Road test: Ford Sierra XR4i

A winner

As Ford expected, the Sierra model was not immediately as popular as the Cortina model it replaced and it has taken a year for this rounded but aerodynamically efficient car to lead the British sales charts. The XR4i which is now available will certainly enhance the image of the Sierra range, offering a 130 m.p.h. package with a very high level of equipment for well under £10,000. The Sierra XR4i may not have the pedigree of a BMW and certainly has not the good looks, but as a value-for-money package it should worry some of the upmarket competition considerably.

The recipe for the XR4i was entirely predictable, putting the Cologne 2.8-litre push-rod V6 into the engine bay, rated at 150 b.h.p. DIN and coupled to the rear wheels by the latest close-ratio 5-speed gearbox. Bosch K-Jetronic injection is installed, though it’s halfway to L-Jetronic in that it has a fuel cut-off device for economy, shutting off the fuel supply on the overrun at over 1,700 r.p.m.

Capri enthusiasts feared that the XR4i would force the demise of the beloved coupe, and in time they may be right. For this year at least, Ford assure us, the Capri continues in production, though we imagine in its final form. Back-to-back the two cars provide an interesting contrast, the Capri being taut, stiff and very responsive to all the driver’s commands, though rather old-fashioned now, the 2.8i is a car for driving, fun all the way.

The Sierra, on the other hand, is spacious, comfortable, well furnished and has a striking appearance. The missing 10 bhp. is noticed under acceleration (the engine being tuned for torque rather than power, and having a single exhaust system), also due to the higher kerb weight of the Sierra at 1,205 kg. (2,657 lb.). The rack and pinion steering seems to lack feel around the straight ahead position, though power steering with a higher ratio is to be available, but on the plus side the Sierra’s brakes are bigger and apparently fade-free. The Sierra, with its drag coefficient reduced to 0.32 thanks to the bolt-on appendages, will eventually make up on the straights what it loses on acceleration to the Capri 2.8i, assuming you have the nerve to keep accelerating beyond 120 mph. This may be academic for most customers, but it matters to the Germans on their limit-free autobahnen. The crucial difference between the Sierra and the Capri is in the suspension department, the saloon being more softly sprung and definitely biased towards comfort rather than outright handling. Where the Capri is “chuckable” the Sierra needs more finesse, the independent rear trailing link system and softer progressive springs allowing a fair amount of roll and tuck when exploring the limits despite the addition of a 10 mm. anti-roll bar.

Under the bonnet the V6 sits well back in the chassis, and is topped by an air box casting that enhances the appearance of the power unit. The Sierra is rare nowadays in having rear-wheel drive, and is all the better for that — the occupants have all the space they need, and the front wheels, which carry 54% of the car’s weight, are employed for steering without the attendant power struggle normally associated with fwd. cars with a high power-to-weight ratio. The positioning of the engine ensures that the steering is pleasantly light, power assistance being a luxury that would hardly be needed except at parking speed.

The handbook warns that the throttle should not be touched when starting the engine from cold, as is usual with K-Jetronic, and the V6 delivers its power straight away. With the temptation to drive the XR4i hard from cold, the addition of an oil pressure or temperature gauge would be welcome. After four seconds the visual display light settles down, extinguishing the ice warning (unless it happens to be freezing!), though the interior courtesy lights stay on for about 20 sec.

The fascia is nicely curved, BMW fashion, to give the driver the snug feeling that everything he needs is around him, the 150 m.p.h. speedometer and the quadrant sector rev-counter being straight ahead. The steering wheel is a let-down, having a vinyl covering and Ford’s inverted vee spoke arrangement with horn buttons at the 20-to-four position. Those who drive habitually in the 10-to-two hand position will find this inconvenient, and a sport steering wheel with a centre horn button must surely come — and if the accessory manufacturers are the first to react, can we have a left footrest, too, please? The Escort XR3i is even more in need of a footrest, but its absence is noticed on the Sierra too.

The clutch has a long travel which has to be judged carefully to get a smooth take-off every time, but on the move the Sierra has a very satisfying rush of power which will hurry it along to 60 mph. in 7.8 sec. It is not just the initial acceleration which impresses, but the overtaking capabilities in third gear which make the XR4i such a fast long-distance machine. On the speedometer, 50 to 70 mph. acceleration in third gear takes just five seconds, ideal for brisk overtaking, while 70 to 90 mph. (still in third) takes 6.5 sec.

This express performance is accompanied by a subdued growl from the power unit, the only minus mark being an engine vibration which is felt in the cockpit when accelerating hard through 3,000 r.p.m. A cruising speed of 100 mph., once a flat-out speed for popular sports cars, is now the sort of pace that can be kept up all day with a minimum of disturbance to the passengers. An ignition cut out at 6,300 rpm. limits the intermediate speeds to 35 mph. in first, 65 mph. in second, 95 mph. in third and 115 mph. in fourth, with a genuine 130 mph. available in fifth gear with 5,750 rpm. on the tachometer, comfortably within the 6,000 rpm. limit for sustained engine speed. Apart from the brief imbalance at 2,800 to 3,000 rpm. the engine is beautifully smooth, with plenty of torque, so that the Sierra has the feel of a big, lazy car when the driver isn’t in the mood for energetic motoring. Fuel consumption over 750 miles averaged out at 25.6 mpg., ranging from 27.0 mpg. for a fast long journey to 24.2 mpg. in mixed driving. The official urban city cycle figure is 18.2 mpg., which we imagine to be the worst you’d ever get. while 30 mpg. should be within reach with gentle driving. The fuel tank contains 13.2 gallons (60 litres) so assuming the owner fills with 12 gallons, while averaging 25 mpg, a realistic range is 300 miles. Having exploited the high performance of the Sierra we should be satisfied with the overall consumption figure, though we’d hoped to achieve nearer 30 mpg. on a journey bearing in mind the cut-off device which saves fuel on the over-run.

The brakes, 10″ ventilated discs at the front and 10″ drums at the rear, are an inch bigger than on the Capri, though the XR4i is only 350 lb. heavier, for all its extra accommodation. They have a fairly powerful servo, perhaps a little too much for city traffic or when the brakes are cold, but they are fade-free, though rather smelly when used hard.

The heating and ventilation is very efficient and simple to operate, with the strong proviso that you can only get hot air through the fascia vents when the heater is used. It seems strange that Ford, along with some other manufacturers, should arrange to blast the driver’s face with hot air just because he wants to have warm feet, or condemn him to drowsiness brought on by the footwell heating. This can be alleviated only by opening a window, or by tilting the sunroof, which may not be practical in bad weather.

Up to eight-tenths motoring the Sierra is a fine proposition, and many customers will never wish to try any harder than that. The XR4i settles into a nice cornering attitude, tail down under power with a hint of oversteer and is far less unsettled by bumps than the Capri would be. Actual cornering power, on the Uniroyal 60-series 195/60VR14 Rallye tyres that came on 51/2J alloy wheels, is extremely good, and while we found the Sierra at first to be bulky, soft and rather over-servoed in comparison with the Capri, these impressions lasted only for a day or so. We grew to like the Sierra more with every day that passed, as a thoroughly competent family car with impressive mid-range performance that would see off many a sports model.

Outwardly the Sierra would hardly be mistaken for anything else on the road, its biplane rear spoiler distinguishing it in a crowd. The B-post door pillar has been moved back so that it has two large doors instead of four smaller ones, and this seems to improve the general appearance. Tacked-on plastic mouldings around the front and down the sides remove the tumble-home, and the effect of the total is to reduce the drag from 0.34 to 0.32, halfway to Audi’s figure with the latest 100 model. The windscreen is Hush fitted, which certainly helps to reduce the wind noise, so that the Sierra is a model which sounds hardly any noisier at 120 m.p.h. than it does at 70 m.p.h. This is essential in a car that is intended as a long-distance, high-speed commuter.

Standard equipment includes a Ford radio with stereo (and this has a particularly good tuner, with a vernier knob for fine tuning onto the signal), four speakers, an electric aerial, Recaro seats with lumbar adjustment (the driver’s also adjustable for height), a dashboard visual display, tinted glass, a rear hatch release in the armrest, front and rear foglights, a rear window wash / wipe, tinted glass, rear sunblinds, a coin storage cubby, and plenty of storage space for maps and oddments around the interior. The tool kit is particularly comprehensive, laid out in a case on the left side of the boot.

That is a comprehensive package for a price tag of £9,170, extras then being power steering, central locking, electric operation for the windows, headlamp washers, and a nice transparent sunroof which tilts or winds back manually, and has an interior screen — all of these items would take the XR4i near the £10,000 mark, but would put the Ford on a par with some models costing 05,000 or more.

It was the policy of Bob Lutz, before he moved from Europe to the parent company, to offer a sporting and upmarket version of each car in the Ford range. This programme is now complete with the Fiesta XR2, the Escort XR3i, the Sierra XR4i, the Capri 2.8i and even the Granada 2.8i, the last three named all nibbling away at the performance-with-luxury market exploited so successfully by BMW in recent years. It may be that owning a Ford does not carry quite the same social status as owning a BMW, but a sub £10,000 price tag on the road carries a lot of weight with company accountants.

The Sierra is a controversial car on account of its appearance, and the XR4i will also be controversial on account of its relatively soft suspension, which prevents it from keeping up with its XR2 and XR3 cousins when the going gets tough. With rising rate rear springs, and gas filled dampers the sporty Sierra is definitely tuned for comfort rather than outright handling, though the characteristics are safe and predictable. We would like to try the XR4i with sport-pack suspension, which will surely follow in time, but appraise it in the meantime as a very competent, fast, family model which offers exceptional value for money. — MLC.