New cars -- Ford Escort S

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Back to the Drawing Board

If Ford of Britain have suffered a worse period for press comment and wounded sales, it has escaped our attention. There is no doubt that the success of the 1980 front-drive line (lightly facelifted in 1986) has not been continued in the current offering.

Searching for some crumbs of comfort after the mediocrity of a winter week in a 1.6 Escort Ghia, we agreed to borrow the spiritual heir to the XR3i mantle; a three door Escort S. It uses the updated (Ford EEC-IV electronic management) version of the CVH 1590cc which is now credited with 108 bhp at 6000 rpm, rather than the 105 bhp that so many XR3i Escorts fielded between 1982 and 1990. Maximum torque is listed as 104 lb ft on 4500 rpm, but neither figure is sustained if you have a social conscience and elect for the extra cost of a catalytic converter.

Nominally, the “S” price was £10,990 when we borrowed the car, £11,228.91 since Chancellor Lamont and Ford heard the budget broadcast. We say nominally because our press car had an experimental RS body kit installed, one that is unpriced at present, said a Ford spokesman. Ford also cite standard items such as a tilt and slide sunroof, central locking, power front windows and Quick-clear front screen as evidence of largesse.

The RS kit comprised body colour matched front and rear spoilers, side skirts and alloy wheels, the latter a 6 x 14 inch item that normally cost £315 more than the steel wheel Escort S. Unfortunately for Ford our test car also had £360 more for power steering, so the cost could not have been less than £11,904. The body kit, installed at the factory, is unlikely to be less than £500, so we had to judge a sports Escort costing around £12,500. Ford insist that it is a 116 mph package capable of 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds, or 47.1 mpg at 56 mph. More realistic is the 28 mpg recorded around town, for we recorded fractionally under 25 mpg overall. The maximum speed quote is almost academic, whilst the admission of a near-10 second 0-60 mph figure is a far cry from the 8.6 second independent times and claims of the first XR3i. In short the statistics of the Escort S are not sporting today, failing to equate to the SXi branded Vauxhall Astras, models due for replacement this autumn.

The figures would not matter, if the Escort delivered driving pleasure. The S can do this, but only if you keep its Sports suspension, including uprated springs and shock absorbers, firmly on its motorway forte and away from wet by-roads. At speed on main roads, the Ford is a quietly undemanding companion. The engine is typically CVH in exhibiting its raucous roughness when pressed beyond a modest 4500/5000 rpm.

Ford take good care to gear tall enough to avoid these rough periods in motorway use. Take the S away from undemanding roads, ask for some Peugeot motoring pleasure (available in the aged but chic 1.6 205 GTi for £11,496 or £12,941 for the 130 bhp 1.9 litre), and the Escort shows Ford engineering do not understand the custom they are trying to attract.

The single worst feature was the optional anti-lock brakes. Despite having ditched the old and slow electro-hydraulic Escort SCS system, the latest offering appears not to have been matched to the Ford in the vital respect of wheel lock. The pedal was unduly long, and when the brakes did apply there were incidents of snatch and grab that would not have been out of place in a cops and robbers chase film sequence. Ford have yet to show they can engineer such ABS wares into their front-drive products.

The rest of the Escort S was just mediocre by comparison. The handling features a creaky ride and loads of “impress your mates” front wheelspin, but the gear change is now veering toward good. Cabin layout is an object lesson in clear ergonomics and affordable creature comforts.

Manufacturing quality was poor, and there were some petty failures during the week, as there had been with the Ghia.

Will the forthcoming Zeta engine (slated for the XR3i at some 130 bhp and 1.8 litres) and further sports versions of the Escort (RS2000 with 150 bhp; Escort 4×4 RS Cosworth of at least 220 bhp) be enough to save the reputation of the former British bestseller? We hope not. Ford should address their mass production customers and give them a decent competitor to the opposition, rather than get away with a false image, one based upon a promising competition car. — JW

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