Graham 'Smithy' Smith reviews the used KJ Ford Laser 94-96: its fine points, its flaws and what to watch for when buying it.
The Mazda-based small car was popular from the first model in 1981 right through to the last, which was replaced by the Focus in 2002. The Lasers that preceded the KJ were pretty much rebadged Mazda 323s. The KJ, however, was an attempt to move a little further away from the Mazda.
For the first time there was even a unique body style. It was also unique in that it was imported from Japan. The preceding models were built at Ford's Homebush plant in Sydney.
FORD pulled the covers off the KJ Laser in late '94 with an expanded range of three models encompassing three quite different body styles. There was a four-door sedan, which made use of the Mazda 323 body with Ford-styled sheet metal front and rear.
A new name, Liata, appeared on the five-door hatch, while the racy three-door Lynx hatch was aimed squarely at the youth market. But it was the Liata, regarded by Ford as the main model in the range, that really started the move away from the Laser's 323 roots.
Apart from a sportier grille, the Liata was the same as the sedan forward of the windscreen. But from there back, it was all new. It cut a stylish profile with a steeply raked roof line, spoiler mounted on the rear window and large, roundish tail lamps.
The three-door Lynx, with its large headlamps, sharply bobbed tail with a spoiler mounted on the rear glass and egg-shaped rear lamps, made a bold statement. The Lynx sat on a 100mm shorter wheelbase, with a rear overhang shorter than both the Liata and LXi.
Power was supplied by either a 1.6-litre economy engine or a larger 1.8-litre performance unit. Both were double overhead camshaft engines with sequential fuel-injection and variable intake. The LXi and Liata came with a 1.6-litre engine. They also had the option of the 1.8-litre engine, which was standard in the Lynx.
Drive was delivered to the front wheels through an upgraded five-speed manual, which featured synchromesh on reverse for smoother selection of reverse gear, or a four-speed electronic auto.
Underneath the metal lay MacPherson Strut suspension, front and rear, with slightly higher spring and shock rates for a sportier feel when the 1.8-litre engine was selected. All models had power steering, retuned for reduced effort and improved on-centre feel.
Brakes were disc all round, with a larger master cylinder for a more solid pedal feel, and ABS was optional on the LXi and Liata, but standard on the Lynx. Dual airbags, which were standard on the Lynx, became available with the 1.6-litre engine from early '95.
The LXi was the entry-level model for the sedan and Liata. The Ghia luxury upgrade offered 1.8-litre engine, alloy wheels, central locking, power mirrors, power windows and four-speaker sound.
ON THE LOT
LXi manual sedans sell for $9000 to $12,500. Add $500 for auto, another $600 for a 1.8-litre engine, $1200 for the luxury Ghia. For the Liata, expect to pay $9000 to $12,700 for the LXi, add $500 for auto, $600 for a 1.8-litre engine and $1200 for the Ghia. The sporty Lynx can be yours for $10,500 to $15,000.
IN THE SHOP
THE KJ was imported from Japan, which meant better build quality. Add to that a stiffer body than those of the preceding models and you have a car that stands up well to the rigours of city life.
Check for tell-tale signs of crash repairs, such as colour mismatches between adjacent panels, poorly fitting doors and hatches, and irregular panel gaps. Mechanically, the KJ is sound. The engines are reliable, but look for a service record to ensure your potential buy has regularly seen the inside of a reputable service shop.
Wally Turner bought his new 1.8-litre auto Liata hatch in '94. It has now done 115,000km and all he has had to replace are the tyres and water pump.
Wally says he gets 8-litres/100km on the highway and 10 round town. David McClean says his '94 1.6-litre Liata LXi five-door hatch has 100,000km on the odometer, but runs like a dream. The only negative is the visibility out the back window.
STYLISH small car, apart from wild Lynx
GOOD, reliable Mazda mechanical package
ROOMY interior that will handle four adults and their luggage
WELL-BALANCED and responsive handling
Mazda 323 (1994-96) $9000-$13,000
Nissan Pulsar (1995-98) $10,000-$15,500
Holden Astra (1996-98) $9000-$14,000
THE BOTTOM LINE
ATTRACTIVE styling, with Mazda build quality, safety and reliability, make the KJ a good second car or first car for beginners.