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Driving the Kia Pride: The exhilaration of the past

Scientific endeavour has proven that a frog, if slowly heated in a vat of water, won’t notice until it’s too late and he’s boiled alive. I feel that this metaphor also fits for small cars, which may have made vast strides forwards in handling and roadholding prowess, but progress has been very gradual indeed.

If a habitual small car buyer changes his car every three years, the noticeable change between each successive version is incremental at best, and may well not even be detected. But throw the frog straight into a vat of boiling water, or put a Kia Picanto driver behind the wheel of a twenty-six year old Pride, and both reptile and human will immediately leap out, citing intolerable conditions.

Of course, the launch of the Mazda 121 / Ford Festiva / Kia Pride is an epoch ago in terms of car development, so I jumped at the chance to go back in time.

The Millbrook proving ground first opened in 1970, after construction by GM whose Vauxhall subsidiary was based just down the road in Luton. The first cars to be tested there would have included the van that would become the Bedford CF, and cars as dynamic and athletic as the Vauxhall Viva and Victor. The various circuit areas of Millbrook would have proven a serious challenge to such vehicles, the limits of which would be easily explored on the two-mile high speed bowl or the sinuous, undulating extremes of the alpine-style ‘hill route’.

It also serves as a stark reminder of just how far cars have progressed within my own lifetime. Just before I took the Kia Pride out, the electric Renault ZOE had impressed me in how a car designed for environmental compliance could tackle fast adverse camber bends, ski-jump-esque descents and blind crests without breaking a sweat. The Renault’s silent competence was burned into my consciousness even when I slid the spindly Kia Pride key into its shiny chrome ignition switch.

Twisting it took me back to a time when secondary school was still a new, intimidating experience and I was beginning to notice the presence of girls who, until then, had been largely invisible. This was a VHS era of XR badged Escorts, supersonic passenger flight and satellite launches still making headlines. As did the arrival of Kia on British shores. And nobody could have guessed what would happen next.

When the first few Kia Prides turned up here, they stood out like a sore thumb. Although the design was familiar – the Mazda 121 was sold here for a spell but never made much of an impact – their standard-fit whitewall tyres came in for some condemnation. These were only fitted very briefly, but reputations endure and the Pride will always be the “Kia that had the whitewalls”. The Pride had a peculiar gestation, having been designed by Mazda on behalf of Ford, and marketed under the Ford Festiva name long before it arrived in the UK as a Mazda 121. And that which arrived first in Canada, then the USA, as the Ford Festiva, was actually the license-built South Korean Kia Pride you see here.

The Kia name was utterly unheard of here back then, and the same was the case in most countries outside Asia. The Ford Festiva was also the first Kia to be sold in the USA, and gave the company its first foothold there. This which continued in the same vein with the Ford Aspire, which had been joint-developed by Ford and Kia. The Pride’s success seemed assured wherever it landed, on the basis of competent engineering, healthy specification and an attractive price.

The “Good Car Guide”, a three-part weekly that came free with Autocar magazine in 1993, has long been my go-to to help me assessing cars of that era, and its entry for the Pride is relatively complimentary. Quoth the book:

“The previous 121 didn’t do much for Mazda, but when it was repackaged, up-speced and down-priced as the Kia Pride, it became just what the Korean motor industry ordered”

Indeed, beholding the cheerily velour-swaddled interior of this near immaculate Kia-owned example transports me to an era some time earlier than 1992. It’s ‘kind of opulent’ in here, redolent of a shrunken version of a much larger car, like a Datsun Stanza or a Mitsubishi Galant. Everything is to scale including the rather tiny seats, even if the rears have integrated head restraints. And the last car I saw that had simulated stitching on the interior door panels was my Honda Ballade-based Triumph Acclaim from 1983.

If you accept that account has to be made of the tight scale Mazda and Kia were working to, this is a pretty well turned out interior, with a very crisp and cleanly arranged dashboard. The centre stack comprises the typical slatted vents, Kia-branded Clarion stereo and sliding HVAC levers, with a touch of style added by the shape and position of the blower switch. The instrument cluster, with its semi-circular speedo and tach, wouldn’t look out of place on a Honda Goldwing or some other hulking two-wheel monster, and the whole ensemble is crowned by what is one of my favourite digital clocks of all time – a blue, vacuum-flourescent masterpiece at a time when everybody was moving to LCD or back to analogue.

The steering wheel is a little large and spindly, but soon proves its worth as I make my way onto Millbrook’s hill route. The clutch feels mushy and has a rather high biting point, though I can’t tell whether this is caused by wear or poor adjustment – though there is a suspiciously fishy aroma of friction surface. By comparison, the five speed gearbox is a joy. Perhaps thanks to careful assembly, perhaps inherent simplicity, but probably mostly due to the leverage afforded by its long shift lever, it feels slick, light and precise by today’s standards.  Although reviewers back then probably said it was vague and unrewarding. I prefer it to the stiff feel of many of today’s minis.

It’s when I encounter my first bend that I’m thankful for that big tiller, which considerably reduces the amount of heaving due on the part of the driver in the absence of power steering. It also means that the gearing of the steering isn’t too low – in fact I reckon it’s just about perfect. When driving at two-tenths, I couldn’t ask for a more communicative, obedient helm. Unfortunately, turn in a little more energetically and you quickly find that ten-tenths in a modern Fiesta is about twenty-four tenths in a Kia Pride.

It’s clearly up for the challenge. Those little 12-inch Nangkang tyres have a generous 165 section and hang on gamely to the tarmac, but the 70-profile rubber proves their undoing, and at 80 degrees from straight ahead, the steering goes vague as you feel the sidewalls distorting beneath you. And when it becomes apparent that, during this kind of treatment, the suspension has long-since relinquished any body control it could muster, I instinctively dial down my efforts to eight tenths, or about three tenths of a Fiesta. All of a sudden, the Pride is a car transformed.

I care little that, right now, there are a Porsche Panamera GTS and an Audi R8 that really, really want to get past me. I’m grinning more in the Pride at 50mph than those drivers would at 150. The little Kia, when driven with a vigour just below the critical mass that sees it collapse into nervous exhaustion, is a thoroughly rewarding experience. You know that the suspension really doesn’t know what’s going on – it seems only to be there to cushion heavy landings from zero-gravity hillcrest moments and doesn’t do a great deal to pin body movement down, but thanks to the car’s light weight there isn’t a great deal of lurching and leaning for it to contain. Hell, you could probably steer this with your own body weight like riding a bike without using your hands.

I’m not for a moment saying that the Kia handles well, but bearing in mind its expected audience when originally sold, its roadholding is very impressive indeed. Within relatively modest limits, it’s extremely easy to control, too. But it’s when you stray closer to The Chaos Zone that lies beyond those limits, the driver has far more of a fight on his hands. And this is something you just don’t get from modern hatchbacks, which have so much redundant grip in their wide alloy wheels clad in low-profile rubber that you simply have no idea where the limit is – unless you’re on a serious mission.

With a 55mph limit (loosely) enforced on the hill route when Journalists have the run of the place, it’s impossible to get the best out of a Fiesta, let alone a Panamera or an R8. Even if you stray somewhat beyond that speed, all you can really do is get a basic feel for things at three or four tenths. Back in 1970, when these curves were plied by Viscounts and Ventoras, when radial tyres were relatively high-tech and drum brakes were the norm, it was unthinkable that Millbrook would pose so little a challenge for the everyday family cars of the future, but those days are now upon us.

And so, even if I’ve mentioned it several dozen times before, it’s time that we abandon our quest for cars with ever higher handling limits. By the time we’ve found what we’re capable of or – far less likely – what our Caterham 620R can do on a track, we’re moving at seriously disastrous speed if calamity should unfold. We’re all kidding ourselves as to just how capable we are behind the wheel – in most cases it’s the car doing all the clever stuff, not you or I.

The Kia Pride is a reminder of how cars were before development happened. It’s like food was before MSG – when food tasted of flavours rather than flavourings and enhancers. When you could find pleasure in the simple act of driving, rather than pushing ever harder and taking ever more outlandish risks. “Slow car fast” hints towards what I’m talking about, but it’s a deeper concept than that. Not just ‘slow car’, but one designed before the concept of easy speed for everybody was even imagined. Today’s Fiesta isn’t designed to be anything other than competitive with its rivals, but evolution has determined that today’s routine competence far outstrips yesterdays’ far flung ambitions.

I returned the Pride with a sense of emptiness. It would be one of only three cars I’d drive that day, that week, possibly that month that I know I could safely drive at the limit all-day long, safe in the knowledge that it was me who called the shots and not the distant limits of a precision-designed chassis. The two other cars, incidentally, were my wife’s Peugeot 306 and the 1998 Rover that would take me home that evening. It’s no coincidence that both of those are still in our fleet despite my constant exposure to newer, faster, more powerful machinery – both can put a broad grin on my face by convincing me that I have more skill than the car.

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2016. Big thanks to Newspress for providing the car that they sourced for Kia UK)

 

 

 

  • myleadfoot

    Wow. That was like stepping back 20 years into my family’s past! We had an identical Pride back in the 90’s in Scotland, and we all loved it. My Dad used to enjoy bombing about the back roads next to our farm in it – the handling and engine never failed to deliver a spirited drive – and I was always a willing passenger. Years later, after I moved to the USA, I was delighted to find out my father-in-law owned a Festiva too.

  • Rover 1

    These first generation FWD Japanese cars,(it was engineered as a Mazda first, as you say),were in themselves a huge leap from the worst cars of twenty years before. Try a Mk 1 Ford Escort or it’s mechanical twin, the Anglia, or a Triumph Herald,or a Beetle, preferably on their original crossplies to really check the advances in dynamics made over time in ordinary little cars. And even more so on a wet road.

  • I can say with certainty that the original Kia “banner” logo is a far better piece of design than their current cookie-cutter oval.

    • mseoul

      Living in Korea I enjoy seeing the myriad tries Kia had at their badge, including the super cheap stick-on types used in the 90’s on some models. Hyundai by contrast seems to have more or les left their badge the same.

    • Rover 1

      How many other badges show a factory with smokestack?

  • outback_ute

    Great article Chris. The effect is amplified by the fact that the Pride was not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed when it was first released (1986 in Japan, 1987 elsewhere) let alone 4 years later. Was it really sold in the UK until 2000?

  • smalleyxb122

    I took my driver’s test in my sister’s 4-speed 1989 Festiva. It epitomized the idea of lower capabilities increasing enjoyment. I have fond memories of exploring the limits of 60-something horsepower and excessive body roll.

  • ptschett

    I knew a guy in college who was about 6’3″ and drove a 3-door Festiva. The big guy / tiny car combination seemed incongruous but he loved how it got 40-some MPG for his trips between home & school on opposite ends of South Dakota.

  • JayP

    I love old, honest cars like this.
    No bluetooth, no satnav.
    Pedals, wheel, tires, engine.
    And a lot of plastic.

  • My ’93 Festiva GL was a thoroughly honest, legitimately satisfying car to own. At the time I was commuting 40 miles a day in crosstown traffic, and this was perfect for that: economical, reliable, and nimble. It was tinny, but the interior was surprisingly pleasant place to be. Mine had the automatic, which suited its urban surface-street habitat. Yes, it was slow, but it didn’t feel all that anemic. That little 65 horse engine coped with the slushbox surprisingly well, even with the a/c cranked.

    • dukeisduke

      My first wife had an ’88 Festiva L in that color (gray bumpers, four-speed, a/c), and it was a decent little car. I always wanted a set of those alloy wheels, or better yet, a LX with the five-speed. The ’88 used a carb rather than fuel injection. It wasn’t fast, but it felt fast. It was a fun little car.

      I still wouldn’t mind having one (a later one with FI), and four doors would be even cooler.

  • njhoon

    I really liked these cars when they were out. A friend had one and found it pretty indestructible. It was the ‘little crap car that refused to die’ that kept running and running. They are very easy to steal as he had learned, requiring only a screw driver or knife. It was stolen a total of 5 times, all of which it was found intact, unbroken but in an area that taxi’s wouldn’t go (Deep in “The Hood”). The last time the infamous Philadelphia Parking Authority impounded it for unpaid parking tickets totaling more than the cars worth so they got to keep it.

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