Aussies tend to keep their cars longer than those in other countries so they’re less influenced by automotive fashion and go for cars that will remain good looking over the long run. Although Ford had high hopes the Ka would be a winner when they launched the stylish little hatch here in 1999, it was always going to struggle to attract buyers when Ford priced it out of the main event.

Ford hoped the Ka would win the hearts of the young and young at heart with its cute styling and European cache, but the small hatch market is the most price sensitive and competitive market segment of all and no amount of cute styling was ever going to win over buyers whose budgets stretched to $13,990 drive away and no further.

Every carmaker has struggled when trying to convince hatch buyers to spend more to get a car that is better engineered, styled, built or whatever message their marketing whiz kids are pushing at the time. The reality is that if you don’t compete on price you’re pushing the proverbial up hill.

Added to the Ka’s problem was that it came after the successful Korean-built Festiva and was perceived by many as a Festiva replacement. It wasn’t, the Festiva was typical of the hatches that occupy the bottom end of the market, and the Ka was anything but.

Those dilemmas aside the Ka is an interesting little and is worth a look if you like the styling and are impressed by its European heritage.

MODEL WATCH

The Ka was launched in the middle of Ford’s plunge into edge styling, designs with clearly defined lines and shapes that gave their cars a clear character. It was the same era that produced the ill-fated oval-shaped Taurus, and the equally ill-fated AU Falcon.

The problem with such out-there styling is that it usually polarises opinion, and that can affect sales. A car might appear stylish to one person and ugly to another. On top of that the Australian buyer is one of the most conservative in the world and often shuns cars that make them stand out.

Compared to the Festiva it followed, and others like the Toyota Starlet, Nissan Micra, Hyundai Excel and the like the Ka was radical and Ford boasted as much at its launch.

“We set out to create a real ‘icon’ and that’s what we've done,” said Ford design boss, Scott Strong at the time.

Strong went on to say he hoped the Ka would become a new millennium Mini. Unfortunately the Ka won’t go down in the history books as a classic, it’s no modern day Mini.

Where the Mini was simple, clean and non-threatening, the sort of car you wanted to cuddle like a cute little puppy, the Ka was aloof, haughty, and challenging.

Still, for those who appreciated its slick styling and wanted the perceived quality that comes with a European build plate in a market segment dominated by Asian brands the Ka held the potential to set them apart.

It was also well equipped compared to most of its rivals, but its higher price put price conscious buyers off.

There was only one body style, a three-door hatch, one engine, one trans, it had air-con, sunroof and a CD player so there wasn’t much decision making involved in the Ka buying process.

While the styling stood out there was nothing outstanding about the Ka’s mechanical package, which consisted of a fairly mundane overhead valve four-cylinder engine, a five-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel drive.

The fuel-injected 1.3-litre four-banger pumped out 43 kW at 5000 revs and 100 Nm at 2500 revs running on regular unleaded fuel. The resulting performance was adequate rather than spirited.

The five-speed gearshift was rubbery, a little imprecise as a result, but typical of bread and butter European front-wheel drive fare.

The suspension was a combination of MacPherson Strut at the front and torsion beam at the rear, and the steering was power assisted, which resulted in agile and responsive handling. It was perfect for zipping around town.

Brakes were disc front and drum rear, again fairly ho hum in technology terms, but they were well up to the task of stopping the 955 kg Ka.

Outside Ford flagged its range of funky colours with funky names, like Karyptonite, Kaligula, Kalypso, Kayak and Kakadu, but all of them were dark and very drab if they weren’t kept clean. If you selected one of these colours your Ka came with body coloured bumpers.

There were other colours, like Kandy, Karome, Karisma, and Karbon, again with funky names, but they too were uninspiring. These latter colours came with charcoal bumpers, which made them look even more depressing, especially once the car had been on the road for a while and the bumpers began to fade.

The funky styling theme continued inside, it was attractive enough, but dated quickly. The front bucket seats were comfortable, and the rear seat back could be folded to increase the luggage capacity.

Driver and front passenger air bags were standard, while security was provided with an engine immobiliser.

Funky sounds were delivered via an AM/FM radio sound system with a single CD player, and you could keep your cool with the standard CFC-free air-con. The power sliding sunroof was a nice touch.

IN THE SHOP

Go for a Ka that has been treated with kindness. Many were bought by non -caring owners who left them out in the street at night, under trees during the day, and regularly bumped into things on the run.

Check engine vitals to make sure they’re kept up to the mark; negligent owners rarely do the basic checks.

Many buyers of cheap and cheerful chariots rarely give up a night on the town to pay for a service so carefully check the service record and walk away if there’s a hint of neglect.

Mechanically there isn’t much to go wrong with the Ka; its mechanicals are relatively simple and well proven.

For better resale value in the future buy a Ka with the body coloured bumpers, they look better now and will look better to the next owner when you want sell. The alternative charcoal bumpers make it look down in the mouth, and look even worse when the inevitably fade.

OWNER’S SAY

Kate and Bryce Wilson have enjoyed 23,000 trouble free motoring in their 2001 Ka. They bought it as a round town car, but have also driven it extensively on long journeys, and thoroughly enjoy it. They love the styling, and their only complaints are minor. The seats are a little tiresome on a long trip, and they would like a cruise control.

LOOK FOR

• Some say it’s cute others find its styling challenging. Whichever camp you fall into be ready to be noticed if you buy a Ka.

• Well equipped little car with standard air-con, electric sunroof, CD player and dual airbags for safety.

• Old tech overhead valve four-cylinder puts out a modest 43 kW of power, not a lot in today’s terms, and performance is a little soggy as a result.

• Build quality is reasonable although not up to the standard of some Japanese rivals.

• Check the bumpers, particularly around the corners for damage caused by careless young things driving into objects while talking on their mobiles, the Ka is a swinger. If it looks as if it has been driven without much care walk away.

• Go for the body coloured bumpers, they look much better, and don’t fade like the grey bumpers do.

• Mechanically there is little that regularly goes wrong with the Ka so you should expect a largely trouble free run.

• At $11,000 for a four-year-old model the Ka still carries a pricey tag, look at buying a new car for just a little more.