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Ford Ka 1.2 Zetec

Click to view picture gallery“On sale now is the new three-door
  Ford Ka — designed and built with
  a little help from Fiat. Prices range
  from 7,945 to 10,145. But is it the
  car you
ve been waiting for?

TWO NEW POPULAR SIZE MODEL RANGES — Fiesta and now Ka, introduced in four months — means Ford are well placed to pick up what sales are available in two prime sectors of a recession-hit new car market.

But having two new models, only slightly different in style, size and price, will bring its problems. As a customer, do I buy a Ka that mainly uses Fiat technology and is not such an iconic design as the previous one, or do I buy the much better, class-leading but slightly more expensive all-Ford Fiesta?

The Fiesta, being thoroughbred Ford, is fantastic to drive and use. It is the undoubted leader in the 'supermini' sector and three-door prices start from 9,195 for the 1.25-litre petrol Studio version. On the other hand, the new Ka looks quite sweet but drives and handles only averagely well — better, though, than the Fiat 500 — and costs from 7,945.

My own view is to go for the roomier Fiesta three- or five-door models. Their real-life performance and user-friendly size offers much better value than the 'on-paper' price differential. Interestingly, Ford is 'hiking up' the prices of the Fiesta range to distance it from Ka, but there are still discounts to be had.

That said, this review is about the new Ka. The latest Ka continues with the 'new face of Ford' trapezoidal front grille and wedge side profile, with the added truncated rear-end with rounded tailgate window. It still looks cheeky and appealing although it is not as distinctive as the original Ka, which had wide rear haunches and a steeply sloping rear tailgate and which was so different to everything else in its class.

At 3,620mm in length, new Ka is the same as the old model but the roof line is higher and longer than that of its predecessor and the Fiat 500. This allows more headroom, especially in the rear, and more boot space: 224 litres with the rear seats in position and 747 litres with the seats folded down. The increase in headroom means the seating positions are higher — too high in the front; and trying to get a comfortable driving position is not easy. The steering column doesn't adjust for reach and foot space for the pedals seems much less than for left-hand drive versions I tried last year. The rear quarter visibility for the driver is not good either.

Inside, the cabin styling is bold and imaginative and with the extra-cost designer option packs there is huge scope for buyers to end up with a look and specification that really suits their personality or image. To attract younger owners and increase the number of male buyers to Ka, Ford has introduced three personalisation packs: Digital Art, Grand Prix and Tattoo. Costing from 300 for the interior pack and from 200 for the exterior pack, they feature external graphics and matching interior fabrics with bespoke steering wheel, gearlever and floor mats. Past Ka customers have been predominately female and the average age of owners has been around 50. Only when Ka became a used vehicle did the age of users drop and more men became drivers.

The Ka uses the same platform as the Fiat 500/Panda and the same engines and transmissions. The suspension has been re-tuned by Ford with a stiffer rear axle, 30% softer springs, retuned dampers and firmer bushes, resulting in a much more competent and comfortable ride. Overall, Ford estimate that 20% of the Ka's components are theirs and 80% are Fiat. For the record, the new Ka is built by Fiat at Tychy in Poland.

Thankfully for Ford, the new Ka over the Fiat 500 is a much better car to drive and very much more capable in terms of handling and ride comfort but potholes will be felt and the ride is fidgety over our bad urban road surfaces.

The tuning of the suspension with the addition of a rear anti-roll bar has worked wonders, giving the Ka more controlled and predictable handling and with more front-end grip than the Fiat 500. The electronic power steering is well weighted and gives good feedback to the driver. Anti-lock braking is standard on all models but, regrettably, ESP is only available as an extra cost option and that costs a high 400 — not clever marketing for what should be a standard safety feature.

The two Fiat-sourced engines work well with the new Ka. The four-cylinder 1.2-litre 68bhp petrol unit is free-revving and will be by far the most popular unit. Officially, it returns 55.4mpg but during the media test drive around the busy M25 and surrounding urban roads it only managed 41.2mpg. With CO2 emissions of 119g/km, road tax is an appealing 35 a year. Being high geared for fuel economy, this unit lacks the heftier torque of the 1.3-litre diesel engine for responsive driving in traffic or going up hills, so be prepared for lots of gear-changing. Like the diesel engine, the petrol unit is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox and no automatic transmission is planned at this stage.

For the first time there is a diesel engine option in the Ka range, a Fiat 1.3-litre 74bhp turbodiesel unit. While this is only expected to attract a projected 4% of Ka customers, it is the better powerplant — thanks in part to its 107lb ft of torque from 1,500rpm. It is quiet, responsive and copes better with all driving conditions. If I regularly covered long journeys I'd pay the extra 700 and the extra per-litre cost in fuel and go for this engine because of the better quality of driving it gives and the potential for much better fuel economy. Driving over the same test routes, the Ka diesel returned 48.5mpg — some way off the official 67.3mpg; but still good. With CO2 emissions of 112g/km, road tax is also 35 a year.

Both models offer low running costs. Insurance groups range from 1E to 3E, and the residual values forecast by industry analysts CAP say new Ka will be worth, on average, 14% more than the previous models based on the usual three years/60,000 period.

Overall the Ka adds to Ford's ability to produce clever, smart, affordable and safe vehicles (even if you do have to pay extra for the ESP). The new Ka is not the styling icon the first Ka was so do not expect this generation to be around for 12 years. It is a design for today where practicality, safety and price are prime considerations. Buyers should watch out for more added cost with designer option packs. Reasons to buy a new Ka include the compact size, price, flexible design, safety, good handling and much improved equipment levels, either as standard or optional. — David Miles

Ford Ka 1.2 Zetec
| 9,445
Maximum speed: 99mph | 0-62mph: 13.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 41.2mpg | Power: 68bhp | Torque: 76lb ft
CO2 119g/km | VED Band B 35 | Insurance group 2