Rare Rides Icons: The Ford Festiva, a Subcompact and Worldwide Kia by Mazda (Part I)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rare rides icons the ford festiva a subcompact and worldwide kia by mazda part i

We embark on the important and global tale of a subcompact hatchback today. Your author referenced it last week in Part I of our Kia large cars series, and now it’s time for the promised comprehensive Rare Rides coverage! Manufactured in various places around the world, our subject vehicle lived a long life and had no fewer than 10 identities over its impressive 17-year span. We’re going to party, karamu, Festiva, forever.

The Festiva’s tale started in the Seventies, as Ford increased its ownership stake in friendly and wholesome Japanese automaker, Mazda. The two companies’ relationship started in the latter part of that decade. Mazda had been in a rough spot financially since the Sixties, and Ford purchased its ownership on the cheap. Ford’s first investment was a paltry seven percent stake in the Hiroshima firm.

The relationship deepened in 1979 when Ford poured in some more cash and raised their stake in Mazda to 24.5 percent. The timing happened to align for both companies with regard to an all-new subcompact offering, as Ford’s product was outdated and Mazda had some free design capacity.

As far as Ford was concerned, subcompact offerings were split into the Pinto for the North American market, and the Fiesta for Europe and other places. The Pinto had a terrible reputation and was near the end of its life after being on sale since 1971.

The West German and UK-made Fiesta was a bit newer, but wouldn’t last much longer in its first-gen Seventies guise. On sale since 1976, German examples were available in North America between 1978 and 1980. The first Fiesta was generally well-received, particularly in North America because the Pinto alternative was crap.

The Fiesta continued in production through 1983 in its initial version, before it was replaced by the Fiesta Mark II. But that Fiesta, like the first, was more for European consumption and wouldn’t work as a world car as well as something purpose-designed. Hold that thought.

Over at Mazda, there was only one subcompact car in the company’s history, and it was only such on a technicality. Called the Carol 600, the coupe and sedan were marginally larger versions of the Kei R360 coupe, which was also sold as the Carol. Its 600 name was due to its 586-cc engine, and it graduated from Kei to subcompact because it had larger bumpers. Inside, the space was the same as the smaller car.

The “larger” Carol 600 was of a higher tax bracket and proved unpopular because it offered no advantages over the Kei version other than a larger engine. The 600 was on sale for two model years before it was pulled from production, with about 8,800 examples sold. Mazda didn’t make another subcompact until 1986. Back to Ford.

Given the Pinto was done and the Fiesta was not intended for North American consumption, Ford would go without a subcompact offering for a few years. In 1981 the compact Escort became the replacement for the subcompact Pinto, which had straddled the size classes with how large it was. The replacement for the Fiesta in North America would be a true subcompact.

In Europe, the Fiesta Mark II would continue as the smallest car on offer in the supermini class, while the European Escort was in its third generation and was considered a small family car (compact). The newly created subcompact would not be sold in Europe but would be sold eventually by Ford Australia to that market.

Product need analyzed, Ford approached Mazda with its considerable early Eighties ownership stake and directed the Hiroshima folks to develop a new subcompact car. The name Ford picked was Festiva, surely in hopes the reputation and success of the extant and similarly named Fiesta would rub off on its new import. The resultant Mazda-developed ride was a practical, square, three-door hatchback shape.

Though it wore a Ford badge, it was immediately clear the Festiva was a Japanese design. Its overall theme was “practical box.” An unadorned fascia presented two square composite headlamps, which were flush with the grille and used amber corner markers. The grille between was body-colored and featured a very simple singular bar with a Ford emblem in the center. The bumper was finished in a grey rubber (or body-colored on higher trims) and had almost no decoration other than two turn indicator lamps.

The hood had minimal decoration and only a modest power bulge that tapered off before the leading edge at the grille. The upper half of the Festiva’s hood had a single raised detail, in the form of a centrally-placed black plastic windshield sprayer nozzle.

Fenders featured a single character line that ran straight to the end of the short body. It was interrupted by a very obvious fuel door on the driver’s side, and a black door handle that was pulled from the Ranger. Side rub strips continued from front to rear wheel well and featured a contrasting tape stripe within them. They were black on lower-end models, but body-colored if a more zesty trim.

At the rear, the tall greenhouse met with a simple rear hatch for maximum practicality and visibility. Pillars all around were thin, a nod to the rather lax crash safety standards of the Eighties. There was little adornment at the rear, just a simple set of badges, a rear wiper, and a bumper with a cutout for the tiny tailpipe.

As one might expect on such a class of car, the Festiva’s interior was built to a price and utilized a less is more design theme. In front of the driver was a two-spoke Mazda steering wheel, and beyond a very simple set of gauges. Speedometer, temperature, and fuel were the only gauges offered. No tachometer was present, even with a manual transmission. Elsewhere, the cabin had very simple HVAC sliders, a very simple stereo, and no center console. Between the flat bucket seats was the shifter and parking brake, and nothing else.

The Festiva’s seats were rather unadorned, though some examples used more upmarket ribbed velour as their seating material. Door panels were equally simple, covered with a minimum amount of padding, and finished largely in vinyl. Seat belts were everyone’s least favorite type: Automatic and attached to the door for the shoulder, with a manual lap belt. In general, comfort and convenience features were kept at a minimum, in order to ensure the lowest pricing possible.

There’s not a lot left to say about the exterior and interior styling of the super simplistic Festiva. We’ll wrap up there, and learn about the Festiva’s engineering and mechanicals in Part II. We’ll also cover its important world debut.

[Images: Ford, YouTube]

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  • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on May 02, 2022

    My dad got one of these little buggers in 1992 in the requisite turquoise after my mom made him get rid of his Skyhawk. I know it was a manual because my dad was spiteful about having to get rid of the Buick; mom couldn't drive it. We always had a bit of fun pushing it around while dad had the clutch in. I was too young to remember much more about it. Dad liked that it was a miser getting around 50 mpg. Later it was traded for an Aspire, which I understand was the second generation, also a manual.

  • Dennis Howerton Dennis Howerton on Aug 07, 2022

    Nice article, Corey. Makes me wish I had bought Festivas when they were being produced. Kia made them until the line was discontinued, but Kia evidently used some of the technology to make the Rio. Pictures of the interior look a lot like my Rio's interior, and the 1.5 liter engine is from Mazda while Ford made the automatic transmission in the used 2002 Rio I've been driving since 2006. I might add the Rio is also an excellent subcompact people mover.



  • FreedMike Can the final last call edition be the Secretary Special, with a V6 and a vinyl roof?
  • FreedMike I’ve never heard of this so I’ll have no problem not attending.
  • ToolGuy As I understand it, the Toyota Prius basically lasts forever because the engine gets a gentle duty cycle and the battery gets babied. This seems like the opposite of that.[Impressive tech, not for me, but then neither is the Prius.]
  • Dusterdude Excellent work ! Your stories are always linguistically interesting . Even if you weren’t writing about a quirky car on a long and adventuresome journey - I know your write up would still be interesting ! ( I also have a Soft spot for large cars - as my daily driver is a 2000 Chrysler Concorde )
  • MaintenanceCosts There have always been just two reasons to buy AMG cars: the menacing, hard-edged V8 warble, and the styling with subtle shapes but perfectly aggressive details. This is missing both of those things: the styling has gotten cartoonishly aggressive, and the engine will sound like a fart-can Civic. I don't understand why I should want it.
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