Revised Ford Escort XR3i

With the Ford Escort being Britain’s and the world s best selling car a mid-term revision of the range is a more than averagely interesting event. Externally, the differences are subtle. The bonnet has been changed to bring it into line with Granada, Sierra and Fiesta, there are new bumper treatments front and rear, rubbing strips along the side, smooth rather than corrugated rear lights and, on the XR3i, a slightly changed rear spoiler and a new style in optional alloy wheels.

The next change the buyer is most likely to notice is the ignition door/ filler cap key which follows Granada in activating a Chubb high security system. With car theft endemic, this is a most welcome addition and other mass producers should follow suit immediately. Two cheers for Ford. One cannot be wholehearted in one, praise for Ford, like every maker, should have done it 20 years ago.

Escort’s dashboard follows the general style of Granada, with a matt black finish, improved ventilation (apparently the British market demands cooler air to the face than other markets) and stubby, light, and convenient stalk controls. There is a new Ford stereo radio system (“my” car had the electronic radio, at an extra £148 and a graphic equaliser which adds a further £166) and the aerial is incorporated into the rear window. All very tricky but still prone to interference and loss of reception. I’d expected much more at an additional £334

On first acquaintance, driving in Finland in January, I was much taken with the dashboard but soon discovered that its brightness at night (there is no dimmer) casts distracting reflections on both left and right side windows and there is an annoying patch of light from the instruments which reflects onto the windscreen in the sight line. “My” car also had the optional (£113) fuel computer which gives instant economy, overall economy, gallons used and expected range. This proved to be extremely accurate, confirming my calculations of 33 mpg over more than 1,500 miles, but I can’t believe it represents value for money.

Other options on “my” car were central locking (£171): glass sunroof with slide and tilt (£326): electric windows (£203): and alloy wheels (£223 for five) but was lacking the one option I’d specify, apart from ABS, which is a heated windscreen (£97).

In conjunction with Lucas-Girling, Ford has developed a low-cost (£315) mechanical ABS system specially for fwd cars and has exclusive use of it for the next year. “Road Impressions” describes everyday motoring and, I’m glad to say, I never experienced ABS at work but driving on snow in Finland earlier in the year, found it a mightily impressive addition. The braking of the Escort is. in any case, excellent, with a wonderful sense of feel.

Under the bonnet of much of the new Escort line lurks a lean burn engine running on a fuel, air mix of 18:1. This new range of engines offers excellent economy and increased power and the 1.4 unit is now available in a Fiesta, but the unit in the XR3i remains as before with only the addition of a low-friction oil pump. The engine is weak compared with some other “hot hatches”, it lacks torque below around 3,700 rpm and is clattery over 5,300 rpm (it’s redlined at 6.500 rpm). I missed the muscle of my Golf GTi while appreciating the Escort’s superior braking and handling.

The XR3i is no longer the top of the range Escort that slot is occupied by the RS Turbo, and Ford seems committed to the Turbo as the ultimate Escort, poor fuel consumption and all. I cannot help but wonder how a 16-valve Cosworth head might work.

Having said that, there are compensating features. The five-speed gearbox still sets the standard for the class, the clutch is remarkably light (going back to the Golf felt like driving a tractor), the steering is light and precise and the handling exceptional. Night driving is a pleasure thanks to the first rate lights backed up by auxiliary spots.

The handling has its price, however, in a fairly harsh ride. While behind the wheel this did not worry me but sitting in the passenger seat gave a different perspective. A friend, who is a high-mileage, enthusiastic. driver, is on his third XR3i and, on our traditional Easter Monday trip to Thruxton, I handed over the wheel for his comments.

He felt that the clutch and steering were both lighter than on his car but that the Uniroyal tyres were less sure-footed than his Pirellis. He was disappointed that there has been no uprating of the engine and is considering the carburetted 1.6, which has been boosted from 79 to 90 bhp (the injected unit gives 105 bhp) next time around. He has been impressed by the reliability, servicing charges and trade-in prices of his three cars (though all have leaked) but feels that in real, point to point, motoring terms he’d lose little by trading down but would gain in fuel economy and insurance terms.

From the passenger seat I discovered the deficiencies of the ride and on the one occasion when the son and heir was consigned to the rear, there were noises of protest.

From early in my use of the car, the brake and ABS malfunction warning lights were permanently on. My local Ford dealer was baffled, nobody knew about the ABS light and though the agency had 500 “old” Escort manuals, it had no manuals for the new model. The hrw warning light would go off only when the engine was switched off. It’s that sort of thing which makes me wary of electric windows, central locking etc.

Fitted with ABS, the XR3i’s price is £8,169 but all the extras fitted brought the list price of the car to £9,521 which is fairly serious money. After driving the car in Finland, before prices were announced, I thought it was again at the forefront of hot hatches. Though ABS has a value far beyond its modest price. I have to revise that opinion, Ford must try harder, particularly with the engine and ride.

In the last analysis, this is a cheap-to-run hot hatch which, in basic form, represents a good buy. It is not, however, greatly enhanced by he addition of expensive extras. There’s such a thing as gilding the lily.