The Ford Ka vs the Fiat Cinquecento
Niche models are all the rage in the motor industry, and everybody has to be seen to be making one. Frankly, it's all getting a bit out of hand. Ford's Ka however (pronounced, er, 'car') stands up reasonably well as a niche model. Starting at around pounds 7,400, it's the smallest Ford and is billed as a fun machine which will also tolerate serious long- distance use. The styling is original, designed to stand out from the crowd amongst which the Ka is meant to be easier to park.

In truth, though, it is not much smaller than a Fiesta, though its stumpy rear and long wheelbase make it a little easier to manoeuvre. No, the Ka is not the revolution Ford would have us believe. What we have here is simply an absolutely corking little car.

The styling is perhaps at its best on the inside, all bold curves and thoughtful details. The facia, reminiscent of a Fifties wireless, drips down in front of you like a water-filled balloon. Inside it's airy, tolerably roomy in the back and altogether a cheerful place to be. Headroom is particularly good, which is perhaps not surprising given the swollen bulge that forms the roof.

It is on the move that the Ka is most impressive. The engine, a smoother, sweeter rework-ing of the old 60bhp 1.3-litre Fiesta engine, is only just powerful enough, especially as the gearing is quite long. The steering, though, is something else. Only the power-assisted Ka2 was available at launch but I may as well recommend it anyway because, well, it seems perfect. It turns crisply and without kickback, even on the rutted roads where I drove. The sort of wallowing in corners often found in small, tall cars simply isn't there.

A little like the Mini (Ford will love that analogy, as it is trying hard to turn the Ka into an icon) there is a fantastic immediacy to its responses but, unlike the Mini, it is perfectly tolerable on a long drive.

My only significant gripe is that Ford didn't use the 1.25-litre engine found in the new Fiesta. (It would probably have made the Ka a little too expensive.) I said this was a corking little car; it may well be the best there is.

But Ford's claim that the Ka is a new breed of ultra-small car looks pretty unconvincing if one is parked next to Fiat's most diminutive offering. The Cinquecento is smaller than the Ka in every dimension except height.

Fiat has a heritage of building absurdly small cars, starting with the original Cinquecento. But the new model's name is a mere nod to its 500cc ancestor: in standard form the modern descendant boasts a full 900cc and 41 bhp; the 'Sporting' 1100cc and 55bhp.

It's absolutely hilarious, but not in the same way as the Ford. The Ka entertains by being so composed, the Sporting because it is eager and slightly frenzied. The Fiat's acceleration times are comparable to the Ford's, which makes it a slow car by real-world standards. But the sensation of speed is positively palpable, largely due to the free-spinning, raspy and slightly demented engine.

Dynamically, the Fiat does not ride as smoothly, is less quiet, and, despite the stiffened suspension, rolls more than the Ford. But this is the tongue-in-cheek version of a much cheaper, genuinely utilitarian car: as satire, it works wonderfully. And it really is a size below what we'd normally consider small.

My own view is that there is an absolute size beyond which shrinking the car leads only to compromises. The Ka exists at that border. It still feels like a full-size machine and it is built like one; it's not dirt cheap but there's nothing else like it for the money; it looks great and it's great fun to drive.

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