base price around $9000. The problem was, according to the article, the base neon had a base price around 9k and had 132 hp and was a much better car. Drivers looking for cheap wheels had the escort in the same showroom, or the cavalier or saturn for base transportation and if you wanted automatic and air you were getting into corsica or ciera territory. I needed cheap wheels as a college student in 1996 and bought a new ciera for around 13k which was an infinitely better car and is still with us in 2020.
Kia did build these pretty well, so why was the sephia such an awfully unreliable car when it debuted in 1998?
“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.”
You can see a little bit of Windstar in the Aspire’s front end too.
Just a matter of market’s positioning new vehicles. Your Ford Aspire was also sold and labeled in these far Argentinian pampas as the all new Kia Avella .
So cheap it was then , cheaper than a BMW byke or even than a Peugeot byke …. such an investement for commercial launch …we still really can’t say a word in the name of the Aspire .
When a new car is suspiciously so cheap for buying it , a tempting sticker label doesn’t guarantee a full success .
Infact these Korean iconicmobiles just sold 8 units per year !!!!
Pity i have not any photo available to attach this column. For those who love to make detectives just to discover what a car has a sibling in other countries, just their carmakers can change their names apropos second the place of destination , just search internet for the Brazilian built and Argentine built’s Volkswagen Pointer .
Can’t distinct who is who or who was copied first , unless it was a Kia’s venture with Volkswagen of Latinamerica
Wow I thought Myth Busters smashed them all up. A few Fieros too.
I liked it when new, importers brought some Aspire to Brazil, it has the same size as the VW Gol and Chevrolet Corsa from that time and had all the attributes Brazilians liked in a car, two doors, taller back, long nose and that metallic teal blue which was a fever in middle 90’s. However Ford decided to produce locally the smaller and skinny Euro Fiesta MK4 and it could never compete equal to equal with the other models specially about internal space. I wonder what if Aspire was moved by the Zetec 1.4 from the little Fiesta.
I’ve grown a bit softer on cars like this, it filled a niche for some folks, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Still, Ford had a knack for naming cars with monikers that would make you wonder a bit if the folks in marketing were drinking their lunch. Think Ford Probe, a personal car that got a bit too personal at times.
I recall in the ’90s we all thought this Aspired to be a real car.