Curbside Classic: 1985-89 Merkur XR4Ti – Too Close To The Sun

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Today, European cars permeate the lineups of domestic automakers. The Ford Fiesta, Focus and Fusion, for example, differ only in minor trim details from their counterparts across the pond. But these Fords weren’t the first Europeans in domestic showrooms. In the 1970s, the Ford Capri was sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers and was at one point America’s second best-selling import. Opel sedans, wagons and coupes were sold through Buick dealers. Entering the 1980s, domestic automakers’ cars became closer in concept to European and Japanese offerings as the Big 3 eschewed rear-wheel-drive, body-on-frame V8 passenger cars in favor of smaller, lighter, front-wheel-drive offerings with fours and V6s. But as many domestic cars transitioned to this new normal, the number of European imports wearing domestic nameplates actually shrunk and the 1980s and 1990s were almost a dead zone for European offerings despite the vast number of competitive offerings from Ford Europe and Opel. The Merkur XR4Ti flew over from Europe like a missionary, bright-eyed and full of vigor, to preach the virtues of German engineering, but failed to convert Americans who flocked to the Church of BMW to sing their Teutonic psalms instead. How did the XR4Ti fail?

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No Merkur article can be complete without first addressing the name. “A rose by any other name would sell as sweet” is not a principle that applies in automotive marketing. Ford’s desire to establish a separate brand identity for its imported models is understandable, but the Merkur name was confusing, hard to pronounce and yet oddly close to “Mercury” (it was indeed German for Mercury). Whether this deterred buyers is arguable, but it likely hindered marketing efforts.

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The odd name graced two products: the Scorpio and the XR4Ti, featured here. Both were European Fords – the Scorpio and Sierra, respectively – offered in America as alternatives to the European brands. Although the XR4Ti was a mainstream, mid-size offering in Europe – albeit quite unorthodox in retaining a rear-wheel-drive layout – it was pitched in North America as a premium sport sedan alternative.

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Ford spent $50 million to federalize the Sierra for North America, with a lot of that money spent on ensuring it met safety and emissions standards. But although the Sierra did not suffer the tortured Americanization process endured by Euros like the first VW Rabbit and Saturn L-Series, there was one major change made: the engine.

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The flagship Sierra in Europe was powered by a 2.8 V6, but Ford found engineering it to meet US emissions standards robbed it of too much power. Instead, the XR4Ti received a modified version of the 2.3 turbo four seen previously in the Mustang SVO and Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. In those applications, the four had a reputation for being buzzy and full of unpleasant vibrations. Extensive modifications were made; Ford engineers stated the problem wasn’t with the old engine itself, but rather the manifolds and various engine-driven accessories. A new intake manifold and some new mounting brackets for the power steering pump helped quell the engine’s NVH. The gutsy, Brazilian-built turbo four delivered 170hp and 195 ft-lbs of torque, running on premium unleaded fuel: this bested the Euro-market Sierra’s V6 by 20hp and 36 ft-lbs.

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The basic Sierra platform remained intact, with MacPherson struts up front and an independent rear suspension with semi-trailing arms. A five-speed manual transmission was standard, but the only automatic was a three-speed when four-speed automatics were becoming the norm; you also lost a sizeable 30hp by choosing the slushbox. Rear drum brakes were another dated touch.

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The various changes made to the XR4ti did increase weight by 280 pounds (to 2920), with most of that attributed to the safety enhancements. But the new American bumpers actually helped improve the car’s aerodynamics, and the XR4ti was still good for a 0-60 of around 7.5 seconds.

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The 1980s were a decade of futuristic interiors and digital instruments, but the XR4Ti’s cabin was very monochromatic and restrained. Radio and HVAC controls were cluttered but helpfully angled towards the driver, and there was room for 4 average-sized adults. The front seats were bolstered, supportive Recaro buckets. Despite the rear-wheel-drive format, the rear seat was quite roomy, too.

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Outside, you either loved the XR4Ti or you hated it. The basic body was a few years old by the time it arrived stateside, but Ford’s new aerodynamic design language was still a stark contrast to what was being sold at GM or Chrysler dealers. The mid-size hatchback body style was also somewhat of a novelty. More of a novelty was the bi-plane rear spoiler, a striking touch that Ford soon deleted.

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A fairly compact, rear-wheel-drive platform from Europe with an independent rear suspension would seem like something that would please enthusiasts but critical and consumer reception was mixed. Road & Track were critical of the XR4Ti’s refinement and dearth of low-end torque, although noted this was the most refined application of the 2.3 turbo yet; its variable ratio rack-and-pinion steering was also criticized for being overly light and lacking feel. The lack of low end torque was also reflected in Automobile’s review and the feedback given by owners to Popular Mechanics, but those owners also praised its high-speed stability, plush ride, fuel economy and refinement.

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Of the major buff books, Car & Driver heaped the most praise upon the XR4Ti, awarding it one of their 10Best trophies for 1985 and picking it over the 300ZX, Starion and Mustang SVO in a comparison test (but below the Supra and Audi Coupe). But even they acknowledged the XR4Ti could have been a better canyon carver, with the sporty hatch suffering from a bit of body roll in corners. Still, they were impressed with its overall practicality and dynamics.

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The XR4Ti was the closest thing to a 3-Series rival that Ford sold in North America, but its dynamic deficiencies betrayed its humble mainstream origins. Fortunately, the XR4ti offered a unique body style and striking styling that meant it wasn’t just a pale and subpar 3-Series imitator. And for the time, the XR4Ti was quite a speedy car, even if the boost didn’t really kick in until 3000rpm.

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Ford commissioned 800 dealers with selling the new sub-brand, but that number was soon cut back to 600. Slow sales were to blame: its debut year logged 8974 sales, when around 15-20,000 annual sales were anticipated. Sales rose to 14,315 in 1986, but this upward tick was short-lived and sales would sink by half and continue to fall until the XR4ti’s final year, 1989, where a dismal 2,870 were sold. In total, Ford sold 42,464 XR4Tis over five years.

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Ford didn’t invest much in any meaningful changes during this time; changes were limited to an extra 5hp, subtler rear spoiler, BBS-style wheels and monochromatic paint schemes in 1988 and the addition of cruise control in 1989.

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At launch, the XR4ti was priced lineball with the BMW 318i at around $16,500. Although the Merkur was considerably quicker than the Bimmer despite being around 500lbs heavier, this pricing was a tad ambitious given Merkur’s complete lack of brand identity. Having them sold at Lincoln-Mercury dealers by salespeople more accustomed to selling higher-margin Town Cars undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the fledgling marque’s sales. This was not being positioned as a VW alternative: the XR4Ti was playing in the big leagues. The larger Scorpio would flop in a similar fashion.

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Perhaps the slow sales were because the XR4Ti was neither fish nor fowl. It lacked the snob appeal of a more established European badge, but its positioning and pricing placed it firmly in Euro sport sedan territory. Those who wanted a domestic car with a gutsy turbo may have preferred to just buy a similarly-priced Mustang SVO, Thunderbird Turbo Coupe or one of the various K-Car derived turbo Chryslers. Chrysler’s LeBaron GTS, also launched in 1985, featured an advertising campaign where it was compared to BMWs; it also featured a mid-size, hatchback body, but its base price was around $6k lower than the XR4Ti.

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Bob Lutz, then Chairman and CEO of Ford Europe, was the man who had spearheaded the launch of Merkur. Never stricken with “Not Invented Here” syndrome, Lutz would go on to federalize other non-American cars for sale in his long and prestigious career, including the Holden Monaro and Commodore as the Pontiac GTO and G8. The Merkur experiment was not his finest hour, and although the idea of bringing European Fords over had worked before and was fine in theory – witness the later success of the Ford Focus, for example – selling said Fords under an obscurely named, poorly marketed sub-brand was not.

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When a product flops like the XR4Ti did, it makes one wonder. Could the car have been more successful if it was badged as a Mercury and priced slightly lower? Would the handsome 1987 Sierra Sapphire sedan body have been better received, or did the XR4Ti’s striking appearance aid sales? Would the sporty hatch have been more successful if they’d used a more modern automatic, added rear disc brakes, dialled down the body roll and given it better low-end torque?

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Bringing over the 204 hp Sierra RS Cosworth and the later 224 hp Sierra RS500 Cosworth could have also spiced things up a little, although such an introduction would have been implausible even if the XR4Ti had achieved greater commercial success.

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The XR4Ti, and indeed the whole Merkur saga, quickly faded from the public consciousness although a devoted enthusiast community remains. Mystifyingly, Car & Driver rescinded the XR4Ti’s 10Best award in 2009, although they made it clear it wasn’t a bad car.  The XR4Ti didn’t flop because it was bad. It failed because it was ambitiously priced and poorly marketed and could have used just a tad more polish. It’s a shame that instead of a success to study, the Merkur brand ended up being a failure to dissect.

 

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: Merkur Scorpio

Curbside Classic: 1973 Mercury Capri

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