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Launched last year as a replacement for the subcompact Festiva, Ford's little Aspire has been a modest success in a market segment - basic transportation - that is itself only modestly successful. After all, as long as the economy is good, roomier and more powerful cars are going to rule the road.
Although it is quite capable of freeway cruising and keeping up with traffic, no one could call the Aspire powerful. But, measured against other cars in this class, it's reasonably roomy and does have its appeal. It's well-suited for use as a second or third family car, with safety features that take some of the worry out of handing it over to younger drivers. And it's an excellent commuter vehicle - comfortable, durable and cheap to operate. The bottom line is also quite pleasing; the 3-door base we tested came in under $10,000, with air conditioning and an AM/FM radio.
Although the Aspire is a direct replacement for the Festiva and continues to be built in South Korea, Ford elected to go with a new name to reflect the car's greater versatility.
It's certainly bigger than the Festiva - wider with a longer wheelbase. And unlike the Festiva, it's available in both 3- and 5-door hatchback editions, both basically ovoid in shape for improved aerodynamic efficiency and reduced wind noise. The distinctly egg-shaped 3-door version might even be perceived as cute. It would be hard to say the same for the 5-door, but it's a good example of modern space efficiency.
All the Aspires have body-colored bumpers, grilles and side moldings, which we think comprise a more attractive treatment than the black bumpers that adorn basic editions of many other small cars.
Aside from the 3- or 5-door choice, there's only one model distinction in the Aspire lineup - a sporty SE version of the coupe. There's only one engine - an economy-oriented 1.3-liter 4-cylinder rated at 63 hp - the same engine that powered the Festiva. Although it's short on muscle, it has compiled an enviable durability record, and improvements to the Aspire version - self-adjusting hydraulic valve lifters, stainless steel exhaust system - make it tougher still.
Aside from two new clearcoat metallic colors - Silver Blue Mist and Teal - changes for 1995 are confined to revisions in option ordering, which is an area where a basic subcompact transportation car can quickly become as expensive as cars in the next size class. If you load an Aspire with every available option, for example, it quickly surpasses the cost of the bigger Ford Escort.
One unfortunate change in option availability is the elimination of a rear-window wiper/washer. Although the Aspire's aerodynamic design helps prevent back-window buildup, being able to give the rear view an occasional swipe in wet weather is nice.
Aside from comfort and convenience options, the only other choice facing a prospective Aspire owner is whether to go with the standard 5-speed manual transmission or pay extra for the 3-speed automatic. We usually recommend manual transmissions in small economy cars - for better fuel efficiency, better performance and less cost - and we particularly recommend the manual transmission here. Equipped with an automatic, this car's performance becomes downright sluggish.
Although it's a small car, the Aspire feels bigger inside than its exterior might suggest. there's plenty of front legroom, and the egg-shaped profile provides good headroom. Rear legroom in the coupe is tight, and rear seating requires cooperation from those up front. The 5-door Aspire is pretty good on this score - better than any of its key competitors: Toyota Tercel, Geo Metro or Hyundai Accent.
However, the Aspire's greatest advantage in roominess is its cargo volume. Both the 3-door and 5-door versions of this car have good-sized cargo holds behind the rear seats, and with those seats folded forward, both become spacious mini-station wagons.
Our test coupe was capable of swallowing 37.7 cu. ft. of assorted stuff with the rear seatbacks folded down, and the 5-door holds even more. However, a plus for the coupe is its flat load floor; the seats in the 5-door don't quite go down flush. Either way, though, extra cargo capacity is the key advantage of a hatchback versus a formal sedan with a conventional trunk.
The interior of our test car was nicely turned out with cloth upholstery, a distinct change from the vinyl that covers the seats in base models of some of the other cars in this class. The SE has a fancier grade of upholstery, but we think the basic grade is just fine, and it helps keep the entire cost of the purchase down.
The aspire's seating is well-padded and surprisingly comfortable for a car in this class. there's not much in the way of side bolstering, but then there's not much about a car like this that tempts - or allows - you to hurl it around corners.
Instrumentation falls into the bare minimum category - speedometer, fuel gauge and coolant temperature gauge. The only way you can get a tachometer is to step up to the SE version, which defeats the basic purpose of this car - reliable, no-frills transportation at the lowest possible cost.
The aspire's safety features measure up well versus its competitors. This was the first subcompact to feature standard dual airbags, although key competitors have since followed suit. Other elements include side-impact protection, child-security rear door locks on the 5-door and 5-mph bumpers. Anti-lock brakes, unfortunately, are available only as an option; this is true of almost all small cars.
Our Aspire coupe provided a pleasant blend of comfortable ride, adequate performance and no surprises. It's an easy car to drive, with light, positive clutch action and acceptable acceleration. Power steering is available only with the automatic transmission, but the effort is light enough, even at parking-lot speeds, that we don't view this as a serious flaw.
One negative control element that we noticed was the aspire's shifting, which was a little rubbery and not as precise as it could have been. Basically, it just takes some getting used to. The only real drawback to a car with only 63 hp is in passing on 2-lane highways, a process that requires planning and a long, straight stretch of road.
On the other hand, we were impressed by how quietly this little car went about its business. Like all small engines, the aspire's 1.3-liter 4-cylinder makes noise when pressed, but in ordinary operation, it's surprisingly subdued. Similarly, the aspire's aero shape and flush glass do a good job of keeping wind noise to a minimum.
Fuel economy is also a plus. We averaged 40 mpg in all-around driving, a very respectable performance and exactly what you'd want in a car whose primary reason for being is to keep expenses to a minimum.
Although it can't be called stark, the Ford Aspire is clearly a basic transportation car, and anyone expecting more from it will be disappointed.
With a 5-speed manual, the aspire's performance is good enough to get the job done, and you can expect bulletproof reliability from its powertrain, as well as durability from its bodywork. Ford set high anticorrosion and paint quality standards at the South Korean factory, and the rust-through warranty, 6 years/100,000 miles, reflects Ford's expectations in this regard.
Like all Fords, the Aspire is backed by Ford's 24-hour roadside assistance program in the unlikely event that something does break down - or the more likely event that one of your kids locks the keys in the car.
At this end of the automotive spectrum, little things like that count for a lot.