Friday 9 July 2010

Driven #1:- '96-'08 Ford Ka

2009s Ford “new” Ka was met with a universal shrug of ambivalence from the motoring press. A car widely acknowledged as being "nice". There were no fireworks released or front pages being held, Ford had released quite a nice car into a sea of quite nice cars. And as has been commented in numerous places, this is rather a shame.

When the original was launched in '96 it was to an audience Ford had never served cars to before and a world that hadn't been exposed to a radical Ford since the Sierra in 1982. And like that car, the Ka managed to do extraordinary things despite extremely prosaic machinery under the surface. Just as the Sierra had a lot of Cortina underneath it, the Ka was pure Mk 4 Fiesta below the skin, including that same old 1.3 pushrod engine that had its roots (and considerably more) in the old crossflow engine you got in a Ford Anglia.

But it was probably because of this that the car was so utterly magical. What Ford had created was the ultimate expression of a primitive car, none of the components were very clever, but they were right for the job, and they were set up extremely thoughtfully. That thrashy old engine was utterly unburstable, the interior on the best models (i.e the most basic) had only the most essential features. There was an FM only radio, just two instruments and swathes of painted metal. And for all this spartanness the seats were actually quite comfy and supportive, and the car had an amazing ride. Not Citroen soft, but far more pliant than the handling would let you believe.

Ah, the handling. I've been building up to this bit because I loved it so much. I'm a lucky man. My mother is custodian of a '97 example, bereft of such niceties as power-assisted steering. Around town, parking, or pulling out of a driveway, steering requires an incredible hulk style upper-torso, but this effort is payed back a million times over on the back roads. There couldn't be more road feel if you were crawling on your hands and knees. At about fifty the weighting is absolutely perfect, a flick of the wrist will dial in enough lock to dispatch a road kink, while the body stays resolutely flat and free of roll.

In my opinion, the sheer fun-factor of the package owes masses to the fairly low level of grip afforded by those little 165 section tyres. There is always enough grip for safety, but you're always aware of where the limits are. When you reach them the front end will wash out gently and the rear will eventually follow, and, usually, lifting off will bring everything back into line. And it is this that makes it such a great drivers car, that it teaches you exactly where the limits are, how to recognise them and what to do to recover the situation. And all at sensible backroad speeds. You can have more fun in this car at fifty than in an M3 at ninety.

Every B-road mission ends with a huge grin. The chances are, if you drove a Lotus Elise spiritedly on a Welsh mountain road the driver would find his own limits far earlier than those of the car. Complete the journey in the Ka and you'll be smug in the knowledge that you were exploring the ragged edges of the cars capabilities, that you had to wrestle with the controls to keep it in check. There is far more skill to be exhibited here than in a sports car where the superior grip looks after you. After a year behind the wheel of a Ka, having fun, you are ready to graduate to faster machinery. You can learn pass your test in any old car, but the old Ka really teaches you about driving.

And I believe that, owing to their alarming propensity to rusting, a well preserved Mk 1 Ka is sure to become a classic. Not blue-chip with the Maseratis and Bugattis, but guaranteed immortality like the Minor and Austin 7.
And that's certainly not something you can say of the new one.