There are some old cars you won’t be surprised to see still on the roads two or three decades later. Camrys and Corollas, for example. Old pickup trucks. Exotics. Conservative sedans favored by the elderly. One type of car you definitely don’t expect to see is a 1980s hot hatch like this Ford Escort XR3i.
The third-generation European Escort launched in the final months of 1980. Development of the Escort, code named Erika, had begun shortly after the 1974 oil crisis. The new Escort was a marked change from its predecessor, ditching its rear-wheel-drive, live rear axle, and sedan body style for front-wheel-drive, all-independent suspension and a hatchback body. Ford’s North American operations also joined Project Erika although their version of the Escort reached market only vaguely resembling the European model.
The European Escort drove differently from its American counterpart but it wasn’t perfect. Though critics praised its road holding and handling abilities, as well as some gutsy engines and a slick manual gearshift, it was regularly criticized for poor ride quality and a noisy cabin. Although the Escort had independent rear suspension – still rather rare for its class – it wasn’t as refined as some beam axle-equipped rivals. Ford made some tweaks to the suspension over the years but it remained a sticking point with critics.
The sporty XR3 became the XR3i in 1982 when its 1.6 four-cylinder gained Bosch K-Tronic fuel injection and a five-speed manual. Power and torque were bumped up to 105 hp at 6000 rpm and 101 ft-lbs at 4800 rpm, respectively. The dash to 60 mph was accomplished in a rapid 8.6 seconds, as quick as the ever-so-slightly more powerful Opel Kadett GSE and almost as quick as a VW Golf GTi. At least in the UK, though, the Escort undercut those two on price. Perhaps because of its pioneer status, having popularized the hot hatch segment, the Volkswagen commanded a fairly significant price premium over its rivals from Ford and GM.
A Golf GTi might have had a bit more polish but an Escort XR3i provided plenty of cheap thrills for hot hatch buyers. Lesser Escorts were available with 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5 versions of the new overhead cam CVH engine in the XR3i. By 1983, the range had grown to include a five-door hatchback, a wagon, a sedan (badged Orion), a 1.6 diesel and an optional three-speed automatic.
The Escort range as a whole received a warm reception, particularly in Great Britain where it became the best-selling car. And it helped propel Ford to, for the first time, become the best-selling automaker in Europe in 1984. It was the right car at the right time. But I feel like I saw this XR3i at the wrong time – shouldn’t this fun-to-drive little hatchback have been hooned to death years ago?
No thanks to the black Mercedes that pulled up and blocked good shots of the Escort right as I was going to take them. Photographed near Old Town Prague, Czech Republic.