Curbside Classic: 1989 Ford Festiva – Korea Week Shitbox Shoot-out Loser

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

The Korean invasion began in the late eighties with three shitboxes: the Hyundai Excel, the Pontiac LeMans, and the Ford Festiva. Korea Week CC pits them against each other to determine the outcome: the Festiva loses the contest by a large margin. Why?

It was way too good of a car. So losing is winning in this showdown. Now undeniably, the Festiva still falls into the shitbox category by virtue of its looks alone; in fact it’s styling couldn’t be more so: somewhere between a porta-potty and a litter box. As my eighteen year-old would say: strictly a no-sex box.

Yup, the Festiva took the form that the original Honda Civic popularized fifteen years earlier, and turned it into a generic Wal Mart version. No need to spend money for Giugiaro here. It’s almost a dead-ringer for the Civic in terms of size. But that’s not the only one: Ford’s very similarly named Fiesta obviously comes into the picture too. And given their similarities in name, form, function and both carrying the Blue Oval, comparisons are inevitable.

The Fiesta was a true little gem in its time, that being a critical part of the comparison. The Fiesta arrived before Honda started getting back to its performance roots; in the US, anyway. Since Ford only sent the 1.6 L version of the Fiesta, it was the hottest little pocket rocket of its day. Thus its cult status.

Things had changed dramatically by the time of the Festiva’s appearance in 1988. By then, hot Hondas and other rice-flavored delights of the mid-late eighties changed the landscape, so by the time the Festiva appeared with about the same performance envelope as the Fiesta, it was instantly relegated to shitbox status.

But if one’s appreciation for the timeless joys of minimalistic motoring was undulled by the late eighties’ excesses, the Festiva was the warm little ticket. Because unlike the Excel and the LeMans, nothing was lost in the translation from the Japanese Mazda 121 into the Korean Festiva. Kia followed the original faithfully, and the result is obvious. How so?

I considered myself lucky to find one example each of the gen1 Excel and the Daewoo LeMans. But I could go out and find half a dozen of these Festivas this morning if I needed to. There’s one for sale at the Official CC Sales Lot. The sheer numbers add up to the Festiva’s loss/win; but that’s not all. The Festiva is a blast to drive, if you’re into the underpowered shitbox thing. I am.

There’s no better way to enjoy automotive minimalism than with the Festiva. Forget all the chatter about electric vs. hydraulic power steering; unless you’ve savored the pleasure of no power steering at all in a light little car – that makes me wonder how many younger drivers have never driven a car without power steering. A show of hands, please?

Granted, the Festiva was best in urban settings, where its telephone booth visibility (and size) made it perfect for the task of gaining every inch of advantage possible in thick traffic. My experience in one was in San Francisco, and the Festiva shone there. Precious parking spaces that other cars would have needed casters to fit in were a breeze. And there’s nothing like catching a bit of air in a Festiva on the hills.

As alluded to earlier, the Festiva is a Mazda 121 in everything but name, and lives up to its zoom-zoom heritage; or at least tries hard to. Curiously, the 121 was never sold in Japan, but a Japanese-made Festiva was, at Ford’s Autorama dealer network. Japanese tie-ups and dealer networks are a complicated thing. And outside of the US, the little Kia was called the Pride, and built up until to 2000. And like the LeMans that found an immortal home in Uzbekistan, the Kia Pride is still going strong in Iran. The license built SAIPA Saba and its successors including a pickup version account for some 40% of the Iranian market. It’s a small world after all.

Unless I was having too much fun last night, my memory tells me that the Festiva was the last of the true lovable shitboxes. The Geo Metro is close, but the Festiva’s 1.3 L four will blow away the Metro’s little three-pot. The Suzuki Swift with its 1.3 L four, perhaps. As Michael Karesh pointed out in his Hyundai i10 review, the i10 is within inches of the Festiva. And they both have that same tall stance with tiny wheels that makes it look like they will fall over in a strong breeze. It may look dorky, but it does the job, especially in the right setting. Manufacturers: the shitbox segment is wide open; these Festivas are holding up surprisingly well, but eventually they’ll need to be replaced.

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Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Stingray Stingray on Nov 26, 2010

    I'm out of town and don't have enough bandwidth to make 2 replies. 1) I have an Iranian friend who's named Mehdi as the commenter above. 2) I have never driven an original Festiva, but drove for some time one of the Iranian derivatives, the Saipa 141. The thing is fun to drive, up to 50 mph, after that the lack of power kills the fun of it. In the city they're like rabbits, very agile and swift, you can even beat the SUVs for space. In the highway, well, I was able to take one up to 120 mph on a light downhill. I don't recommend it. On its own power it will not go further than 100 mph. Brakes suck. The steering, as Mr. Niedermeyer pointed, is great. Light, precise, communicative, quick. The things have a lot of interior space, but the seats are not very good, and that didn't got lost in the translation from Korean to Farsi. I saw a local 4 door Festiva and it had the same seats. Very simple to assemble and service. The only flaw I know for both Festiva and its sons is that they tend to need a LOT of front wheel bearings. No problem since they're cheap and plentiful, and IIRC, also standard. I know the little buggers more than I want, and wherever built, they're honest basic transportation, something that is not very common these days.

  • RP82 RP82 on Mar 22, 2016

    I owned an Asspire for a few years, back when gas was approaching 5.00/gal as a commuter 2nd car. Not sure why all the hate against it since after all it still had the basic underpinnings of the Festiva, albeit with a few extra lbs on the scale. It had better/bigger brakes, ABS and dual front air bags(a 1st for any tiny car in it's class back then). Yes, it was a shitbox but got the job done and returned mid 30's to low 40's MPG. They shared the same Mazda sourced B3 engine which are dead reliable. I bought the car with 120k mi on it and sold it 3 years later with about 190k. Only things I had to replace on it were a front coil spring which rusted/broke, rear brake cylinders, and the fuel sending unit. A/C worked surprisingly well but felt like it robbed 10hp on an an engine only making 64hp as it was!

  • Yuda 1) EVs are garbage and a complete waste of time and money 2) Ford IS a business after all, cars and trucks ain't free, they take a lot of time and money to Actually make, manufacture, and build 3) SD trucks are actually useful and practical
  • Tane94 If there is market demand, build the vehicle. That's what Ford is doing. Kudos
  • Cprescott Looking like that? Egads
  • The Oracle This thing got porky quick.
  • Kwi65728132 I'll grant that it's nicely kept but I'm not a fan of the bangle butt designs, and I know better than to buy a used BMW while living anywhere in the world other than in the fatherland where these are as common as any Honda or Toyota is anywhere else.