On Test -- Ford Sierra 4x4RS 4-Door

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“How far have we come since the RS Fords of the 70’s? — JW assesses the new breed.”

In the mid-Seventies I wrote a Motor Sport feature about a selection of three RS-branded Ford Escorts. All of them — RS1800 (2.0, DOHC, 16v, 120 bhp); RS2000 (2.0 SOHC, 110 bhp), RS Mexico (1.6-litres, SOHC, 95 bhp) — were timed against our then current fifth wheel equipment. The results were unique in that the second generation Mexico was not so tested elsewhere, and all the cars were tested on the same day. Judging by the widely reprinted use (official and unofficial) of these figures, this group has stood the test of time and fuelled a few saloon bar arguments.

For the record the slowest of that 1976 trio (Mexico) reached 106 mph, the fastest (RSI800) managed 111 mph and their 0-60 mph times ranged from 11.1 to 8.6 seconds, the fuller torque curve of the “beak nose” RS2000 allowing that quickest 0-60 mph time of the day. Fuel consumption figures of the old leaded four star were 27.2 mpg (Mexico); 26.5 mpg (RS1800) and 24.7 mpg (RS2000).

A glance at the data panel will show that the current Cosworth 4×4 can nearly equal such fuel economy, but on cheaper unleaded grades. Furthermore fifteen years of progress deliver an average of 6.5 seconds to 60 mph and almost 142 (rather than the claimed 150) mph.

Naturally costs have climbed through the roof. An RS1800 Escort was listed at £2990.12 in Custom Pack form. Now items such as standard power steering, sunroof, central locking and electric side glass and minors boost purchase price to roughly ten times as much. The official list price of the RS 4×4 tested was £27,060 plus optional leather at £500 and “Premium Sound” system, which included a CD player in one car (the first vehicle was stolen before figures could be taken).

Recently I had the opportunity of measuring just how far we have come since 1976, spending successive time with a 41,000 mile rear-drive Sapphire RS (2.0, DOHC, 16v, 204 bhp), before stepping straight into a factory 7-speed rally car (circa 300 bhp, as used to finish seventh on the Monte Carlo Rally in the hands of Malcolm Wilson). A current 4×4 version of the RS 4-door with the usual 220 bhp was then allotted to me as transport for an Oulton Park racing weekend, during which I would conduct a Collins Performance Engineering RS500 3-door (the biplane homologation version of the Ford Cosworth 2-litre), this particular example credited as delivering over 500 horsepower to its Bridgestone road tyre-shod rear wheels.

I did not performance test all the vehicles mentioned, but even in wet conditions the RS500 I drove ascends from rest to 100 mph in less than 11 seconds. We also attached our electronic Correvit equipment to the standard 4×4 RS in order to establish a benchmark for future work. The results and a specification for that car are appended as guidance to the now accepted “norm” in performance motoring.

Today the converted RS Cosworth seems just as common in the Nineties as the Escort RS did in the Seventies, so many may wonder why it is worth increasing the performance of an already seriously rapid motor car?

The factory rally example posed no questions as to the whys and wherefores of its existence. From its Ford-designed 7-speed gearbox, initially manufactured by Ferguson, to suspension and braking that share only principles with the production car, it proved an uncompromising and captivating competition car. Rapid beyond expectation, the factory rally car was demonstrated at the snowy Boreham HQ of Ford Motorsport by the man who had led the Monte Carlo Rally in a sister example, François Delecour.

The unexpected speed comes from a man determined to upset the established World Championship rallying order (he had not won an event of any status as at this March writing), plus a beautifully modulated horsepower and torque curve, one that seems to spread from 2000 to 6500 with equally appealing vigour. Further escalation in rpm toward the 7600 rpm electronic limiter is rendered almost pointless by the official power peak at 6500 rpm and the gentleman’s agreement figure of 300 bhp. Maximum torque is reported as 322 lb ft at 4250 rpm.

Ford sources indicated that 0-60 mph should be covered in “less than four seconds” and that the Monte Carlo maximum speed was around 135 mph at 7500 in seventh — velocity the grinning Northern French pilote described as “happening very often,” which gave me pause for thought as a routine task over icy Alpine terrain, in total darkness. . . .

We were allowed to drive in what passed for daylight on an exceptionally cold and icy day and then repaid the compliment by allowing Mr Delecour his first RHD miles at the wheel of the rear-drive RS Cosworth that Motor Sport has operated for several years.

Monsieur Delecour spun our vehicle twice — once in fourth gear — and we repaid the compliment at much slower speeds in the factory example. One did not expect much in common between a “works” rally car and the showroom brethren in the days of the World Championship-winning (1979) Escort, but the international groupings used today (A and N) mean that such differences now only exist in Group A.

Even then there is a restrictor on turbocharged cars in an effort to ensure some general compliance with a 300 horsepower ceiling. In Group N far more standard features have to be retained, but the 5-speed Ford factory examples that are used for World Championship reconnaissance duties, or in their successful forays within the category for Welshman Gwyndaf Evans, develop some 285 bhp. As such they are not a lot slower in a straight line than the full house Group A machinery: the difference lies in the cornering speeds where the liberal allowance for replacement braking and suspension components allows the Group A vehicle truly gripping cornering abilities.

The 7-speed gearbox of the factory Group A Ford was originally homologated as a 6-speed unit plus a “crawler” L-for-Low initial ratio. Thus the main change pattern of all non-synchromesh ratios two to seven lies in H-pattern swops, first protected by a collar and closest to the LHD suede wheel rim. Change quality is outstanding for the rapidity of swops, but the gate is not quite so neatly defined as that of the 6-speed units I have driven from Peugeot (Pikes Peak 405), BMW (Prodrive racing M3 saloon) and Toyota (Xtrac of Woking equip the World Championship Celica GT4). There is plenty of transmission whine accompanied by some awesome flame-throwing from the imposing side exhaust, but the Q8-backed factory Ford remained recognizably a Sierra RS Cosworth: rapid, rough, tough and effective.

It was something of a shock to climb out from the security of the 4×4 powerhouse to our old rear-drive 4-door RS. It feels comparatively unstable over snow and had amused all and sundry with its Boreham test track antics over slippery surfaces, apparently with no rear traction at all. Yet it remains a faithful friend that has survived a very tough life with three determined drivers at the helm. As a Contract Hire Vehicle F332 ODX does not get a lot of favours, but a recent 41,000 mile/£401 service at Hartford Motors in Oxford left it still faster in acceleration than the press fleet 4×4 demonstrator.

It is a notable proposition as a secondhand performance per £ buy at current £10,000-£12,000 prices for F-plated examples such as ours. The H-plated Ford demonstrator was similar in all major presentation respects to the rear-drive model, but there are some useful details that have changed as Ford have tried to keep the Sierra/Sapphire range in touch with GM Cavalier success. The 1991 boot is now released via an internal pull lever that releases the plastic fuel filler flap when depressed, or the boot when pulled upward; the exhaust has changed from unashamed drainpipe to chromed orifice and the steering column is adjustable in a vertical plane.

The character of the 4×4 version is a lot more restrained than the original hatchback RS Sierra. The heavy but effective 4×4 element ensures that its road manners are a lot tidier even than the comparatively tamed Sapphire rear-dnve predecessor. Wheelspin becomes almost a memory and power sliding is unlikely to occur, save on the greasiest of roundabouts with the most provocative of drivers. The MT75 gearbox is the Ford unit that replaced the Borg Warner unit of the rear-drive RS types and there are those who like its slick changing habits better than the notchy precision of the American original (which was also found in North American Mustang and Bronco products). I am not a fan of the later MT75 unit, but I would be if they tightened up the long throw shift quality and the “floppy” nature of the gear lever.

The ratios are logically set and allow just about 60 mph in second gear at the harshly attained 6500 rpm limit. Driven back to back, the 4×4 model is much quieter and smoother than its rear-drive forerunner, which can be regarded as a considerable achievement in view of the extra gear sets involved. However,I must stress that these comments do not imply that the Ford has become a naturally smooth performer which belongs naturally in the £25,000 to £30,000 sector of the market.

What the RS Ford Cosworth does in terms of performance and handling/adhesion abilities to provide driver pleasure is unmatched outside the LHD-only Lancia Delta Integrale (or BMW M3 for rear-drive fanatics). Yet Ford fit and finish remains too uneven to be credible in the £25,000 plus sector. For example the plastics are of markedly varied quality, the sound system looks garish (the radio particularly prone to interference and loss of selected station) and the instrumentation is sparse, ugly and becoming cluttered amongst the speedometer digits.

A simple run up and down our timing strip, using a 4000 rpm clutch start point, created our performance figures effortlessly. We then left the car on idle for more than a minute and drove away, calculations complete. An enormous cloud of oil smoke apparently announced the mortality of turbocharger or piston at this point. Our imperturbable companion from Motoring News said assuredly, “I had one do that not long ago, it’ll be OK in a minute.” So it was, but a litre of oil was required to restore the oil level and we had cause to bless the sturdier and more accessible 1991 dipstick.

Summary

As a long distance companion, one full of entertainment and capable of sustained high speeds, the Ford Sierra 4×4 RS derivative is unmatched at the price. It was proved not just around our test track, but another example also managed all but one day of the Lombard RAC Rally in our hands, underlining its all-weather capabilities.

The Ford is painfully priced almost adjacent to the (just) sub-£30,000 Audi S2 that we tested last month and that is its only serious weakness: it should be a lot cheaper. Then the obvious mass production flaws (plus rather a lot of panel/paint defects on the second test example) would not be so unacceptable. In other words, it is about time that Ford, whilst waiting for a new generation of bodies and engines for the Sierra, started to price a lot more aggressively.

Those RS Escorts (and their Capri 3-litre stablemates) of our introductory paragraphs gave the customer the sort of value for money that made the blue and white oval a worldwide symbol for value for money. The product has advanced by an enormous margin; but the ten-fold plus UK pricing policy is too pricey by far. It has taken Ford from its traditional pastures into the executive classes, a category that houses too many conscientious competitors for comfort. — JW

PS: The racing RS500 took pole position in my first race for three years, but my wet weather incompetence meant restarting from the tail of the 26 car field, but I did win the next round.

***

KEY FEATURES: Ford Sierra Cosworth 4x4RS 4-Door

Tax-inclusive price: £27,060 (£27,560 with leather, as tested). Two types of in-car entertainment tested were £475 and £710 optional extras.

Body: Steel, 4-doors and ancillary spoilers and body extensions in plastics and rubber. Drag factor: 0.32 Cd.

Engine: In-line Ford Cosworth 4-cyl, 1993cc (90.8 x 76.95mm). DOHC, 16-valve alloy cylinder head, 8:1 cr. Garrett AiResearch T03B turbocharger and intercooling. Weber Marelli electronic fuel injection and ignition management.

Power outputs: 220 bhp @ 6000 rpm; 214 lb ft @ 3500 rpm.

Transmission: In-line engine drives all wheels. Permanent 4-WD by Ferguson, features Ferguson patented Viscous Couplings and central differential with epicyclic gears to split power 34 % forward, 66 % rear. Ford MT75 5-speed gearbox. Ratios: First, 3.61; Second. 2.081; Third, 1.36; Fourth, 1:00: Fifth, 0.83, gives 22.24 mph per 1000 rpm. Final drive, 3.62:1.

Running gear: MacPherson strut front suspension with gas damping, coil springs and 30mm anti-roll bar. Independent semi-trailing arm rear suspension, gas filled dampers, separate coil springs; 18mm anti-roll bar.

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion, variable effort, 2.5 turns lock-to-lock

Brakes: Ventilated 278mm/10.94 inch front discs; 273mm/10.75 inch solid disc rears.

Wheels & tyres: Alloy 7 x 15 inch and 205/50 VR Bridgestone ER90 test tyres.

Claimed performance: Maximum speed: 150 mph; 0-60 mph: 6.6 seconds.

PERFORMANCE HIGHLIGHTS: Ford Sapphire RS

Millbrook Proving Ground test site, Teesdale Publishing staff using Correvit electronic measuring gear.

Acceleration (average of two-way best runs) 0-30 mph = 2.2 seconds; 0-60 mph = 6.5 seconds; 0-100 mph = 16.9 seconds; 0-120 mph = 26.8 seconds.

Standing 0.25 mile/400 metres: 15.0s @ 94.4 mph.

Flexibility 30-50 mph, Fifth gear: 6.7 seconds

Maximum speeds: (@ 6500 rpm) First: 34 mph, Second: 60 mph, Third: 91 mph, Fourth: 122.5 mph. In Fifth @ 6228 rpm over a 2.189 mile bowl: 139.5 mph; @ 6321 rpm at peak sustained speed: 141.6 mph.

Overall test Fuel Consumption: 22.5 mpg, Track: 18.7 mpg

Government mpg figures: Urban: 22.1 mpg; 75 mph: 30.4 mpg; 56 mph: 37.2 mpg