How South America designed the Ford KaThu, 31 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0700
The Ka Concept was shown at the São Paulo auto show in Brazil in November 2013, and was revealed in production form last week. It marks the first time the Ka has reflected the broader brand homogeneity of the 'One Ford' design strategy, and continues the Ka's shift in direction from the distinctive original.
The new car is the work of Ford's South American design studio in Camaçari, Brazil - its second 'One Ford' car, following the EcoSport. But while the crossover enters a new segment, the 17-year history of the Ka nameplate in Brazil gives an insight into how the demands of the local market have taken precedence over design iconicity. It also illustrates how important it is for Ford Brazil's Joao Marcos Ramos and his design team to be based close to buyers in these markets.
Back in 1996, the original Ford Ka followed a trend of humanized designs targeted at provoking an emotional response from specific consumer groups. Words like cute, feminine or even toy-like were used to describe cars like the original Renault Twingo, Opel Corsa and the Ka. As the product of skillful designers, these models had very strong identities, which were used to differ them from the rest of the brand portfolio.
However, when the Ka arrived in Brazil a year later, as a consequence of the slow change of pace in automotive design from the nascent car market, consumers were naturally conservative, considering cars like the Ka to be too audacious.
When he designed the original Ka's exterior, Ford's Claude Lobo wanted to create a car so strong in its personality that would not require a facelift but, in response to consumer tastes, the Brazilian model was forced to be revised. Changes on the model launched in 2002 were most notable at the rear, including taller rear lamps and the redesign of the bumper and hatch. The adjustment to the car's rear gave a better perception of the tumblehome and stance seen as lacking on the original car, and sales increased accordingly.
Moving to 2008, the European model was replaced with new model using a platform shared with the Fiat 500. However, the Brazilian model was revised again, separating it from the Euro model for good, and moving it into uncertain design territory. The exterior now featured a conservative grille with horizontal bars, and prominent wheel arches that no longer made a flowing connection to the bumpers or the enlarged front or rear lamps. Inside, the organic shapes of the dashboard were gone, although the door cards still had traces of the '90s car.
The fluidity of the first car was replaced by an aesthetic composed of a sum of parts, designed to suggest that, although it was a compact car, it had lots of features. But while the design appeared to take a step backward Ford was simply attempting to respond to its customers, and added these elements to attract the attention of mainstream subcompact car buyers, rather than enthusiasts or design connoisseurs.
Although the second-generation Ka introduced in Europe was a failure partly because it lacked the design innovation of its predecessor, the revised model sold in Brazil changed the acceptance of the Ka in the Brazilian market completely, selling almost double the units per year of the original model.
That's a trend that Ford will seek to maintain with this new car. US chief designer Ehab Kaoud, who worked with the Brazilian team on the new Ka models, said the subcompact "took a slightly different path when compared to the European model. It has become a family car, and it was given a premium look, with value to details like the front grille and lights."
As Brazilian customers see the Ka as a family car, it requires room for five passengers and luggage, hence the new model now has five doors and a Ka+ sedan version is offered. The car is also available with Ford's Sync system, and has an interior Ford claims to be the comfort benchmark in South America.
The sedan will keep the horizontal bars with chromed details, and the hatch will have a honeycomb grille. In every case, the design of the DRG is sophisticated for the class, and references the latest Fusion, also imported to Brazil. Ford's designers see that South American customers know what they want, but still look outside to more developed markets and their more traditional design paradigms when it comes to signifying value.
This most recent work of the Ford South America design team represents an evolutionary process where the DNA of a brand slowly adapts to a local culture. In this instance, charting the evolution of the Ka as it has been adapted to its market is significant, because it shows how the demands of Brazilian consumers are unique, but the image they portray to the outside world is rooted in Western notions of success.
The next challenge is how the Ka changes in response to a more economically developed Brazil that sets its own ideas of what success should look like, and whether design pragmatism and homogeneity will be rejected as consumers seek to stand out. At least by being present in the country, its design team will be right there to spot these trends as they emerge.
By Artur Grisanti Mausbach