Ford's Ka city car has a lot to live up to after its predecessor's twelve-year reign. Steve Walker checks out the TDCi diesel model
Ten Second Review
We've come to expect certain things from Ford products and the Ka TDCi lives up to expectations without exceeding them in the way that the original car managed to. Polished driving dynamics, great interior quality and reasonable practicality for a citycar all place the Ka at the top of its class. The diesel engine is also impressive with decent pulling power and excellent economy but the cost means most buyers will choose petrol. The big question is whether the Ka delivers the style and desirability that citycar buyers crave.
Ford's Ka has a diesel engine these days but with the burning of heavy oil a notoriously hard practice to justify in small cars, should the buying public care? Diesel engines cost more than the petrol equivalents but buyers can recoup their extra outlay through a diesel's better fuel economy and lower emissions. The problem that diesel city cars face is that such small vehicles usually only cover small annual mileages meaning that making your money back in cost savings can be the work of a good few years. Ford hopes that the Ka TDCi makes a strong case for itself in spite of all this. There are tough tasks and then there's the one that faced the MK2 Ford Ka. Ford's city car offering was always going to be judged in comparison to its rival urban runabouts but the Ka also had a phenomenally successful predecessor to live up to. The real challenge was not even to eclipse the original Ka as it stood in its dotage. To be deemed a success, today's model needed to emulate the impact the first Ka had when it exploded on to the scene back in 1996 and embarked on its 12-year dynasty. That was always going to be a big ask but in the past, Ford has demonstrated a certain knack for rising to a challenge.
The Ka's diesel engine is a 1.3-litre common-rail unit that's been purloined from Fiat along with the Ka's chassis. The same underpinnings can be found in the Fiat 500 and Panda models, while the engine pops up repeatedly in Fiat products as well as in a number of cars from Ford's arch rival, Vauxhall. It's an impressive unit with a power output of 74bhp and a very linear power delivery that irons out any trace of turbo lag. It's perfectly possible to see how the diesel option could be preferred over the Ka's 1.2-litre petrol alternative. It's got extra muscle in the shape of 145Nm of torque that's produced from 1,500rpm which makes for a relaxed drive with decent in-gear acceleration. The diesel is noisier than the petrol but not too noisy if you forgo the upper reaches of the rev range. The petrol offers sharper responses to throttle inputs, however, and is more in tune with the nippy, vital feel that many buyers expect from a citycar. Out on the road the Ka forces you to remind yourself that it's a city car. It feels altogether more grown-up than most of the alternatives in this sector and the diesel engine only adds to that impression. The chassis and suspension may be borrowed from Fiat but Ford undertook a programme of revisions designed to instil the sharp handling that the Blue Oval has come to stand for. Most significant amongst the changes is the introduction of a rear anti-roll bar that braces the chassis and improves stability when cornering. The Ka certainly tackles twisty roads with genuine composure and there's enough grip to confirm that it could handle a far more powerful engine than either of the units currently on offer. By citycar standards, ride quality is first rate and so is refinement, although wind noise is noticeable at higher speeds.
Design and Build
The original Ka was a certified design classic that broke the mould and dropped jaws on a regular basis at the time of its launch. More impressive still, its shape endured the passing of time and still looks fresh today. Perhaps intelligently, Ford elected not to attempt a similar trick with the second generation model. Along with the rest of the modern Ford range, it employs the Kinetic design themes including the trademark swept back headlamps and the trapezoidal front air-intake. There are elements carried over from the MK1 Ka around the rear end but from most angles, the effect is of a stunted Fiesta - pretty but nothing new or groundbreaking. Inside, The Ka sets the standard for build quality in citycars. The materials and switchgear are those of a far more expensive product. Ford has worked hard to create a funky cabin environment and while some elements such as the centre console layout are questionable, most of it has the desired effect. There's an airy feel inside with an abundance of headroom for front seat occupants and space for a couple of six footers to occupy the rear without doing themselves a mischief. The array of storage options has been very well thought out with useful door pockets, numerous small cubbies and an unpromising glovebox flap that opens to reveal a prodigious area behind. The boot too is of a useful size for a citycar but 224 litres won't go that far after a major supermarket splurge. Fold the rear seats and 747 litres is opened up.
Market and Model
The Ka is available in four trim levels but the diesel engine can only be specified in conjunction with sporty Zetec and range-topping Titanium trim. Ford surmises that customers choosing the TDCi unit are not particularly cost-conscious and so will gravitate towards the top spec cars anyway. The Zetec features items including 15" alloy wheels, front fog lights, remote central locking, a trip computer, air-conditioning and a heated windscreen. Go for the Titanium and there are 16" alloy wheels, chrome styling accessories, climate control and an upgraded stereo. The original Ka did indeed battle on for a full twelve years before this replacement arrived. That's an inordinately long time for any modern car and is all the more remarkable for the fact that Ford made very few revisions to the car's styling or mechanical make-up over the course of that lifespan. It was a product that delivered on the citycar essentials of affordability, fun and a certain youthful vibrancy. Its reward was strong sales levels right up to the end. Today the market for compact urban cars is being fuelled by our desire to reduce costs and lower emissions with the congestion in our towns and cities also playing its part in the trend to downsize. The Ka has the qualities to meet this need but it's up against a growing band of capable rivals.
Cost of Ownership
The diesel engine's emissions and fuel economy are certainly impressive, the engine obviously tuned to be thrifty rather than thrilling. The Ka TDCi can return 67.3mpg on the combined cycle and it emits just 109g/km of CO2 thanks to a clever Auto-Stop-Start system. It costs £1,000 more than the 55mpg petrol but buyers who cover big mileages might be persuaded that the sums add up. The residual values should be buoyant too.
The original Ka has rightly been hailed as a design classic and scooped up all manner of awards to that effect. This model was never going to do likewise. Times have changed and recreating the first Ka's avant-garde cuteness and verve for the modern market was a difficult and risky proposition. Instead, Ford has created another supremely competent product that betters its citycar rivals for quality, driving dynamics and all-round sophistication. Does it have the uniqueness, the attitude or the desirability of a classic citycar? Possibly not but that shouldn't stop it from being objectively the best. As for this diesel-engined model, it's good but only worthy of consideration by high mileage drivers. It sounds strange but the Ka might be too adept from a driver's perspective. The fun factor in citycars often comes from flaws such as a lack of grip or a less well-judged suspension package and the Ka, while superbly engineered, isn't that much of a hoot to punt about the place. It's pricing, particularly in the diesel form we examine here, also places it in close proximity to the Fiesta which offers much the same looks with greater practicality and competence on the road. Style is a tough thing to define but this Ka might well have less of it than some of its contemporaries and that raises questions about whether being the best will be good enough.