Good eggs, Rotten apples

Good eggs, rotten apples too many cars have gained undeserved reputations. Some are over-hyped, others underrated. In the first of a series that explodes these myths, Andrew Frankel looks at a great pretender


It is remarkable how rare it is today that a car receives a reputation it actually deserves. Because so many factors cloud the process which have little to do with the product — prejudice, precedent and a depressing predilection among too many writers to be kinder than they should, to name but three — rather indifferent motors now bear implausibly grand names on their decidedly skinny shoulders. Of course, it works the other way around too and, as the odd gem does get buried, we will be taking a look at a few of these too over the months to come.

Now though, it is Ford’s Escort RS Cosworth that stands accused of being a less than brilliant road car.

The Escort Cosworth was born, back in 1992, with two crucial factors in its favour: First, it looked right; there is no doubting that those mad, pumped up hatch-from-hell lines struck the right note for its target audience. Second, and as importantly, people wanted it to be right. They willed it with every fibre to be as great a car as that it purported to replace, the largely wonderful Sierra Cosworth. “New Cosworth in not-quite-as-good-as-the-old-one shock” was not a headline anyone wanted to read.

In fairness, the Escort was not a bad car, merely a disappointing one. After the lessons of six years of Sierra Cosworth production, the expectations of the new car were sky high and, in just about every important area, it failed to meet them.

Part of the problem was the fact that, underneath that fancy body, it wasn’t sufficiently different to the Sierra. Indeed, the simple truth is that it was a Sierra, running on a modified platform. If you don’t believe me, peer under the bonnet. When did a ’90s Escort ever have a longitudinal engine? On its own, this reflects merely Ford’s desire to keep the Cosworth line alive long after it could no longer sell the Sierra. The Escort case only starts to look ricketty when direct comparisons are made to its parent.

First, there is the engine, the 2-litre 16-valve turbo four that was common to both. Back in 1986 it was noted more for its ability to extract 100bhp from each of its litres than the ill-tempered manner in which it was achieved. Modifications to bring that output up to the 227bhp boasted by the Escort did little to improve its distinctly crabby disposition.

Even this might have mattered little if the Escort had gone quicker than the Sierra but, as Autocar’s tests showed, this was not a claim it could make. Despite the good offices of four-wheel drive, it could only match the 6.2sec 0-60mph sprint achieved by the original Sierra and not touch its 145mph top speed, its bluff shape halting progress at 138mph.

Some might say such on-paper posturing counts for little in the real world but even they would admit the coarse rattling’s of the Cortina-blocked engine gave little cause to commend itself when compared to the silken song of the Lancia Delta Integrate Evolution’s similarly configured powerplant.

It doesn’t end there. The Escort could have been forgiven if its chassis had proven to be some sublime vehicle for the talents of its drivers. As it was, it could not hold candle-light to that of the car it replaced.

It had a lot of grip, I grant you,and I don’t doubt it could drive around the outside of a Sierra in any corner you care to name. This is not the point. Grip should only be one small slice of chassis ability but, in the Escort, it was near enough the entire pie. Fine, the Sierra Cosworth was not the finest riding carriage around either but, in two vital respects, it was the old dog that knew the best tricks.

First, any Sierra Cosworth, from a two-wheel drive hatch to the four-wheel drive saloon, is better balanced than the Escort. Early ones were tricky, thanks to suspension that carried almost no rubber and Dunlop D40 tyres that lacked grip in the wet but, as the model evolved, they became beautfully controlled. The best was the rear-drive saloon which was not just devilishly quick point-to-point with butter-wouldn’t-melt looks but would also boot its tail as far out offing as you wished. And even when this game was ended by four-wheel drive, the Sierra Cosworth remained delightfully neutral, able to be manoeuvred on the throttle to your unending delight.

The Escort Cosworth is not like this. Unless you know some advanced rally driving techniques that should not be used on public roads whatever your surname, all it will do is grip and then understeer. And understeer some more. I remember passing a day with one at Goodwood and wondering what had gone wrong. Lap times might have said it was quick but pulse times definitely said it was dull.

Dismiss this as irrelevant to real life on the public road if you like. What is less easy to forgive, however, is the steering which is peculiar to say the least. It not only lacks the feel of the Sierra system, it has aggressive off-centre response, removing linearity. This is not a problem which spoils your fun at only race track speed; it’s there all the time.

In essence, the Escort Cosworth’s body wrote a cheque the car was unable to cash. In later life, a smaller turbo helped engine response but it never seemed likely to eclipse the car it replaced. All that could be categorically stated in the Escort’s favour over the Sierra was that extra security meant fewer were stolen. Perhaps the thieves took test drives too.

VERDICT: Rotten apple.