Ford Sportka SE

What is the most influential hot hatch of all time? It's a typical car enthusiasts' debate, and the final is usually between the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Peugeot's 205 GTi.

Ford's Streetka can be added to the list of budget hot hatches which are so popular in the UK. And, thanks to it sublime handling, this one should shoot straight to the top of the class. A stronger engine and more sensible gear ratios would be welcome, but it's hard to find fault with the Sportka, a fine spiritual successor to the Puma.

What is the most influential hot hatch of all time? It's a typical car enthusiasts' debate, and the final is usually between the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Peugeot's 205 GTi. But in recent years, another contender has captured the imagination of today's youth. Citroen's Saxo, in VTS and VTR trim, has been a great success, combining low purchase and running costs with peppy performance and street credibility. No one else has offered that combination... until now.

Ford's long-awaited Sportka takes its place alongside the already popular Streetka convertible. The newcomer fills the role of junior Focus RS, offering a taste of its stablemate's thrilling appeal and style at a more affordable price and with friendlier insurance premiums. We jumped behind the wheel of one of the first Sportkas in the UK to find out if the potential of the pin-sharp Ka chassis had been realised at last.

Bearing in mind the baby Ford's target market, it's no surprise the designers have done all they can to give the Sportka a muscular look. Its Streetka-inspired bodykit is complemented by large 16-inch alloy wheels.

As the Sportka also uses its sibling's 94bhp 1.6-litre powerplant, the engineers have had their work cut out to ensure it offers sufficient straight-line speed to be chosen over the feisty Citroen. Start it up and there's a suitable rasp from the exhaust - and, thanks to an engine with plenty of pull plus low gearing, the Sportka lives up to this promise, screaming away from the line with enthusiasm, while the peak torque figure of 135Nm comes in at 4,250rpm. The gearbox is shared with the Streetka, and the unit fitted to our test car had covered less than 900 miles. It felt as though it had some loosening up to do, but the change is snappy and gets better the harder you work it. However, Ford admits that the current ratios were not its first choice.

Market research revealed that a 0-60mph time greater than 10 seconds would deter image-conscious buyers. As a result, the benchmark sprint is completed in 9.7 seconds, at the expense of mid-range versatility.

Yet the Ka's success has never depended solely on its performance. And, with such a fine chassis as a starting point, the blue oval's engineers have had the opportunity to create a genuinely special machine.

They haven't let us down. With the addition of modified springs and dampers plus a wider track, the Sportka is one of the finest-handling hot hatches on the market. If any fans of the Ford Puma were wondering what to do now that car has been axed, they'll be delighted to learn its spirit lives on here.

Turn into a bend and the nose immediately darts at the apex with such verve that it can catch the driver unawares. Minimal body roll and great feedback through the steering wheel make the Ford a joy to drive, and reassuringly strong brakes bring it to a halt with ease. A supple ride completes the package. Is this car really affordable, though? Combined fuel consumption is 37.2mpg, but the real cost of hot hatch motoring is normally the insurance. Yet thanks to its sensible performance, the Sportka squeezes into group 6E, undercutting most rivals.

Entry-level models have ABS, alloys, a bodykit and an alarm for £9,995, while the flagship SE version includes leather seats, electric heated mirrors and air-con for an extra £1,000.

The Saxo range is due to be replaced later this year by the C2, and Citroen will probably offer unbeatable deals on the run-out models. But the Sportka represents good value against Toyota's £12,000 Yaris T Sport. Maybe Ford has finally come up with a less extreme thrill machine which will make it into the hot hatch hall of fame.

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