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~ ~ The hire car I booked for our recent family trip to Rome was the new model Fiat Punto. But I wasn’t too perturbed when the car hire company offered me a Ford Ka instead. I’d been intending to have a drive in a wee Ka for ages, and was supposed to have one booked on a short trip to Scotland last year, but on that occasion the hire company pawned me off with a Peugeot 106 instead. (That DID perturb me, ‘cos it was/is a crap motor car!)
~ ~ The Ka has been a best seller for Ford ever since it first hit the streets back in 1996, so it has to have something going for it, apart from its funky looks. It’s a car that has never been a rave hit with the motoring press and pundits, but despite the somewhat poor reviews from the self-appointed experts, the motoring public voted with their wallets. (and purses) Even today, some seven years after its launch, the Ka still sells in high numbers, and the recent addition to the range of two new “sports” versions, the “SportsKa” and the open-topped 1.6-litre “StreetKa”, will no doubt boost sales even further. (Ford is selling out the “StreetKa” before it even hits the showrooms!)
~ ~ The Ka I had out on hire was the latest generation 1.3-litre “Collection” model. It’s still based on the old Ford Fiesta chassis, but has a far livelier 1297cc engine than the older models, which pumps out 68bhp at 5,500rpm. What this means is that it’s a bit nippier than in the past, although with a 0 to 60mph time of just a shade over 14 seconds, you’re hardly likely to be taking part in the sequel to the movie “The Fast and the Furious”. But it’s still plenty fast enough for ordinary day to day driving, especially in a modern city, and because of its small size, you get the impression that it’s faster than it actually is. I was totally amazed when I took the Ka onto the Italian motorways, the “autostrada”. It has a quoted top speed of 104mph, and the small 1.3-litre engine is well capable of delivering every ounce of the quoted speed. On a trip over to the Adriatic coast, a distance of around 480 kilometres, I rarely had the speedometer under 160kph, (100mph) and covered the distance in just a fraction over 4 hours. (and that was with a couple of pit stops for food and cappuccino)
~ ~ The Ka handles beautifully. It has a short, sharp five-speed gearbox that makes changing gear very simple, with little chance of “missing” a gear. As you would expect with a small 1.3-litre engine, it struggles on slopes and hills, and you have to work the gears energetically to maintain speed. Even on the motorways, you had to change down from fifth to fourth gear when you hit an incline. On secondary roads and laneways, the handling was equally as good, and it coped admirably with corners and twisty roads, so long as you didn’t expect sports car road holding and performance. For what is a very small car, there was very little perceptible body roll, and a quick change to a lower gear had you cruising through the tightest of corners at a fairly rapid rate of knots.
~ ~ Being used to driving a large car (Nissan Maxima) I was concerned that I would find the Ka somewhat cramped, and lacking in luggage space. But I was able to fit my 5ft 10inch frame comfortably in the drivers seat, and I had no complaints from my better half, even when she was relegated to the back seat by my wee lass! Our luggage consisted of one large, one medium, and one small suitcase, plus a LARGE set of golf clubs. (Well, you didn’t really expect the mad cabbie to go off on holiday without his golf sticks, did you?) The relatively small boot (186 litres) would have been just about able to accommodate all but the golf clubs, but with one of the rear seats folded down, everything fitted in easily. In fact, if space is of major concern, then with both back seats folded down the little Ka turns into a very handy little mini-van, with the luggage capacity increased to all of 724 litres.
~ ~ The interior itself is rather on the spartan side. You have a speedometer, a fuel gauge, and a wee interior clock, and that’s about your lot. Warning lights suffice for everything else. But it DID have a fairly good radio/CD player (I can’t remember the make) which comes as standard. One crib would be the tiny glove box. In fact, it’s so small that it resembles a slightly oversize spectacle case, and there’s so little room inside that you won’t be able to fit in much more than your sunglasses! This didn’t matter too much in a hire car when on holiday, but it would really hack me off if I owned the car, and had to live with it on a day-to-day basis. But to be fair, there’s a handy little net holder in the roof above the rear view mirror for holding your sunglasses, and a wee bit of storage space in the doors with a built-in bottle holder for your soft drinks. The seats were comfortable enough, although slightly on the firm side for my own particular taste. There’s enough room in the rear seats for two adults to sit in relative comfort, and I suppose you could fit in a third person with a bit of a squeeze, although you wouldn't want to be travelling any great distance. The Ka only comes with two doors, and I have to admit that this is a bit of a drawback as far as I’m concerned. If “herself” was nipping out to purchase something in a shop, then either myself or the wee lass had to get out first, which is a bit of a nuisance. And I found it tight enough squeezing into the driver’s seat, and kept hitting my shoulder or head on the door frame. Acres of plastic everywhere, but there again, you hardly expect leather trim in an economy car, and in fairness the plastic doesn’t look TOO tacky. Another thing I didn’t like at all was the metal finish on the top of both doors inside the car. If you parked in the sun for any length of time, it was roasting hot on your return. I nearly gave myself a nasty burn by laying my bare arm on it on one occasion. (I watched it closely after that!)
~ ~ The car I drove had air-conditioning, (essential in Italy in the summer) but if you want this in the UK it will cost you an extra £500. Power steering is standard, but to be honest I can’t think I can think of any modern car where it isn’t. No ABS brakes, but you can purchase them as an optional extra for £200. The two front windows are electric, and the back windows are those pop open type. And the driver gets an airbag, although if you want to add one for your front seat passenger it will cost you an extra £300. (Add another £300 if you want side airbags) One little touch I liked was the rear screen washer and wiper. We got caught in a truly spectacular (and frightening!) thunder and lightning storm, and the rear wiper and two-speed windscreen wipers were very welcome.
~ ~ There were nearly as many Ka’s buzzing around the streets of Rome as there were Smart cars. (nearly, but not quite) And here in Ireland, Ford sold record numbers of Ka’s last year. (2002) It’s not too hard to understand why this is the case. I well believe the quoted fuel consumption figure of an average 42mpg plus, as I was getting far better mileage than this, even on the “autostrada”, with average speeds of between 90 and 100mph. I had to keep checking the fuel gauge, as I was certain I had to be using more petrol than I actually was. Here in Ireland, it’s popular because of its low insurance (Group 3) and running costs, and is often chosen by young motorists making their first venture into the big, bad world of motoring. It would have been even more popular if Ford had ever decided to manufacture it with a 1-litre engine, instead of the 1.3-litre version. (The road tax here is based on the size of the engine, and a 1-litre car is cheaper than a 1.3-litre.) The Ka comes with a 60,000 mile, 3-year warranty, and has 12,500 miles service intervals. Even older versions are cheap and easy to maintain, with its straightforward 8-valve engine borrowed from the old Ford Fiesta. If you’re a DIY enthusiast, and like doing your own servicing, then second-hand parts can be picked up easily (and cheaply) at any breaker’s yard.
~ ~ You simply can’t help liking the Ka. It’s simply so cute and cuddly, with its rounded panels and funky looks. The “Collection” model that I had on hire had its appearance improved considerably by both the front and rear bumpers being colour coded. It came in a very smart metallic silver, and looked MUCH better than another older Ka that it sat beside in the hotel car park, with its large, badly faded, and tatty plastic bumpers. But the Ka’s looks have also proved to be one of its major disadvantages. I watched a “Top Gear” programme on the BBC recently, where Jeremy Clarkson was reviewing the new “StreetKa”, and he commented on its “girly” looks. A “Voxpop” of the studio audience showed that while an overwhelming majority of the ladies present adored the car and would consider buying it, only ONE man said he would consider purchasing a Ka. And I have to confess that I would have to agree with Clarkson’s verdict that it is a “car for the girls”. If I were in the market for a car of this size, then I would choose the new Nissan Micra over the Ka every time. That said, the Ka is easy and fun to drive, and with a lot of space for something so small. It’s an ideal car for driving about town, as it’s so small and nippy and easy to park. On the motorway, it’s comfortable and capable, and although it's not very well equipped, it’s still superb value for money.
Price in Ireland €12214 to €16,020
Price in the UK £6,650 to £9,850 Sterling
A check on second-hand prices at http://www.autotrader.co.uk/ showed prices ranging from around £2,000 up to about £6,000.