One good thing about visiting the dry, warm southwest is that if you are paying attention, it’s like a great big open air car museum. It’s astonishing to see the older and quite interesting cars that are still in everyday use out here. My week in the Rio Grande valley of north central New Mexico has been like a soul vacation because the movable scenery is almost as interesting as the backdrop of mountains and desert. I’m way too cheap to play the lottery, but I felt like I had hit the jackpot when I spotted this rare bird (for sale, no less) in Albuquerque. It was only on the double take that I realized that it was FoMoCo’s last new nameplate, which came and went rather suddenly on these shores in the late 80’s- The Merkur XR4TI.
First, a (very) brief economics lesson. Rule number one: high profit margins attract competition. Rule number two: low profit margins repel competition. There. Now you know all you need to understand the whole Merkur episode that unspooled at Ford from 1985 to 1989. FoMoCo had caught lightning in a bottle with its captive import first gen Mercury Capri in the decade prior, and the feeling was that anything that Ford sold in the Europe could pass for “sport/luxury” if the hype machine could be turned up high enough. Thus an idea was hatched in the good offices of auto industry enfant terrible Bob Lutz to bring a workaday Ford Sierra across the pond, jack up the asking price and pretend that the car was some secret-handshake Teutonic exotic. The project was duly green lighted in the summer of 1983.
Lutz, fighter pilot, ex marine and all around car industry bon vivant was canny (or cynical) enough to know that re badging a Sierra would be transparent, and sales would be soft unless there was some “hook” that Ford could use to smear some Deutschland on a British middle manager’s car. Thus the idea of the Merkur brand as a stand alone make. The scheme called for the Merk to be sold in tandem with its line mate Scorpio as a high strung, no nonsense euro rally/racer that could eat BMW’s for lunch and push Audis and Saabs out the other end.
The car would be sold at “select” Lincoln -Mercury dealers only. Go fast budget buyers (the kind that were gobbling up Toyota Supras) need not apply. The cars $20,000 sticker (nicely equipped) was within a wienerscnitzel of the 318/325 Bimmers, and Ford thought that it would have to rent warehouse space for all of the money that would roll in.
At home, the Sierra was aimed at the buyer that would have bought the Ford Cortina (which the Sierra replaced) and the Sierra saw lots of fleet sales across the pond. The marketing plan for the states was very different: The BMW 3 series and Audi’s 5000 Turbo were absolutely minting money in those days and had no direct competition from the Big Three. Time to review rule number one above. Pry a few yuppies out of their Bimmers (the thinking went), and we’ll be like the cat that ate the canary.
The motive power for the XR was the tried and true 2.3 “Lima” mill that Ford had installed in the new- for -’83 Turbo T-Bird. (It also found its way into some Fox platform Mustangs in those years). The difference that buyers saw was an eccentric turbo philosophy that eschewed the intercooler that came standard on the ‘Bird (ED: after 1985). The resulting heat played havoc with oil cooler and A/C hoses and thus caused some costly shop labor to fix.
That warm engine room could be dialed up for 175 horsepower with the 5 speed manual and as such,the car could make tracks when so equipped. A Ford C3 was optional, but not popular. Heated leather seats,moon roof and power locks and windows were the few options on the list for buyers to choose from.
Not on that options list was a presentable interior. To say that the Merkur’s interior was generic is way too kind. “Antiseptic” is more like it. Sharp corners, gray plastic (which often cracked) and a poor copy of the Mercedes shifter made the interior a place that bore way too much resemblance to cheaper Fords. Speaking of which…
Long time Ford pitchman Jackie Stewart was trotted out again to put his stamp of approval on a Blue Oval offering. Customers should have been wary after seeing the diminutive Scottish racer wax eloquent about the Tempo in ’84, but for $5000 a day, (plus expenses) he would probably have urged buying a Ford 8N farm tractor if he could cash a paycheck. Stewart would later shill for the slug-a-bed linemate Scorpio.
The “select’ dealers that carried the car had to make a sizable investment in signage, spare parts and local advertising for what even they saw as an enigmatic line with questionable appeal. The 1st generation Capri’s demise was still within memory of L-M dealers. When Ford discontinued that line, there was the disposal of NOS parts, product support issues and some lingering resentment from store owners that had made a commitment to a model that they felt hadn’t been reciprocated.
Thus only about 800 or so L-M dealers took the plunge on the new Merkur line. This should have alerted corporate HQ that they were playing with dynamite by having such a weak response, but small mistakes are for amateurs. Bob Lutz and company thought that the new Merkur line would reinvigorate the stodgy image that was starting to take hold at the sign of the cat.
The styling of the XR was in keeping with the jellybean/aero look that Ford had adopted first in Europe and then on the T-Bird and refined to its highest expression with the Taurus the next year. On the Merkur, the look fit, but took lots of getting used to. The rear bi-plane spoiler looked rather silly and was cut back to one tier by ’88. 15 inch wheels replaced the 14 inchers in ’87. Other than a few paint colors, the rest of the car stayed status quo during the rest of its run here.
Performance was okay, but nowhere near the benchmark BMW or Audi’s. Ford claimed 0-60 in about seven seconds, but owners couldn’t replicate this in real world conditions (especially with the autobox). For 20 large in 1985, that should have been the car’s biggest selling point. Ford had built a “sporty” car that could barely out run a ’73 LTD.
Even the name caused some giggles when Ford had to phonetically spell it again and again for the press, customers and even dealers. For the record, it was pronounced mare-koor (accent on the second syllable) . Merkur, of course, being the proper German pronunciation of…Mercury. It means the same thing in Czech, Slovene, Norwegian and Serb -Croat. Only in America did Merkur mean something other than a Mercury. And just in case you didn’t get the connection to the home of the autobahn, the grille badge reminded you that this car was not imported from Detroit.
A narrow marketing approach combined with fewer boots on the ground to sell the things resulted in an all out disaster for the Merk/Merc. First year sales came in at less than 12,500 (less than two per month per dealer) and never topped the 13,500 units retailed in ’86. By the end, lots of dealers had taken their signs down and washed their hands of the latest captive import from Ford. Mercury would stagger on somehow without an overpriced import in the showroom until it went out feet first on January 4, 2011.
Bob Lutz, meanwhile, had his best years in front of him. Far from ending his career as a corporate cobra, he completed the hat trick of working for and attaining high positions in all three major domestic car makers. He retired in 2010 from GM.
The car itself is largely forgotten, though there are a couple of active clubs that try to keep them on the road. The XR4TI was like a lot of other eurobuggies that are sent to the states: their inherent problems are magnified by Americans’ high demands on their cars. The steering rack is known to be a recurring headache and the engine has a habit of going dead due to faulty TFI modules. And don’t expect any help from a L-M dealer. They’ve all closed up shop and Ford mechanics generally go no habla when asked to work on a Merkur.
I had an ’86, dark red metallic with grey leather. Really good handling, especially at high speeds (got an Escort-driving, 55-maintaining friend of mine to cruise along at about 100 one night in Kansas when it was necessary to outrun some guys on Harleys). The engine, however, was really agricultural, and not happy revving.
And the electrics! There was a row of warning lights in the middle of the instrument panel, just below the a/c vents, that monitored seat belt usage, fuel level, brake pads, engine temp, oil pressure, and god knows what else. One day all of the lights came on simultaneously. After freaking out for a couple of seconds, I said, “Okay, I’ve got my belt on, so I know you’re lying about that. And I just filled up with gas, so I know you’re lying about that too. I’m going to take a chance that you’re lying about everything else.” And over the next 20 minutes or so the lights went out one by one.
That was a one-time occurrence. More chronic was the car’s habit, on a hot day after it had been driven a while, for the rear wiper to wipe once when you applied the brakes. Other Merkur drivers reported the same thing, so it wasn’t just my example. It was kind of distracting at first, but after a while it was just part of the car’s Old World charm.
Yes, the interior materials were cheap. Even the leather on the seats was the cheapest looking cowhide ever installed in a car. It was leather trying desperately to look and feel like cheap vinyl.
On the other hand, it was the first car I ever had with heated seats, which was a revelation living through a Michigan winter. So there is that… And it was a perfect car for three guys to go on a two-week backpacking and car-camping trip, with plenty of rear-seat legroom and space for packs, tents, food, and cooler.
With a better (preferably 6-cylinder) engine and a nicer interior, it coulda been a contender, but as it stood it was one of Lutz’ more cynical efforts.
The 2.9 V6 was available…In Europe, on the Sierra.. Your instinct was spot on.
The 2.9 L V6 in US emissions tune had less hp than the turbo four. What the four needed was balance shafts, and more development.
What hasn’t been pointed out is that the Merkurs had independent rear suspension, which gave them a better ride/handling balance (especially the Scorpio) than any comparable US, say the T-Bird Turbo Coupe, with which the XR4TI shared its engine. These cars had quite good “bones” for the times; they just weren’t the complete package yet.
Also, keep in mind that in the early eighties, BMWs were very lame, performance-wise. The 3 Series only came in the 98 hp 318i, and the only 5 Series was the 128 hp 528e. And MB had almost all diesels. I think Lutz saw an opportunity there, which really did exist. Of course, just as the Merkurs arrived, so did BMW’s more powerful engines.
The 101 hp 318i was stand alone only in early 1984. Then the 121 hp 325e showed up as an alternative. Of course the last few years of E21 320i’s were really 318i’s other than the badge. BMW killed their 2 liter M10 4 cylinder for all markets when the M20 2 liter baby 6 was introduced.
I disagree about the XR4ti being a lackluster performer when new. It was actually one of the quickest import cars available in its segment, but also the one with the coarsest engine. It is a shame that a federalized Cologne V6 at the time was so lackluster, but it still would have served the car better. The turbo prevented my mom from buying one, sending her to Porsche for 924S instead.
Yep. My 1986 Audi 4000q, a true performer for the time, had sometime like 115 HP. It was a struggle getting to 80 MPH, although it held it there nicely.
This article was quite unfair to the XR4TI.
The 5.0 V8 was available in the South African Sierra XR8 5-door hatch – a limited production model to homologate it for racing I think. Only 200 built. I recently picked up the sales brochure for the XR8, and also for the South African Sierra which was available with the 3.0 V6 too.
We got the 2.8 and later 2.9 V6 Sierra in New Zealand – but only in the 5-door 4wd hatch XR4x4 form. There are a few 4wd V6 station wagons here too – I’ve long lusted after a 2.9 V6 Ghia wagon with the 5 speed manual and all the fruit.
Great article, just one small correction: That’s Thick Film Integrated, not Thin Film Ignition. Keep up the great writings, love this place!
Yes, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why Ford blew it so badly on these modules (which quite literally can’t take the heat). In college I worked at Delco Electronics where the HEI distributor ignition module, the internal voltage regulator for the alternator, and the manifold absolute pressure (MAP) sensors were designed and made for all GM (and some other) cars. All of these electronic modules lived directly on the engine and took some serious heat without any issues.
These modules had a ceramic substrate (or circuit board) with the bare IC chips and capacitors soldered directly to the substrate, along with lazer-trimmed thick film resistors that were printed onto the substrate as well. The substrate was then mounted into the housing, gold wires connected it to the leadframe (the metal leads of the external connector), and it was potted with a silicone-based material and a protective cover was ultrasonically welded on.
It was leading-edge technology when it was developed in the late 1960s, and it was very reliable. They were still using this same process when I worked there (Kokomo, IN) in the mid 1980s. Of course, all of this has gone offshore since then.
I just bought a 1990 Ford truck this year, and you can see where the TFI module was supposed to mount on the base of the distributor. By this time, Ford had figured out that the module didn’t like getting hot, so they relocated it to the inner fenderwell over by the brake booster, mounted on a giant finned aluminum heat sink. Band-aid engineering at its finest!
Actually, the TFI was redesigned. It was only the very early examples that overheated, they had this fixed before the 80s were over, without relocating on virtually all engines (they did relocate it on some, however). I spend a lot of time in 1st gen Panther and Mark VII circles, mostly these are TFI cars, and most of our guys still have stock ones at or around 200k miles.
I replaced mine as a precaution and a part of an overall tune-up after 21 years of service and at 202k miles. That is a quality part. It was still fine, but I just thought it was time (well, in fact I suspected the TFI but the culprit turned out to be something else, and then I went with a new one just because).
The temps inside ours cars’ engine bays on 100 degree days I believe easily exceed 150 degrees. The TFI is nearly impossible to touch, that’s how hot it gets. Yet my (and many of my friends’) stock TFIs survived two decades and still had something left in them. And the replacement aftermarket ones are cheap and appear to be just as reliable.
Sorry to burst the bubble guys. Like the Audi and Toyota brakes, this is much ado about nothing. There was an early bug. I don’t think that any of the TFI equipped cars still on the roads today has one of those problem ridden early iterations. And they’re still almost all of them mounted on the distributor. 😀
The GM distributor mounted modules are not dead reliable either, The fist 4 pin versions were known to fail too, but like Ford they fixed that by the end of the 70’s only to revisit it with the advent of the 7/8 pin modules though not nearly as bad as the early 4-pin variety. I’ve replaced a lot more of them then I ever did TFI modules. It was not that uncommon for the first batch of 4 pins to fail on the dealers lot before the car was sold. As Phoenix noted in Ford’s case it too was a issue with the early models and the problem was fixed. There are tons of TFI equipped vehicles running around 20+ years and 200K miles later with their original module. Yes it is stupid to use an engine part that will get up to the running temp of the engine as a “heat sink” so they did move many of them to a heat sink.
Honda followed GM and Ford’s lead and mounted their modules in the dist and they were also known to fail. The big difference is that when they did fail shortly after the warranty expired Honda was successful in convincing the owners that it was their fault because they didn’t have the tune up done on time. Seriously I had a customer that had the one in their Accord fail at 36,500 miles because “it’s just out of warranty so they’ll probably take care of it” she had it towed to the dealer where they blamed in on the fact that it was 500 miles overdue for it’s tune up. Near 1K later she had a running car again and was certain that it was her fault and she certainly wasn’t going to let it miss the next tune up, at the dealer of course, by a single mile.
Phoenix, I’d have to disagree that he aftermarket modules are reliable across the board. Yes quality units are high quality but the “white box” and private label re-boxed units are crap. If you ever popped the cover off of one of the bargain units you’ll see soldering that looks like it was done by a monkey who had just learned how to solder.
Ford in OZ neatly buried the module inside the distributor so it cant be fixed 2nd hand dizzy was the answer or pre 84 with points which became hard to get, Gm Holden put the module outdide the dizzy body and while no more reliable was a plug in fix
Scoutdude – good point, I stand corrected. I should have narrowed down my “aftermarket” comment! I’m running a Duralast on mine, which is what everyone can get from AutoZone. 6 months later so far so good, and many others I know haven’t had issues with that brand. This just now was a hot summer and I did a lot of driving… probably would have fried by now.
So, really, I can speak for Duralast and obviously Motorcraft – but that’s not really aftermarket. As a side note, in my personal experience, overall Duralast have been hit and miss across the board for electronics (their IACs are horrible).
I have not been impressed with most of Autozoo’s Duralast products, not as bad as O’really’s MasterPro lines but not the best I’ve seen. I recommend the Borg-Warner brands, Niehoff, Standard and BWD or the premium lines from Napa or Carquest which are made by Borg-Warner. If you have the original unit I’d throw it in the glove box along with the TFI wrench, just in case.
So let me guess the problem that led you to replace it, the ignition ground wire that connects to the negative battery cable.
No, far, far more embarrassing. The car would randomly lose power, but without dying. As in, all of a sudden it was like I had a lopo badly in need of a tune-up. It wasn’t missing but it certainly refused to shift normally on really hot days. I knew this wasn’t the AOD. This was March, so there weren’t many hot days (but we had a few when it really rocketed in Chicago) and the car ran fine all other days when it was cool out. It happened about twice I think and my reaction was “heat? – must be the stock TFI.”
Then the next time it happened I saw smoke! And when I pulled into a parking lot and got out I smelled brimstone… It was a sticky caliper, of course. Now, before you ask me about the car pulling to that side, it was indeed slightly for some time, but I knew I was out of an alignment for much longer and I didn’t want to pay for one as I was saving up for a new steering rack first (which was getting mushy). So…. yah. LOL.
All’s good though, we got new calipers (I just swapped both fronts as a pair), a new steering rack, and (for good measure) a new TFI now.
For parts I usually try to go with Ford, especially if it’s any kind of a vital sensor or actuator. But it was a 50.00 difference for Motorcraft so I rolled the dice with Duralast after I asked around in EFI 302 circles (no issues), and I just sunk those 50.00 into quality new front pads instead. The old TFI went in my “good used” box. 😀
Don’t feel bad I’ve had a seizing caliper cause the smoke and sluggish performance w/o experiencing any significant pulling to that side.
That was the first time I saw what the infamous blue rotor looked like. Heard a lot about it before then. There’s always a first time.
As somebody who has spent the last 25 years in the marine business, and witnessed Ford trying to wrestle marine engine sales from GM (and they came, very,very close in the ’80s) The now defunct OMC (Outboard Marine Corporation) used 5.0 (302) and 5.8 (351W) EFI engines (based on truck engines, I Know the software) and guess what? They all have remote mount TFI modules, and boat engine room temps (underhood in autospeak?) are MUCH lower!
Another really odd choice was the use of the European T9 five speed gearbox which frankly couldn’t handle the power of the 2.3L turbo. Maybe a cost cutting measure as the stronger T5 gearbox was in use on the turbo Thunderbird. A lot of the surviving Merkurs have had the swap done.
I spend a few summers over in the UK during the 80s and the Sierras were absolutely everywhere. They seemed to be the most common car around.
Jim Rome owned one of these and he waxes quite eloquently on his radio show at times about his less-than-stellar ownership experience!
I liked these when they came out as they were very different, but I never checked them out, because in those days, our family was young and I kept my car longings to family haulers and singled out the ones that didn’t suffer from GM’s “half-way mentality” in reference to their cars’ back windows on sedans only rolling half-way down. Yes, I was that anal about it – still am today – as everyone here is painfully aware of!
EDIT: I don’t believe I have ever seen Max. Bob w/o white hair – didn’t recognize him! In any event, Educator Dan probably won’t select that photo for an avatar anytime soon!
If you can get a picture of an XR4TI with a guy smoking a pipe driving it you would become a Jungle legend.
I kind of remember that the wheel sizes were in metric, not inches. The only tire available was Michelins.
i really liked the sedan version of these, the scorpio, but i have kind of oddball taste. never got a chance to try one.
The Scorpio was actually a different car, not a sedan version.
There was a sedan (saloon) variant of the Sierra (briefly called the Sierra Saphire, then later just the Sierra) but the Scorpio was its big brother – based on an extended floorplan and sold over here as a replacement for the Granada – making up Ford Europe’s large/luxury offering.
I remember looking at a Scorpio while Dad was shopping for a new car in 88. He went with a Sable LS with the 3.8 – an excellent car with IRS and a nicely finished interior. Of course he traded it for a homely, wallowing Explorer in the 90s, like every other American car buyer.
I was about 12 when these things came out, and I thought they were so cool and ‘europeanney’. However, now that I live in the UK, I see them for what they are- the British equivalent to the mk1 Taurus. All gone now, but when I was first moved here in 2003, they were everywhere- with rusty fenders, doors and sills, plastic trim falling off, and headlinings sagging- just like the Taurii back home.
However it is a shame that Ford didn’t think of building the 1.6 and 2 litre Sierra in the USA- perhaps instead of the Tempo. It looked modern, came in 3,4,5door and wagon styles and was a really good size. The 1.6 and 2 litre engines were the old Capri ‘pinto’ engines and so much sweeter than the US spec ones. It would have gotten 25-30mpg and saved Ford millions in Tempo development, and would have been a logical replacement for the Fairmont- Ford’s first computer designed car. (I guess back then computers could only make right angles)
As a sidenote, these cars had the structural rigidity of playing-dough. As little as 15mph from the rear would buckle the whole floorpan and roof and essentially write off the car. I still kinda want one like that early blue two door.
In those days, all the American makers were infected with N.I.H syndrome, Not Invented Here. They were also infected with Absolutely Awful Work Force Syndrome (AAWFS) which meant making cars like the Sierra in the USA would have been rather difficult when your UAW workforce was either drunk, stoned or hung-over. For this reason, we got wonderful products like the Tempo, probably the second or third worst car I have ever driven, after the Vega and….okay it was the second worst car I have ever driven.
This is the exact reason the Contour was a total flop. Most of the cars had to be practically rebuilt after they left the line.
Nice review. One minor side note though 😀
The TFI was common to all 302 equipped EFI Fords, in addition to the Lima engine. They ALL had that problem in the early stages, until the TFI had been redesigned. Far from a stalling nightmare it once was, it is generally one of the more reliable aftermarket parts for 80s Fords today, going for as cheap as $40.00 plus tax at AutoZone.
But yeah. This was a Sierra, wasn’t it. Typical Ford bs.
Hard to believe these cars made it over here the way they did. Ford with or without Lutz, was just clueless as to what to do with Mercury after the Sign of the Cat cougar died. Seriously. No idea.
Back in the mid 80’s BC (before children), I had two Mercury Capri V8’s. Loved/loathed them. Loved them when they ran, loathed them when they broke. To be fair, the ’86 was quite reliable, the ’85 was a POS.
One visit to the dealership, the junior salesman who sold me my 1986 asked if I’d be interested in driving a Merkur. Even though I speak German, I couldn’t figure out what he’d just called me. He’d said it right, but it was so far out of my expectations that it just didn’t calculate. I’d known about the car and was interested, so I said yes.
Now 25 years later, I don’t remember a lot about the drive, it must have been pretty innocuous, as I was driving V8’s and the turbo four in that car didn’t have the punch of the 5.0 or the SVO turbo four. I remember liking the interior design of the car, but it seemed rather utilitarian, as in the Rubbermaid sense. For $20K, this really should have had a nicer inside than my $16K Mercury Capri RS.
Regardless, I said no, and that was the end of that. It was too much money for the performance and the sales staff that I encountered while enthusiastic, were otherwise clueless. Not unusual with a brand new product, but somewhat disappointing.
Of course, on my next visit, this same salesperson tried to sell me a Cougar XR-7 V8 model. I think he was not having a good sales year. I said no thanks, but truth be told, I would have purchased one of those over the Merkur. It wasn’t too much longer before he left.
Nice write up Jeff, as always fascinating to get a cross-the-pond perspective on a car I grew up with.
While I can see how poorly executed Lutz’s Merkur plan was, I think you’re a little harsh branding this a “workaday Ford Sierra”. The XR4Ti is based on the 83-84 Sierra XR4i which was the only Sierra with that curious restyled rear and the distinctive double whale-tail spoiler. The Seirra XR4i had a credible (if not stellar) performance rep when I was in school. What it also had however (which the Merkur inexplicably lacks) was a fuel injected variant of the respectable 2.8 Cologne engine found in the end-of-line Ford Capris it had effectively replaced.
Reading this it puzzles me that Ford didn’t federalize and import the later (and more successful) ’85 Sierra XR4x4, or even the very credible ’86 Sierra RS Cosworth (which you’ve pictured). Pitching a Ford Europe model as a distinct US luxury/performance brand was always ambitious, but serving up a cooled down version of Ford Europe’s 3year old left-overs clearly wasn’t the way to go.
Nor was leaving in the pedestrian Ford interior. On the Sierra, sold under the blue oval it was expected and acceptable (in the 80s anyway) to have that worthy-but-drab grey plastic cockpit, but then the Sierra was never pitched to compete with BMWs!
The sad thing here seems to be that this probably could have worked if only FoMoCo hadn’t been greedy. If they were dead set on making this a standalone brand, then a suitable engine existed in the injected Cologne 2.8 – hell turbo charge that and they’d have flown! (or possibly flown apart…) Fitting an upscale interior wasn’t beyond the wit of man either… A better bet in my opinion would have been to follow the successful marketing model used with the Capri and sell these as Mercurys, for a more reasonable price… but then the 80s were all about greed eh?
As it is almost my favourite car ever (well, the European XR4i that is) I can’t help agreeing with everyone who doesn’t understand how Ford screwed this up. The Injected 2.8 would have suited the american marked a lot better, and should have been replaced with the 220 hp Cosworth in 87. And it’s worth noting that the Xr4i was discontinued in 85 over here, and was like mentioned allready three years old when they started selling them as Merkurs. ANd , even if the interior feels like it’s from the future compared to any other European or japanese car from the 80’s (and early 90’s) It was put together from cardboard and hard plastics, and screwed together with 11 philips screws. (seriously, I once changed the whole interior bar dashboard between two cars in less than 90 minutes without breaking a sweat) The dashboard takes about 40 minutes alone, depending on trim level. The interior in the European versions used to be colour matched with the exterior though, so not grey or boring. (only two of mine had a grey interior, not including the charcoal ‘IS’ interiors))
As a design, it’s a near perfect compromise car. Sportyish, practical hatchback, with decent rear seat space, good aerodynamics, decent weight distribution, ligthweight and (well, I think, i’ve owned 13, I’m biased) good looking.
The engines are troubled though, the transmission allready struggles with the 115 hp 2.0 EFI, the body cladding on the XR4’s and IS-models make them rust 15 times faster than the base models (which seem to last forever) most other problems have been mentioned….
But they are really easy to work on, and were plentiful and cheap when I started driving, and they were THE LAST affordable practical RWD car made in Europe that could be made into something fun, so they have a huge enthusiast following (and prices are going up :))
“…and screwed together with 11 philips screws.”
😀 What, no famous Ford torque screws? :-O
That’s just what we were reaching for here- ownership perspective. Thank you very much for your input. Any practical advice for potential owners ?
Some tips :
Don’t buy one unless you know you’ll be capable of loving it for better or worse, and look for the best one you can find. Avoid low-mileage cars. There’s a reason why they haven’t been driven, and the plastics and rubber parts hate standing still. Like any early 80’s cars they rust, but as mentioned base level cars (well, that mostly goes for Europe and South America I guess) rust a lot slower.
And buy a parts car or two while you’re at it. And a Haynes manual. Avoid the C3 autobox, if not, treat it like a favourite pet. Replace every bushing in the front suspension at the same time, if it hasn’t been done allready, there’s no point in fixing one thing after another if something is shot, the rest will go soon. I love them, but I know they have weaknesses. It’s the best car ever built all things considered. Don’t crash it, the low weight is not because it’s made of expensive lightweight materials….
And , as someone mentioned it’s aerodynamic shape not being wind tunnel tested, if you’re going over 100mph you need a rear wing/spoiler…
Words to live by. Thanks !
That’s great advice zykotec. Most NZ ones weren’t too bad for rust – my first was terrible because it had been under water at some stage of its life – probably salt water, as the multitude of electrical problems were traced to corroding wiring looms. I also found surface rust on the inside of every panel – including the firewall and the roof…
The main places our ones seemed to rust are around where the plastic/rubber window frames meet the metal frames – especially on the wagons, where there’s a 1 inch joiner just below the rear door quarter window that traps water. On my first one my inner door skins rusted through at the bottom due to the drain holes being bogged over. Oh, and the battery tray, another great place where they rust! Not to mention the sunroof frame. Other than that they were actually pretty good for their day.
I still have my oily Haynes manual for mine – it was invaluable for all three Sierras I owned. My first one had a C3, and my next two both had C4s. All were rubbish gearboxes and blew up. My last C4 was rebuilt at 186,000km, but blew up again at 210,000 for the next owner…mind you he was doing burnouts in it… No idea why I bought automatic Sierras, my parents’ one, which I learned to drive in, was a 5-speed manual 2.0 (fueled by LPG). It regularly did 42mpg on trips, and the 0-100km/h was in the 9.5-10 second range, which was good for the day. My C4 was about 14 seconds 0-100 – my old Mk 1 Escort 1300 manual was quicker!
I agree re the front suspension bushes, I did them in all mine, put nolathene ones in. The (power) steering was already good, the nolathenes made it excellent.
Another bit of advice is to avoid going over 180km/h in 2.0 pinto-engined C4 Sierras: While top-speeding two of mine the alternators blew apart. My mechanic showed me my second one, it was mighty impressive, the insides had melted! Oh, and the car topped out at 186km/h, after a 5km straight. Glad I didn’t crash it, as it certainly was light! 1035kg from memory – and my recent Mazda 6 2.0L wagon was 1750kg!
Finally, a parts car would be essential I think. It’s funny really, how the Cortinas have lasted much better, and much more solidly than the spaceship successor. You could get away with just one Cortina, but I agree, with a Sierra you’d need at least one, preferably two parts cars…
Did you correct the ignition missprint? Ownership prospective is awesome, but some of us like the technical details to be correct, because without it, this site would have no merit,details truly are everything.
It seems odd that having priced this as a n upmarket performance car Ford didnt actually import the performance model The Cosworth was the one that went fast not the V6 or the turbo 4 The Cossie turned up in Aussie for touring car racing and took the Bathurst title. Ford had stopped producinf V8 engines and the Cosworth Sierra was the ONLY performance Ford worldwide with enuff cohones for touring car racing. It even attracted local ace Peter Brock who after trying a BMW M3 decided it was too slow to compete and SHOCK/HORROR went to Ford with success, it took a while before the fans got used to seeing 4 bangers winning races but it did happen. Strangely Ford did not sell Sierras to the public in OZ and only a few made it across from NZ which ironicly has the most crowded car market on the planet while Australia has al most the sparsest choice in the developed world.
I just never “got” this car. I was in the demographic, fresh out of law school and ready for my first set of new wheels. It was REALLY expensive, for what you were getting. Ford really tried, with several models (T Bird Turbo Coupe, Mustang SVO), to convince us that a rough and unpleasant 4 cylinder engine with a high strung but laggy turbo was ‘high tech” and worth lots more money than the more powerful, yet smooth and gentle Mustang GT with the old school V8. I wasn’t buying.
I ended up with an appropriately yuppie ’85 GTI which I owned for two years. But I kick myself every time I think of it for not buying the black Mustang GT 5.0/stick, which was the most enjoyable test drive I ever took.
@JP: The early turbo ‘Birds had the same lag as my 80 Capri turbo, even with port fuel injection. The times that I drove SVO Mustangs (both 86’s), they had a shorter lag time than the turbo Mustangs or pre 1987 turbo Birds. In fact, I thought they were quite impressive, and would easily catch my 5.0 in the mid range. But the 5.0 with 5 speed had power in the higher revs than the turbos.
I made the mistake of buying my 1986 Capri SC 5.0 with an autobox, it had a lower rear gear but ran out of steam before my wife’s 1985 Capri RS 5.0/5 speed. I could hole shot her off the line everytime, but the 5 speed had more grunt at higher speeds.
I agree with splateagle, great to see a write-up on one of my favourite Fords. And a good write-up as well!
When the Sierra arrived here in New Zealand in 1984, my parents had their 4th Cortina (’80 wagon); we couldn’t believe what Ford had done to NZ’s ubiquitous family wagon – those huge headlights, that bizarre blobby style! We got the Sierra either as CKD packs for local assembly (pinto-engined 1.6/2.0 wagons only, ‘L’ spec and 2.0 Ghia), or built-up (2.8 V6 XR4i 3-door or 2.3 V6 Ghia 5-door hatchbacks). Ford got great publicity when our then NZ-Prime Minister Rob Muldoon bought a Ghia hatch to replace his aging Triumph sedan. Our XR4i was discontinued at the same time as England, and we got the 4wd 2.8 V6 XR4x4 5-door hatchback instead. We also got the Cosworth hatch, but we didn’t get the Sierra sedan as Ford replaced the Cortina sedan with the Japanese Ford Telstar (aka Mazda 626).
The Sierra range dropped to just the 2.0 L for ‘87/88 (but still one of the top-10 sellers), and was discontinued – to the horror of fleets, families and fans – when a Telstar wagon became available. Popular demand saw the Sierra resurrected in 1990, as 2.0 ‘GLX’ wagon/Ghia sedan, 2.9 V6 XR4x4 5-door, and Cosworth 4-door (Ford’s flagship car here at the time). It lasted until ‘92, by which stage it still looked modern, but was falling behind the times as a package – especially in NVH areas.
Family friends bought a 2.0 Ghia wagon new in August ‘84, and I had several long trips in that space-age marvel! It looked like nothing else on the road, and the interior was amazing to a 10-year-old used to Cortinas. It had electric windows, a tilt-slide sunroof, big soft adjustable headrests, and the complicated trip computer with about a zillion functions – I was in love and the XR4i was my hero car!
To my delight in 1989 my parents traded their 5th (’83) Cortina on an ‘85 2.0 ‘L’ Sierra wagon, which I learnt to drive in. As Zykotec notes, the Sierra was such a good compromise car. Our wagon was spacious and practical, excellent ride and handling, and I think all versions, particularly the XR4i/XR4Ti, looked fab. Still do, the design never really dated in my eyes. Although unlike Zykotec, I’ve only owned 3 of them, although sadly never an XR4i.
My first, an ’84 2.0L wagon (in 1994) was a hilariously rusty ex-rental which had been under water at some stage, but a great car (once my mechanic dad reconditioned the engine). It only caught fire once too (Sierras need a recessed-terminal battery, normal batteries are too tall and can short out on the bonnet). I traded it on an ’87 2.0L wagon, which turned out to have been rebuilt out of two other Sierras, with a VIN stating it was a completely different colour than neither half had ever been. Quickly traded that on an ’86 2.0 Ghia wagon, with all the options. It was outstanding, so good-looking inside and out, so comfy and oh, the ride/handling!
But NZ owners generally swore by them or at them, and although I adored mine, the swearing at it got too frequent, so by 2001 I switched to rear-drive Nissans instead (Laurels and a Skyline). My Sierra dashboards all warped hilariously (I see the dashboard of the XR4Ti above is well warped around the LH airvent), the trip computer never worked properly, I blew the C3/C4 gearboxes in each car, the wheel alignment/balance refused to last, and all those warning lights below the airvents were a laugh a minute – though I eventually fixed all (the door/water/brake sensors were the problem rather than the system).
But you know, it was still a ground-breaking design from a usually conservative company, and the XR4i/Ti in particular still looks unique on the roads. And my personal fetish is for the front wing shape, and the way the groove runs through to the door mirror; a delicious piece of detail!
Thanks Jeff, you’ve made my day!
“Thanks Jeff, you’ve made my day!”
Halfway around the world, you’ve made mine.
As sleek as these XR4s/Sierras might seem, their “aerodynamic” design did not originate in the wind tunnel. They were made to look hypermodern, with the fitting jellybean look, but the design was made in the art studio, not at the aerodynamics department. The result was that early Sierras, which should have profited from airflow pushing them down onto the road, often had stability problems. That issue was resolved for the next MY with the addition of small spoiler at the rear windows, the American version was probably never sold without them. In any case, it did break design traditions across the globe.
Still, the Sierra was THE bread-and-butter car for Ford Europe for over 10 years, and although it was hardly technologically advanced (basically, the early models were nothing more than a Taunus/Cortina with spaceship looks), it, because of its futuristic exterior, still did not seem outdated by the time it went out of production in ’93, comparable to the Opel Vectra/Renault 21 competition. In fact it was, at the time of introduction, a direct competitor of the Opel Ascona/Vauxhall Cavalier, the European J-car. Not exactly an upmarket car, and Ford Europe wasn’t marketing it like that in any way (much unlike today when nearly every car is “premium”). I never got why the Sierra needed to be placed in the sporty upmarket section on your side of the pond – did Ford think a BMW offers competition like a Cavalier?
Competition in NZ was the Holden Camira/Cavalier an awful car the fact that the Sierra was a restyled Cortina helped sales no end Cortinas were a good reliable car where GM really dropped the ball with the Camira it may have been up to date FWD but it wasnt any good my Dad bought one the same week I moved to OZ only rode in it once he later swapped it for a Japanese Camira by Isuzu which was worse but strong as he end for ended it 75 feet down an enbankment and walked away un harmed
Lots of great comments since I was here this morning.
My ’86 XR4 followed an ’83 Mustang 5.0 (first year with the 4 barrel), an ’84 SVO Mustang, and an ’85 T-bird Turbo. The ’83 Mustang had the V8 low end torque for better 0-30 performance, and the SVO had the big 225 Goodyear Gatorbacks (the Merkur had 195 (I think) Pirellis), so probably had better skidpad numbers (a friend of mine scared the pee out of me once on a 270 degree exit ramp in the SVO), but the Merkur was the car I’d most want to take on a long trip that includes some two-lane twisty bits.
It’s unfortunate the engine sounded like it was being tortured if you wound it out anywhere close to redline. One of the Euro engines surely would have been better, but the cost of federalizing it for a single model would have been cost prohibitive, which meant Ford had to go with an off-the-shelf North American engine. The 5.0 would have been cool for acceleration, but I’d doubt there was space under the hood, and the extra weight would have spoiled the weight balance. So in the end Ford probably chose the right option, it’s just that they didn’t have any really good ones available at the time. With an engine swap for a modern 3.5 liter V-6, it would be a terrific sports sedan.
Oh, and the Ford with all-metric tires was the early Fox Mustang. ’79 for sure (I had one with these tires), and maybe some other years had Michelin TRX tires that were something like 190×390 ( about 15.4 inches). Kind of a pain when it came time to replace tires, because unless you wanted a new set of rims at the same time you were locked into the Michelins. I recall they had good dry traction, but they were all over the place on wet roads.
As NZ Skyliner mentions Ford SA managed to fit a 5.0 V8 in these but South Africans are like that, They built the Chevy CanAm which was a Vauxhall Viva HC with a 350 SBC in place of the normal 1300.
Ford offered the TRX handling package on most of their cars for a time. I’ve still got a set of the 360’s (for the Escort/Tempo) and 390’s (Mustang/Tbird). There was also a 415 version but that was never offered on a Ford product. I liked the way they worked and and in the Pacific northWEsT I found the wet traction better than most of the performance tires of the day.
I had the 390’s on my Capri turbo. I’d forgotten about the 360’s until you mentioned them. Just as now, those tires were not inexpensive…
Never drove one; when it was out, I had neither the funds nor the interest. But the comments about shoddy assembly…brings to mind…
…how our standards of those times seemed to keep going lower and lower. In those years, I was driving early 70s barges…purchased cheap, repaired personally, used for a year or so, and sold for what I paid for them.
And it hit me, then and again now…much as people griped about low-quality assembly in the 1970s, how much better were THOSE than the early-mid 1980s models.
For all the havoc the Asian brands wreaked on Detroit, they did at least, finally, drive home that quality…fit-and-finish quality…really MATTERED.
I used to see one of these almost daily where I grew up and for years thought it was an “es-RAH-tee”.
XR4ti; The car we never sold a single part for at the dismantling facility (bad engine…. naughty naughty. Rest of the car was akin to new).
Yeah. Having owned one Pinto with the Lima 2.3…I fully understand.
To say that engine was overrated…is understatement. Maybe, I suppose, in later years, most of the bugs may have been worked out – on the normally aspirated versions. I wasn’t about to take a chance.
No, the Cologne 2.0 might have beget the 2.3; but you’d never know it. They were night and day, in terms of durability and even driving. The Cologne sang, while the 2.3 screeched. When it wasn’t saying, “Who, me?” every time you hit the gas.
Had an ’88 for 12 years. While the Lima engine was one coarse cob the rest of the car was excellent. The styling has withheld the test of time and while the interior styling wasn’t exactly exciting, the quality was excellent. Mine had cloth that lasted wonderfully and the dash never squeaked. I think the power for the day was pretty good as most sporty cars were only in the 0-60 8.5 second range and the Merkur could beat that. It had Recaro seats which were beyond fantastic. The car also fit really tall people as well, that iced the sale for me. When the kid came and we bought a 1999 Audi A6 I had to make a choice, keep the XR4ti or keep the Alfa GTV6. I couldn’t keep both so kept the Alfa as I felt Ford had fully abandoned the XR4ti and Alfa Romeo didn’t with the GTV6. My ’82 Alfa’s V6 was a gem but not as powerful. The chassis wasn’t as solid as the Merkur and the seats were crap. But I’ve made changes to my GTV6 and still have it. And I do quite a neck snap when ever I see an XR4ti go by (ouch!), which is rare anymore. I have great memories of my Merkur.
Sierras were absolutely everywhere in the u.k. if you were on a u.k motorway in 1988 it seemed like every third car was a Sierra.
They had rust issues but aside from an exceptionally bad batch in 1986 they were better than the preceding Cortina in this regard.
Built from 1982 to 1992, Ford made these all things to all men with an enormous range, including 3/5 door hatch, 4 door sedan, estate, pickup truck with engines of 1.3,1.6,1.8,2.0, (all ohc pinto) and 2.3,2.8,2.9 cologne v6. Last of the line cars got cvh and dohc motors. Then you had the performance ones, the v6 XR4, also available with four wheel drive and the all conquering cosworth.
I owned a sapphire version with a 2.3 Diesel engine. It was reliable, but damn was it slow! It used a 4 pot n/a engine from the Peugeot 504. Despite the sierra being a light car, the blistering 67bhp meant that most journeys were completed with the gas pedal permanently to the floor. If you’ve ever driven a Mercedes 200/240d you’ll know what I mean. Ford even declined to supply these for magazine road testing when new, like they were embarrassed. Even so, I liked it, it did 40mpg and was a comfortable cruiser with decent handling.