Ford Sportka

Some good news for those still mourning the recently departed Ford Puma: its soul goes marching on in the new Sportka. The blue oval's chassis boffins are happy to admit that the newcomer's suspension components and settings draw heavily from both the Puma and the hottest previous generation Fiesta, the Zetec S.

Once again, Ford proves it knows how to make a great performance car. The Sportka is not the fastest hot hatch, but it is one of the sweetest to drive, and offers considerably better driving dynamics than its Streetka sister. Only the cheap-feeling, outdated cabin spoils the experience.

Some good news for those still mourning the recently departed Ford Puma: its soul goes marching on in the new Sportka. The blue oval's chassis boffins are happy to admit that the newcomer's suspension components and settings draw heavily from both the Puma and the hottest previous generation Fiesta, the Zetec S. In other words, the Sportka is part of the fine tradition of 'parts bin specials' - but, when the parts are as good as this, that's no bad thing.

The car is also particularly British. Ford says that the sales success of performance hatchbacks such as the Citroen Saxo VTR in the UK has been instrumental in encouraging it to launch the Sportka. Of a total production target of 10,000 units next year, 50 per cent are destined for this country.

It certainly looks the part, especially in the electric blue paint you see here. The sharp-edged headlights and deep bumpers are shared with the Streetka roadster - the basic 1.3 Ka will continue with its old look - and the Sportka also gets a tailgate spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels. Inside, very few changes have been made from the original 1996 Ka. There's now some silver detailing, a rev counter among the instruments and an aluminium gear- knob from the Puma.

The power unit, a 1.6-litre version of Ford's eight-valve Duratec engine, is shared with the Streetka, too. Although the motor fires up to a throaty soundtrack, it's soon obvious that the performance it delivers is warm rather than scorching. Strong low-down urge becomes effective mid-range pull, but there is little point in revving the engine much past its 4,250rpm torque peak.

Beyond this point, the noise continues to increase, but the acceleration barely does. Low gearing effectively masks this lack of urge at lower speeds, but motorway cruising is a fairly loud experience with the powerplant thrashing away.

Fortunately, you don't need to be going quickly to be having fun in the Sportka, certainly not on a well chosen back road. A short, sweet gearshift and firm brakes make the business of adding and losing velocity an endless pleasure. Drivers need to be delicate with the throttle pedal, though, as the top inch of travel provokes a slightly over-keen surge, but once beyond that it's easy to adjust the engine speed smoothly for rapid, relaxed progress.

However, the star dynamic feature is undoubtedly the steering. With a special low-friction rack, revised front suspension geometry and general uprating and stiffening of all components, the Sportka is virtually spot-on for keen drivers. Responses are just as you'd expect, and the thick wheel rim provides the driver's fingers with the right amount of feedback. Grip levels are healthy, but the Ford doesn't feel as though it has an excess of tyre in contact with the road: limits are high, but it's possible to get close to them without scaring yourself. Understeer is resisted well, and the natural cornering attitude is one of composed neutrality.

Any problems that exist are down to the ageing Ka design rather than the Sportka's modifications. There's still no release catch on the tailgate, which has to be opened using either the key or a button next to the steering wheel. And the dash design is looking dated, while some switchgear feels cheap and flimsy by the hydraulically damped standards of more modern rivals.

The sports seats are comfortable, but it's a chore to clamber over the fat bolsters when you get in or out. Such niggles aside, the Sportka is fun to drive and set to offer value for money with prices starting at just under £10,000. It arrives in June and will make the Citroen Saxo VTR's life much harder.

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