One wallow doesn't make a stunner



Ford Probe

What goes around comes around. Hard to argue any different, really. With the demise of the Capri in the mid 1980s (“The car that you always promised yourself” — © Ford’s marketing department, 1968), Ford abandoned the sports coupe market in deference to the public’s preference for high-performance hatchbacks.

It was a gradual process, but Capri-man shed his skin and became XR3-man.

Fashions, however, have changed, particularly in the past couple of years, when insurance premiums on anything with an XR (or GTi, or SRi) appellation have climbed faster than Roy Lane on a good day.

As the cost of insurance went up, sales of sports hatchbacks went down, but manufacturers have been quick to respond. We have seen the introduction of slightly less potent models in altogether quieter clothes. Renault’s Clio RSi springs to mind as an obvious example of the new, toned-down breed.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, the sports coupe has regained prominence as a vehicle for the driver who has outgrown wheelspin starts and handbrake turns. Vauxhall’s Calibra — little more or less than a Cavalier in a mini-skirt — has established a niche for itself, while VW provided a more expensive alternative by giving the Golf a new suit and calling it a Corrado. From Japan, of course, Toyota’s Celica and the Nissan 200SX have been around for a while. In truth, the sports coupe never really went away, but it wasn’t until the Calibra arrived that the world at large realised.

And now Ford is back in the ring. At the same time that it has announced the phasing out of all XR models (see Fiesta story, page 287), it has introduced the Probe, launched in the United States back in 1988, to Europe.

Its target?

At least a slice of the 7,039 sales that the Calibra racked up in 1993. Fully aware of the new player in the market, Vauxhall says that it expects the sector to expand in general this year, and it is not making predictions about how the Calibra will perform. Its mood, however, appears confident.

At its launch, in Cannes, the Probe was prominently displayed alongside a Capri 280 in Ford’s hotel HQ. It’s an obvious, and inevitable, comparison, but Ford says that the Probe is not quite the same class of car as the Capri. The latter had a certain degree of what some would call sex appeal, but it was spartan inside. The Probe, undeniably a good looker, doesn’t just score marks for aesthetic content, it has a standard specification sheet to match: twin airbags on all models, ABS, central locking, electric windows and so on.

Ford’s recently appointed UK sales director Paddy Byrne says that the Probe is aimed further upmarket than the Capri ever was, that those who craved a Capri 20 or so years ago might have matured a little, might be a trifle more discerning, might place as much emphasis on creature comfort as they do on neck-straining performance.

It has not, apparently, occurred to Ford that those same thirty- or forty-somethings might now have families, and could thus require a usable rear cabin. In this respect, the Probe falls some way short. With a driver of modest stature at the wheel, there was barely space to squeeze a Swan Vesta behind the front seats.

That is merely a practical drawback. There are several dynamic shortcomings, too . . .

The Probe, for which prices had still to be fixed as this issue of Motor Sport closed for press, will be available in two versions. The first is powered by the svelte 2.5-litre, 24-valve V6 which also currently sees service in the upper strata of the Mazda range. The second has two fewer cylinders, and features Ford USA’s in-house 2.0 16-valver.

The test route centred on a series of gorgeous, flowing mountain roads that lie a few miles to the north of France’s southern coast. On the motorway leading to them, the Probe 24v proved to be an able cruiser. By modern standards, it isn’t overly powerful (Ford claims 164 bhp at 5,600 rpm, and 156 lb ft of torque at 4,800), though its performance is certainly adequate (top speed is reportedly 136 mph). In any case, we already knew from experience of Mazda’s MX-6 that the V6 was both quiet and strong.

And then we turned off the A8. . .

To cope with European tastes, Ford has revised the Probe’s suspension.

But nothing like enough.

Contrary to Ford’s claims, this does not “provide sports-car sharp responses and a touring car ride”. The Probe wallows uncomfortably almost as soon as it sees a bend. And you don’t have to try too hard to expose its discomfiture. It turns in lazily and body control is sadly lacking. Lifeless steering completes an unsatisfactory set (there is resistance from the powered system, but there’s little in the way of communication).

Wrong, wrong, wrong . . If Ford finds itself having to make major revisions, specifically to the suspension, it won’t be the first time, nor will it be the only major manufacturer to have been forced into a red-faced rethink early in a product’s life (GM accepted that the Corsa and Astra needed to be revised for the UK market, and responded with commendable honesty and speed).

It is the 24v Probe which is most in need of remedial attention. From behind the wheel, the 16v model is superior in every respect. It isn’t perfect, certainly (the ride is a little firm, and the steering could be sharper), but it is much, much better.

Again, it has only modest pretensions, with 114 bhp and 126 lb ft of torque. It is lighter, of course, and vastly more agile. It turns in more willingly, handles like a car (rather than an oil tanker. . . ) and while it is obviously less punchy, and more raucous, than the V6 for cruising purposes, there is no question that it will offer realistic competition to the similarly potent 2.0 Calibra (in eight-valve guise).

Both Probes have their good points. Styling apart, they offer comfortable, reasonably well-appointed cabins, excellent brakes and user-friendly gearchange, plus of course the aforementioned safety features.

From a driver’s point of view, however, the 16v model is unquestionably the more satisfying of the two. All the same, when Ford said that the Probe was not simply a 1990s Capri, the implication was that it was reintroducing Capri-type handling with an added splash of opulence. The more powerful Capris (2.0 and upwards) were pretty well sorted, chassis-wise, in a way that neither Probe is, leastways for the moment. All the same, the I 6v is class-competitive, and one cannot imagine that it will sell in anything other than the desired volumes, if only because anything with a blue oval badge tends to have a magnetic effect on the budgets of the British car-buying public. Sales director Byrne says he has no idea how many Probes might be snapped up in the course of a year. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he says. “It could be anything between 6,000 and 16,000 units.”

That sounds to us like confidence. In the case of the Probe 16v, there is good cause for it.

The V6?

For the moment, it’s more flawed than Ford. Surely the powers-that-be can’t allow the situation to remain that way for long? S A