It is always interesting, on the launch of a new car, to talk to the engineers involved in the project, and when the car is a high performance four-wheel-drive version, the contribution of those men is all the more significant. It was not surprising, then, that at the recent press launch of the Sierra XR4x4 outside Geneva, the boffins talked enthusiastically about what makes the Ford system better than Audi’s. For there is no doubt that at the moment, the Ingolstadt firm are Ford’s target.
Audi can now offer a quattro version of all its cars, though not all are yet in Britain, and have been building an image of discreet performance with which the XR4i is in contrast with its obvious performance addenda. Ford spokesmen shed no light about whether XR4i sales are the disappointment they are rumoured to be, preferring to point out that the 4WD version which will replace it is a better car all round.
And it is. Although some of the frills such as electric windows have been dropped to keep the price comparable with the 2WD model at around £11,500, the V6 engine remains, and with the viscous-coupled permanent drive system offers very impressive controllability. There are no differential locks; instead the silicon fluid in the central coupling distributes torque in the proportion of two-thirds to the rear, automatically biasing towards the front if the rear wheels slip excessively. New soft snow as we climbed a twisty pass towards the French border showed that the system works very well, the car effortlessly passing front-wheel-drive cars unable to accelerate beyond 30 mph, while turning firmly into a corner and opening the throttle causes the tail to drift gently and controllably our. But descending proved that she ABS (a fairly expensive option) is really a necessity in order to benefit from all-wheeldrive. Without it, the excellent traction can fool the driver over the state of the roads, so that when he touches the brake he is in for a surprise. With ABS, however, the car pulls up straight and, which is the real life-saver, can be steered at the same time.
On tarmac the XR4x4 turns in crisply and displays lots of grip. It should prove a relaxing car to drive fast, feeling better balanced than the big Quattro which has its engine slung out front and a 50-50 torque split. The Ford system uses a transfer case behind the gearbox with an epicyclic centre diff feeding a short front propshaft and another cliff which nestles against the sump. A cross-shaft runs through the sump in a sealed tube to CV joints on the halfshafts. It is not as elegant as the Audi layout, but it makes for a smaller percentage weight increase.
Continental cars will have the ordinary three door shell rather than the expensive XR4i one, while British cars will have a standard five-door, with a neat single spoiler and discreet badges, and RS alloy wheels. What will be worth looking out for will be an increase over the standard 150 bhp, something which the aftermarket tuners are going to be on to straight away. — G.C.