Ford Festiva: The Cult Favorite

When it was new the Ford Festiva was often regarded as a bottom-feeder – a cut above a Yugo or a Hyundai Excel, maybe, but a bare-bones economy machine, not something to be coveted.

Over time, however, they proved surprisingly durable and to some, actually quite fun. The Festiva is a prime example of how driving a slow car fast can be more fun than driving a fast car slow. Festivas were go-kart light and responsive.

26 years after production ended, they have a huge cult following.

International House of Fords

The Festiva was an international cocktail whose origins went back to Ford’s increasing stake in Mazda and a tie-up with South Korean Kia Motors. Having purchased 25% of Mazda in 1979, Ford leaned on Japan for international products fairly often in the 1980s, but at first those products were for Australia/NZ and Japan – vehicles like the Ford Spectron (a Mazda Bongo) replaced older Euros like the Transit.

Meanwhile, Kia had been a Mazda partner since 1974, building licensed Bongo trucks and versions of the Familia, until political changes in Korea forced a temporary hiatus from carmaking – until Ford arrived as a welcome partner.

In the U.S., Ford had cancelled its 1970s captive imports – the Euro-sourced Fiesta and Mazda-built Courier, in favor of home-grown larger domestic products (the U.S. Escort and the Ranger). But when newer, smaller, and cheaper cars arrived, Ford turned to Mazda to help respond; just like Ford of Australia.

One Mazda-sourced car was the Mercury Tracer, a reworked Mazda 323/Familia that replaced Mercury’s slow-selling Lynx (and led to the U.S. Escort eventually migrating to a Mazda platform).

The other was the Festiva – a global Ford but one intended to do battle with the smallest and cheapest cars in the U.S. – Hyundai’s Excel, the Yugo, and the Suzuki-built Chevy Sprint among others.

Autorama in Japan

Mazda designed the car at Ford’s request and produced a wide-ish, tall car weighing just over 1,700 lbs. powered by Mazda’s own SOHC B-engine. In many markets, it came as a 1.1L or as a 1.3 (JDM ones eventually with a 16V head), at first as a 5-speeder only.

Mazda built Japan’s Ford Festivas, which were sold by Autorama – a joint dealer network Ford had set up with Mazda in 1982 and expanded in 1986 for the purpose of selling more (international and U.S.) Fords in Japan.

These Japan-built cars were exported to other markets as the Mazda 121, but not to North America (and, curiously, not Japan – the JDM cars were all Festivas). Festivas for the U.S. and Canada (and later, other countries) came from Gwangmyeong, South Korea.

Building in South Korea

Building the car in South Korea was the only way to keep it truly price competitive and even then the Festiva was slightly pricier than the Excel or Sprint. It arrived in late 1987 only as a manual-only, carb’d 1.3L econobox, a 3-spd Auto (many American consumers wanted one) was added 18 months later along with optional fuel injection.

Just 140.5” (356 cm) long, it was 63” (160cm) wide and rode on skinny 12” tires (many Festivas later got more substantial rubber) – it looked every inch an economy car.

But it’s light weight meant no power steering was necessary and the 1.3L, particularly with FI, provided fairly good power so long as the A/C was turned off. It handled quite well for a car whose mission was MPG, not handling prowess or performance. No doubt that had to do with the wheels being pushed out to the very edges of the design.

The cars came really stripped (L) or with a few luxuries (LX) and had minor styling differences from market to market – the U.S. never got the slick fabric-topped version offered on Japanese made cars (essentially a giant rollback sunroof), but it did get a wide array of bright colors and, sometimes, graphics.

The Surprise Hero

Despite stateside misgivings about Korean quality from Hyundai and GM’s Daewoo-sourced Pontiacs, the Festiva proved a robust vehicle and many are still on the road in places where they haven’t rusted.

Surprisingly, when Kia launched their own cars in the U.S. in 1994, they weren’t quite as well made – nor was the Festiva’s Kia-sourced replacement, the Aspire.

The original Festiva lasted into 1993 and more than 350,000 were sold in North America; but the design continued into 2000 as the Kia Pride (the domestic and global version of the car as sold by Kia), eventually gaining four doors. It is still produced under license in Iran.

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