Ford Escort XR3i and RS1600i

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For many potential customers, and some inside Ford, the October 1982 public appearance of the Ford Escort XR3i and RS1600i performance derivatives came as something of a puzzle. Previously, if you wanted a performance version of Ford’s claimed World best-selling front drive design, you bought the carburated 96 b.h.p. XR3. Now there is the choice of two 110 m.p.h. plus Ford Escorts, both with a quota of spoilers, badges and five forward gears, split by £670 — which is not a lot when you are spending between £6,030 and £6,700. Escorts can easily have their prices further inflated by £1,000 and more when options such as electric windows, central locking and glass sunroof are selected.

Why is there this Escort performance choice? Because the XR3i is a direct fuel injection replacement for the XR3, engineered by the Rod Mansfield-directed Special Vehicles Engineering Group in Britain, and the RS1600i is a Ford of Germany Motorsport project intended for a Group A competition job in international motorsport. Much to everyone’s surprise the rorty RS1600i, which does not have some important XR3i equipment such as the larger rear brakes or realigned front struts, is proving a big commercial success in Britain. A direct contrast to its four valve per cylinder ancestors, Escort RS1600 and RS1800, which both had derivatives of Cosworth BDA engine power. Having achieved motorsport homologation for the RS 1600i one might have expected Ford to have quietly forgotten about making the car widely available, but in the 1980s profitable lines can never be ignored, however small their apparent appeal.

XR3i: much better

Although the XR3 and subsequent five-speed model set new sales records, Fords specialist engineers tackled three major areas in the XR3i.

The four cylinder c.v.h, engine is equipped with Bosch K-Jetronic injection, a fuel over-run cut-off valve operating above 1,400 r.p.m. The result is 105 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. and a delightful combination of 115 m.p.h. pace and 27-33 m.p.g. in our hands, slightly better than the writer’s Weber-equipped 20,000 mile XR3, and a lot sweeter in the delivery of its power. The engine is now protected by an oil/water intercooler and an r.p.m. governor at 6,500 r.p.m., which cuts in to prevent 0-60 m.p.h. being much below 8s for the governor limits second gear speed to approximately 56 m.p.h.

Other important XR3i changes are to the suspension: front wheel positive camber has been eliminated by a revised front struts manufacturing process, leaving the said wheel in a vertical stance, and the anti-roll bar diameter has increased from 22 to 24 mm. The rear dual rate coil springs, with their very high wheel rates, have also been eliminated in favour of conventional coils. Bilstein dampers have been replaced by Girling monotube, front and rear.

Rear brake diameter has increased from seven to eight inches and the interior has been re-trimmed with a distinct Ghia flavour from Monza velour and Cashmere-coded cloth.

I drove the XR3i over a generous two week Christmas period, and can only summarise my feelings by saying that is was a personal “Car of the Year” for the real World, where one pays the petrol, insurance and parking bills!

Compared with the XR3, the engine remains noisy (I think the injection actually amplifies the resonance just before 4,000 r.p.m.), but the prompt starting and delightful acceleration, with no hiccups in any gear between 1,000 and 6,500 r.p.m., are an enormous improvement.

The suspension is not a miracle by MG Turbo or Fiat 125/105 TC standards, but now the irritating and restless rear-end bobbing has been eliminated. The XR3i skims around faster corners competently and only encounters problems when asked, via Pirelli P6s, to exit a slow wet corner, or to bite through standing water at speed. I have several thousand miles experience of the Goodyear NCT on my XR3 and would recommend these, plus the RS1600i separate rollbar/compression strut front suspension layout as the ultimate answer.

I did not particularly like the revised trim, feeling it would show dirt and age faster than the praiseworthy resistance to both these destructive elements shown over 20,000 miles by the staff Escort.

RS1600i: exciting, but not so good as XR3i . . .

The RS1600i was conscientiously re-engineered by FAVO personnel at Ford of Boreham to pass the legislative demands of Great Britain following a year of very limited continental appearances with German manufacture and public road homologation only.

Every aspect is modified compared with a production Escort. but it is important to remember that the Germans originally engineered it around the XR3, not the XR3i, thus it first started appearing in continental road tests in summer 1982. The rear brakes remain at seven inches diameter and, more importantly, the servo-assistance unit is moved in traditional r.h.d. manner, whereas on the XR3i it remains in I.h.d. location. the latter giving a very much firmer pedal action. Moreover, the front wheels do have a positive camber, a feature most will remember from Hillman Imps. . . . 

The RS1600i engine is very much sportier than its 115 b.h.p. at 5,750 r.p.m. implies. Its sports camshaft really provides power between 4.000 and the r.p.m.-limited 6.500 r.p.m. The limiter really spoils the fun of an engine that Ford engineering chief Ron Mellor originally described as safe to 7,000 r.p.m. As on the XR3i a Bosch K-jetronic mechanical injection system is used, but an annoying feature is that the usual Escort speedometer “idiot economy” lights have been hitched up so that both illuminate whenever the fuel is shut off on over run. This really is a night nuisance — and resolving the matter with sticky tape merely obscures the 70 m.p.h. legend! Works engineers tells as its better to simply disconnect the device via the snap connectors provided!

The suspension changes centre on the use of a transverse aluminium pick-up that carries the front anti-roll bar separately from the additional compression struts, which lead back to provide additional front wheel location. Koni adjustable dampers are used front and rear with lower spring platforms complementary to a ride height that has been lowered nearly an inch.

The gearbox carries an 0.83 fifth gear instead of 0.76, which means a much better chance of attaining the claimed 118 m.p.h. maximum. In everyday terms it means you cruise just below 4,000 r.p.m. for 80 m.p.h. in an XR3i and some 4,200 r.p.m. are required for the same speed in RS1600i. It also means that 115 m.p.h. “on the clock” takes you very close to the 6,500 r.p.m. RS1600i limiter!

More obvious changes include superb ASS bucket seats and new interior trim, again of a plusher Ghia nature, a four-spoke steering wheel of undoubted strength and larger diameter than the titchy production item. The seven-spoke alloy wheels are destined to become the Ford sporting style of the ’80s: in this case they are 6″ broad by 15″ diameter. as compared with XR3i’s standard steel 6 x 14″ (when the price is £6,030) or the £6,155 optional XR3i starting point with 5½ x 14″. The test car had efficient Dunlop D4 195/50 VR radials, which replace the original 190 Phoenix continental specification.

Walking around the RS1600i the Escort driver will note that the front and rear spoilers are new (the drag coefficient is unaffected) and that the spats in front of the rear wheel arches and behind the front have been deleted. The test car’s lamps were an extraordinary melange of Lucas headlamps, Carello round auxiliaries and Hella supplementary, the latter below the bumpers.

On the road the RS1600i came across as a very different character to XR3i. Driven hard over country roads it twitched enough to draw comment from an ardent BMW driver and I could quite see that the larger steering wheel was needed to keep this exciting little device on the straight and narrow.

The engine has a much harder note than normal, its mechanical and enlarged valve gear contrasting with XR3i’s hydraulic shuffling on idle particularly. The large bore exhaust is noisy over 4,000 r.p.m., but is discreet enough for town use.

Acceleration is positively brilliant in the RS1600i, but on paper you will see little difference over XR3i because of the r.p.m.-limiter, which cancels much of the power unit’s extra sporting dash at high r.p.m. Changing from the 90 m.p.h. third gear into fourth the momentum slows, but it is a delight to lose but 600 r.p.m. sliding from fourth to fifth, instead of more like 1,000 r.p.m. for XR3i.

On motorways and B-roads stability against crosswinds is exceptional — and there’s also tremendous stability for passengers thanks to those replacement seats, which set new standards of comfortable sporting excellence. Traction was notably good by front drive standards — reminiscent of Fiat’s similarly modified 125TC Ritmo — and considerably better than the XR3i.

Conclusion

Both these recent Escort high performance derivatives deserve trial before purchase in this competitive area of the market. The RS1600i is already on an advance order status and is only available from RS dealers: it may well be that Ford have to make more than the 5,000 needed for their sporting purposes. Personally I think it is the car’s styling and interior changes that customers are buying, for the road performance is little different (and lot more harshly delivered) than that of XR3i.

As to the XR3i, it is now a worthy all round competitor even for 1.8 Golf GTi. In a Ford range that includes Fiesta XR2 and Capri 2.8i many insiders feel it is now capable of filling the star role: but we have still to drive the Sierra XR4. . . . — J.W.

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