Above par for the coarse

When it made its debut 12 years ago, the Ford Escort XR3 aided and abetted the proven Volkswagen Golf GTI in the creation of the new, and unsatisfactorily titled, hot hatchback category.

VW made money and put extra shine on its already substantial reputation with the GTI. Ford sold more cars, but became the brunt a lot of snide comments about XR3s, Essex men and discotheques.

Now, there is a pair of front-drive Escort XR3i models, both pulled along by brand new Zeta family engines from Bridgend. These new XRs have such a modest demeanour that one must assume Essex man now prefers classical chamber music in 1992.

The budget has left these 105 and 130 bhp machines exceptionally well positioned in the price lists. The less potent of the two (claimed top speed is 116 mph) is now listed at £13,269.23; the ‘130’ comes with a reported 10 mph bonus and a £13,990.38 price tag.

Incidentally, these 1.8-litre Zeta motors are also available at prices in the £11,000 bracket for less sporting LX derivatives and can also be used for handsome Escort Estate duties at 105 bhp level. Standard XR equipment excludes the plain five-spoke alloy wheels on the lesser model (option price is £328.92) and you have to pay £504.82 for electronic anti lock braking in both cases. (Incidentally, the RS2000 has shiny, 15 in five-spoke wheels; the XRs are limited to 14 in and traditional 185/60 sizing.)

Besides the performance bonus of the 130 bhp engine, the faster XR (0-60 mph is claimed in a modest 8.8 sec, a second faster than its meeker relation) incorporates alloy wheels and disc brakes on all four wheels as standard.

A distinctive and effective interior addition for the reborn XR3 are the competition seatstyle ‘wings’ which envelop your shoulders. Otherwise the interior is a bright and brash reminder that Ford knows all about ergonomics and nothing about ’90s taste. If you want to tell the difference between the XR twins, you have to lift the bonnet and read the rather tacky add-on power label that spoils an otherwise tidy engine compartment.

The I 796 cc Zeta motor measures 80.6mm x 88mm and is a tough customer that is currently absorbing over 200 bhp within Ford research cars, and more than 260 bhp in a similarly turbocharged club racer we drove recently. It has little difficulty generating 130 catalytically converted bhp (72.4 bhp per litre) from its fashionable four-valves-per-cylinder, dohc head layout.

The ‘130’ differs from the ‘105’ in having a larger throttle body, replacement camshafts and reprogrammed Ford EEC-1V management that allows freer breathing at least 400 rpm beyond its softer counterpart. All Zeta-engined Escorts have power steering now, using the hardware developed for the RS2000. These sports versions also carry central locking for their three-door bodies, along with in-car entertainment, electric windows and the faithful old slide-and-tilt glass sunroof. Since the September 1990 launch of the Escort, only the Cabriolet and RS2000 models have escaped press punishment, so the XR3i at both power levels comes as a pleasant surprise, particularly as engine and suspension are the traditional Ford criticisms in the frontdrive Escort age.

I feel that the Zeta unit simply brings Ford to parity with most of its rivals: it has excellent power delivery from 2000-6000 rpm (6500 on the ‘130’) and it effectively banishes the memory of the unloved CVH. It is a smoother unit at higher rpm than the dohc, 16v, two-litre unit used in the RS2000, but Ford’s £500M investment in the Zeta won’t cause furrowed brows at Honda. Toyota. Fiat or Renault as far as 16v mass production class leadership goes.

The Zeta delivers power lustily, but when mated with the MTX75 transmission (as used on all XR and RS2000 models) there are perceptible reverberations as you ascend and descend the rpm scale. Such resonances, which haunt the 4000-4500 rpm band, are absent in the non-sports models that specify the older CVH B5 transaxle. We hope this aspect is remedied before the two- and 1.6-litre Zeta derivatives are introduced, and we wonder how the unit will sound in the imminent XR2i (105 bhp) and RS 1800 (130 bhp) Zeta-based Fiestas.

The sports suspension is competent rather than outstanding, with a notably sharp turn into corners that is accompanied by bags of reassuring grip. This Escort is particularly well behaved in faster corners, a compliment shared with the allegedly less sporty models, now that so much of their suspension is shared. The net result is an enjoyable Escort at a more affordable price than either the RS2000 or the forthcoming Escort Cosworth (sales begin in late May). So I am not going to put on the big bully boots for this review. I enjoyed a sunny day out in three examples of the improving Escort breed, but a full test should decide whether we would want to recommend to readers that they devote their lives to an engine that can still be coarser than the opposition and suspension that fidgets noticeably over B-road bumps.

I was not privileged to drive the latest (115 bhp) two-litre Golf GTI upon its debut in England. Yet I would be falling victim to the equally fashionable sour grapes syndrome should I not mention that the post-budget price for the sturdy VWs with their air of integrity and purpose is £13,461.09 for the three-door, or £13,871.12 in the five-door configuration that Ford ignores for its performance Escort derivatives.