The perfect first car
Fun-looking Ford does exactly what it says on the tin, says DAVE MOORE
Two things you need to know about the Ford Ka: One - They transcend their price in terms of fun and personality. Two - Their engines are bulletproof, if a little short on pace.
The 1.3-litre engine is a refettled OHV unit which can be traced to rear-driven Fords from way back. It was specifically recreated for the Ka with a view to cheap and wellspaced servicing and while newer power units might offer more snap and crackle, the unit has a strong mid-range and when throttled-back it’s fairly quiet, as is wind and road noise.
The earliest engines are rated at just 43kW, while those built from late 2002 offered 51kW, which makes quite a difference. The Ka only comes with manual transmission, and some earlier models didn’t even offer power steering or a second airbag. Later models offered air conditioning and sunroofs, while some used imports from Japan came as limited-edition models with alloy wheels, body-coloured bumpers and even leather trim.
Using shortened underpinnings from the mid-90s Fiesta, rear room and boot space is restricted, though the airy front cabin is surprisingly effective and roomy.
So, if you don’t like the way the Kas look, give them a chance. Get behind the wheel and be prepared to be beguiled, for the car’s chassis was crafted by a Ford team headed by the almost legendary Richard Parry-Jones.
So impressed were Ford with Parry-Jones’ influence that every Ford chassis since has been signed off by the man – or the team he left behind on retirement – which is why front-drive Fords out of Europe have possessed the best, or close to the best, handling and ride in their segments ever since.
That’s not all to like about the Ford Ka: it costs peanuts to buy, insure, service and run, out-corners anything in its segment and yet possesses a comfortable ride that’s totally unfazed by what’s thrown at it.
Body control is superb, its steering is meaty and communicative, and while there are times you’ll have wished for a bit more ‘‘go’’, you look at the speedometer and realise you’re actually going quite quickly anyway. The ride and heft of the car give it a lovely feel so that open-road demeanour is a lot more grown-up than you’d expect for a car of its size and cuteness.
I once witnessed a Ford Ka hitting a scrap truck on Victoria’s Prince’s Highway with a closing speed of more than 100kmh – according to later official police reports. After the impact, the Ka’s passenger cell was intact and its occupants: an elderly couple and their small terrier, survived. I can think of few cars of that size that could have acquitted themselves as well as the Ford. Remarkable.
Fun chassis, brilliant road manners and crash safety, roomy front cabin area and useful storage spaces. The Ka’s a good choice for a student or inexperienced driver and during its time has been a popular choice among driving schools in Europe. The wee Ford is also relatively easy to look after, with regular maintenance needs able to be completed by even first-time car owners from the model’s Haynes Manual.
Balance your budget against age and get the newest car you can afford. If it’s high mileage, a fully stamped service book should allay fears, but with these cars so cheap, we’d spend a bit getting them checked over, particularly underneath. Also, the Ka had threepiece front and rear bumpers, which means in minor scrapes and traffic accidents, only part of the bumper will need to be fixed or replaced, and if your Ka has plain black bumpers, it won’t even need to be repaired. A twin-airbag blackbumper Ka with history from 2003 onwards would be the best you can get.
Small boot and rear cabin, less power than many will be used to in the early cars. Rust can take inside the wheel arches and the lower edges of the doors. If rust hasn’t started yet, check the door seals for pinches, tears and holes. Premature steering-rack wear and suspension problems are not uncommon, though these are easy enough to check by getting underneath the car, or by jacking the car up so each front wheel is off the ground in turn. Try to shake the tyre from top to bottom and from side to side while the steering is held steady, there should be no play. Any up and down play could indicate a steering arm or bush problem.
Our ideal: the later blackbumpered model with some paperwork will ask a minimum of $5000 with less than 80,000km on it, but if you’re willing to go older than that, we’ve seen cars from $1500 upwards.
The wee engine is not as easy on gas as modern OHC units, but it should manage 7.5L/100km. Servicing is an easy DIY prospect; saving a bit of cash .
Ford Ka: Toy-like shape belies a car of real fun and character.
Quirky cabin: Unique style is easy to use and has most of the equipment you need.