A seminal car, but not for the reasons anyone might have expected.
The 1990 Ford Escort Mk5 was a car keenly anticipated by the market, as it would be the first all-new model for a decade. Ford’s rather casual attitude to mark numbers meant that the 1986 Mk4 was little more than a competent facelift of the 1980 Mk3. When the latter was launched, its sharp, contemporary styling and switch to front-wheel drive was fêted as a bold move forward for the model. In reality, it flattered somewhat to deceive, as beneath its apparent sophistication was a car that was distinctly ordinary in dynamic terms, with rough engines and a brittle ride.
When spy photographs of the Mk5 began to emerge in late 1989, observers were underwhelmed by what they revealed. The Escort’s distinctive six-light DLO and bustle tail remained, but these were now incorporated into a rather nondescript and generic design. In place of its predecessor’s crisp lines was a more rounded, organic shape that was fashionable at the time, but so lacking in individuality that it could have come from any manufacturer. Its only styling feature of note was the indented groove along the bodysides, below which the wings flared out mildly, obviating the need for a conventional wheel arch treatment.
If the styling was a non-event, perhaps the dynamics would usher in significant and much-needed progress over the outgoing car? The Escort Mk5 and its four-door saloon sibling, the Orion(1) Mk3, were launched in September 1990. As before, the Escort was offered in three and five-door hatchback, five-door estate and two door cabriolet(2) variants.
Car Magazine published its first review of the new models in its October 1990 edition. Surprisingly for such an important new arrival, its photo did not feature on the front cover and the report was relegated to page 126 of the magazine. This low-key introduction notwithstanding, the new Escort was heralded as “the future best-selling car in Britain”. Despite appearances, it was all-new, apart from engines carried over from the Mk4.
According to the reviewer, the new Escort and Orion, developed under the project code CE14, were the product of five years’ work by a team of 2,500 designers and engineers and an investment of £1Bn, the most Ford(3) had ever spent on a new model. Admittedly, a significant chunk of the budget had been spent on new automated production machinery to increase productivity and reduce the manufacturing workforce(4) but the reviewer wondered if the rest really was money well spent.
The styling was summed up as follows: “a neat shape, rounder, smoother and more delicate than its predecessor’s” but “take away the blue Ford oval and it could be a Nissan Sunny or one of a number of Japanese and European clones”. At least it was claimed to be 15% more aerodynamic than its predecessor and was notably more spacious in the rear seats, helped by a substantial 125mm (5”) increase in the wheelbase to 2,525mm (99½”).
The overall length of the hatchback was barely changed at 4,036mm (159”), likewise the saloon and estate, both 4,268mm (168”) long. The cabin was practical and well assembled, but the “ambience isn’t helped by vast expanses of cheap-looking grey plastic”. Ironically, cheaper versions with their brightly coloured upholstery fabrics were more inviting than the grey velour in the Ghia version.
Helmuth Schrader, who was Design Program Manager for the new models under Design Director Andy Jacobson, was somewhat defensive when questioned by Georg Kacher about their design priorities. Schrader said that, in design clinics, “people went for the straightforward cars”. Features that clinic well such as big headlamps, large glass areas and wrap-around tail-lights are expensive, and Ford marketing experts were happy to accept low beauty ratings as long as the overall image rating did not suffer too much. Schrader did, however, admit that he was “not crazy about some of the things we had to do for cost reasons”.
It was when the reviewer described the experience of driving the new Escort that things really fell apart. The noisy and harsh engines “lag a long way behind the standards of the class”. The variable-ratio steering was unusually light, but oddly set up, with a lot of slack around dead centre but highly geared either side, causing an unexpectedly sharp turn-in. This was good for slow-speed manoeuvrability, but bad for handling and roadholding. All test cars were “determined understeerers” with only average levels of grip.
The independent rear suspension of the previous model had been replaced by a cheaper torsion beam design. Despite this, the ride quality, on the standard suspension at least, was “the Escort’s strongest suit”, even if it did not have “the well-controlled suppleness of the Peugeot 309”. The ‘sports’ suspension on some versions eliminated a tendency to float but caused an intrusive bump-thump instead.
Overall, the reviewer concluded that “there’s little pleasure to be gained from driving the new Escorts and Orions”. The new model was “workmanlike and competent, but what sort of recommendation is that for a car of the 1990’s?” A Ford marketing strategist was quoted as saying that “we wanted a middle-of-the-road-car because we sell to middle-of-the-road people”. If so, the company certainly succeeded.
Other reviews were, to a greater or lesser extent, critical of both the appearance and dynamic qualities of the new models. Nevertheless, Ford’s formidable marketing machine swung into action behind the new Escort and Orion. Double-page advertisements for the new models were a prominent feature in motoring and general interest magazines, even in the issue of Car Magazine that damned them with considerable criticism and faint praise.
Behind the scenes, however, Ford already realised that urgent remedial work was required to bring the new model up to an acceptable standard. In the autumn of 1991, a range-topping ‘halo’ model, the RS2000, was introduced. It was powered by a 16-valve version of the Sierra’s 1,998cc DOHC engine producing 148bhp (110kW). It was distinguished by lower order variants by a small boot spoiler, wider twin headlamps and a different front valance with built-in fog lights and repositioned indicators. The RS2000 also featured suspension and steering revisions.
In the spring of 1992, the new Zeta(5) 1,796cc 16-valve engine, in either 104 or 128bhp (77 or 96kW) states of tune, was introduced. Both versions were offered in the returning XR3i sporting model. This was an oddly subdued looking car, with little of the original XR3’s obvious ‘hot-hatch’ addenda, apart from the embellishments borrowed from the RS2000.
Car Magazine tested the new XR3i in its more powerful form in March 1992. The new engine was disappointingly harsh and noisy at higher revs, especially between 6,000rpm and the nominal limit of 7,000rpm. However, strong maximum torque of 120lb ft (163Nm) at 4,500rpm gave the car good mid-range acceleration. Similar suspension and steering revisions to the RS2000, albeit more softly set up, improved the driveability of the XR3i over its lesser siblings, but it still felt very much like a work-in-progress and the car was absolutely not worth the steep £15k list price, according to the reviewer.
September 1992 brought a highly visible facelift to the Escort and Orion, albeit one achieved at relatively modest cost. A new bonnet encompassed a large oval grille, replacing the original horizontal slot. At the rear of the Escort hatchback and cabriolet, wider reprofiled rear light clusters were fitted. The rear ends of the estate and Orion saloon remained unchanged. The Zeta engine in 1,598cc 89bhp (66kW) form, replaced the rough old CVH engine. Fuel injection was now standard throughout the range.
It is a moot point as to whether or not the new front end improved the car’s appearance, but at least it was now recognisably a Ford. The decision to implement the work was not without controversy within the company. An unnamed senior executive complained that “the existing car was selling well enough” and the premature facelift had “taken one full year out of its life cycle”.
Car Magazine’s Georg Kacher drove the revised Escort in November 1992. Disappointingly, excessive noise and harshness were still a feature of the new engine. According to Kacher, it produced “an incredible variety of booms, vibrations and resonances” and, above 3,500rpm, “the decibel level soars like a kite”. This was all the more disappointing because, in other respects, the revised Escort was noticeably improved. Retuned spring and damper rates, improved sound deadening and revised power steering made it “surefooted, predictable and…failsafe at the limit” even if handling and roadholding were still only average.
The Escort Mk5 and Orion(6) Mk3 remained in production until 1995 when it was replaced by the Mk6, which was another even more extensive revision of the same car. The Mk5 was never better than mediocre, but Ford’s marketing power ensured that it remained a strong seller(7) throughout its five-year life. Its legacy was, however, a positive one in that the stinging criticism it received coerced Ford into putting a great deal more effort into the dynamic qualities of future models. The 1993 Mondeo and 1998 Focus amply demonstrated the company’s new mindset and commitment in this regard.
(1) Styling of the Orion and Escort estate (which would no longer be offered in three-door form) was outsourced to Ford Australia, because the European styling teams allegedly did not have the capacity to develop the full range.
(2) Again built by Karmann, as was the previous cabriolet model.
(3) In Europe anyway, one might infer.
(4) Making the new model cheaper to manufacture, of course.
(5) Later renamed Zetec.
(6) The Orion was renamed Escort Saloon in September 1993.
(7) In the UK, it was the second biggest seller after the Fiesta.
Author’s note: I am grateful to the author Steve Saxty, www.stevesaxty.com, for his input to this piece.
92 thoughts on “Missing the Marque: Ford Escort Mk5”
Ah yes, the Escort Mk5. This is the car that made the R8 Rover 200/ 400 look so good in retrospect, in the UK market at least. Everything about the Escort was inferior to the Rover (apart from the marketing effort) and so put an extra sheen on Rover/ Honda’s effort retrospectively.
I remember the Mk5 being panned everywhere one read, even the Express and Mail motoring sections went to town on sticking in the knife. I also remember Richard Parry Jones writing that those words stung the development team in Ford of Europe to the core, meaning that engineering would have a much greater say in the development of what would become the Focus.
Ford now is a shadow of what it was then, with the Focus and Fiesta’s sales way down the top 10 listing in the UK (and Europe, I believe). It does seem like a GM style exit could be on the cards.
I did two week’s work experience at the local Ford dealership during the summer of 1990 before returning to school to study for my A-levels. The salesman responsible for looking after me, who we’ll call Adrian for that was his name, excitedly showed me a pre-launch black and white photo of CE14 and asked me if I knew what it was. As I was an avid CAR Magazine reader I was already fully briefed about the underwhelming forthcoming Escort.
“Its only styling feature of note was the indented groove along the bodysides, below which the wings flared out mildly, obviating the need for a conventional wheel arch treatment.” That way of doing the wheel-arches/bodyside appeared on the Peugeot 605, launched July 1989. It´s a distinctive way to resolve the transition from body side to wheel arch edge and so I suspect that a wandering clay modeller or jobbing designer brought the idea to Merkenich. I expect every involved in the car´s design has retired by now. We will probably never know – who´d want to admit borrowing a styling conceit like that? I notice musicians often talk about constructing songs from other songs´ bits such a chord sequences, bass lines and production treatments (especially those).
I hadn´t noticed that the 1990-1993 Ford Orion was called that. I must have forgotten that the Escort V saloon had its own name. I notice though that the estate had an Escort badge.
(One of these days we ought to go down to the DTW garage and take out some of the collection for a drive. I don´t know why otherwise DTW is spending so much money on keeping the fleet! We have mint Ford Orion Mk3, a good late model Vauxhall Belmont and a Renault Chamade which we really should do a re-test on. I know Simon Kearne would be a bit nervous about his beloved Chamade being driven in winter. I am sure it would survive scatheless.)
Last time I was down in the garage, the Hillman Avenger had two flat tyres and the Morris Ital had a squirrel nesting under the bonnet. If we are having a run out, can I bag the Austin Ambassador?
Perhaps the Chevrolet Corsica could be a reference for the Escort with the difference being that the Escort is very refined in comparison to GM´s farm machinery approach on the Corsica (a really nasty effort). I think the Escort V looked quite okay and in retrospect the widespread re-cycling of the “Euro-clone” and “generic” criticism of mid-range cars sounds very overblown to me. That´s hindsight for you, I expect.
Oh man, the Corsica. I never thought I’d read about it here. My uncle had a Beretta, the two door Corsica. It was terrible.
Hi Richard. Respectfully, I’ll have to disagree with you about the styling, which was not only Euro-generic, but unforgivably dowdy. I remember thinking at the time it was launched just how frumpy it looked compared with the Mk3, which was crisp and modern looking when it was launched a decade earlier, and still looked good in facelifted Mk4 form when the Mk5 was launched. In lower spec versions, the Mk5 screamed ‘cheap’ to my eyes.
I’m with Daniel on this one (equally respectfully of course). I think the Escort is a bad offender from a time that produced very bland designs, even if they were nominally well executed. To my untrained eyes, it looks like manufacturers obtained the technology to (economically) do away with all the trim that was previously necessary and were so fascinated by that, that they “forgot” to add some visual interest. What would broadly be the next generation of cars (Focus, Passat B5) remedied that with a vengeance, before things de-railed again. For some older comment that got left on the cutting floor, I once prepared a side to side of early and late model Honda Preludes where you can clearly see the same design idea executed with technology available at the time.
But that’s a consumate amateur talking.
The Mk5 Escort is really bland and designed to a cost, but maybe a simple alteration like more facelifted-Sierra-like headlamps would have given it a bit more identity (warning: very crude photoshop)? Wouldn’t have solved the driving, though.
Hi Tom. That’s an astute observation, and well illustrated with the comparative Prelude photos. Regarding the Escort, Ford tacitly acknowledged the weakness of the front end when it revised it for the RS2000 to resemble your Photoshopped example.
I do like that early Prelude – it´s very industrial design. And the later one is one that I really have grown to like. It´s so very austere and hyper-rational. We don´t get that kind of think any more, alas.
That’s an interesting observation about the Prelude, Tom. How I miss those days. I agree with Richard, the last Prelude has grown on me over the years. It didn’t do much for me when new, but now I really miss that kind of rational design.
Whoops, hadn’t even noticed that the go-faster versions had different headlights (or I’d forgotten) 😳.
I’ve a always liked that generation Prelude. It was criticised for being too bland, but I always thought it a very pared-down version of that archetype of car, and I like minimalism. Mind you, I liked its predecessor even better, a genuinely pretty car. That front I thought was good enough to become the front treatment of Honda’s entire line up. Honda thought otherwise.
Honda really did some of its very best design work on the Prelude. It’s difficult to choose a favourite, but here’s my shortlist, in generation order, Mk3, Mk4 and Mk5 :
The last generation car represented something of a change in focus, I think. The earlier cars had a ‘close-coupled coupé’ look, but the last was a larger and more formal GT, perhaps better suited to the US market? All are beautifully resolved designs, and a quiet but powerful rebuke to current automotive fashion.
On reflection, you’re right, Tom: the Mk4 is the pick of a lovely bunch!
They’re lovely cars, the third is ‘close coupled’ as you say, but it also has an elegance that the fifth generation empasized more (no doubt, as you posit, for the US market). The fourth looks the most ‘sports car’ to me with its pointed nose (horizontally, I mean) and the smallest DLO of the bunch. It also took the Honda design language in a new, more dynamic direction that I’d hoped they would roll out over the rest of the range. They did so to an extent with the European Accord, but the Civic was losing some of its sharpness by then (the 1991 Civic was nicely done, but a little anodyne, the 1995 didn’t look nice to me, its successor was entirely different).
Regardless of nuance, all these Preludes are masterclasses in well resolved proportions and thoughtful details. As you say, a rebuke to current automotive fashion (compare – I won’t post a picture! – the recently replaced Civic…). And thanks for the pictures, they’re a delight to look at.
Here’s a shot of a gen 4 Prelude that’s in my area.
The mk4 Prelude front styling reflected Honda´s confidence in the early ´90s, it was a rather more ambitious car than its predecessor . But I´m not sure Honda wanted to adopt that front end for the rest of the range, at least to their non-sporty models. The only Hondas that inherited it were the Ascot Innova, a sporty variant of the rather formal Ascot, that emigrated (mostly) to Europe as “our” Accord, and, to a lesser extent, the Integra.
After that Honda lost its mojo, and the ugly big headlight look entered.
Anyway, this is an excuse to show a picture of my old Prelude (I miss it…)
Hi b234r. I’ve just noticed a difference between the JDM Ascot Innova and the version that reached us in Europe as the fifth-generation Accord. Sadly, the latter lost the neat frameless door windows of the former:
I wonder if the fact that the Accord was also the basis for the Rover 600 might have influenced that decision?
Would it be okay for me to suggest that the last Accord coupé had a lot of charm? I can imagine a DTW group test involving the Lancia Kappa, the last Accord coupe and perhaps the Volvo C70. Could we add the Ford Cougar to the list?
Whichever way I try to interpret your response, I find it tricky to make sense of its striking ambiguity. Could you be a little clearer as to your stance on the Accord coupé, please.
When I wandered off down the internet to look for Accord coupés for sale, I noticed how expensive they were. At about the 25 years point most of my favourite bangers were hovering at the 1000-2000 mark; a good Accord coupé costs at least twice that. Demand clearly exceeds supply in this case. An Accord coupé is clearly a respected old car, more so than the rust boxes I have cheered for.
If there was an Accord/Kappa/C70/Cougar test, how do you plural think it would shake down? After expectations or could one of them be a surprise winner? I am quoting Car´s non-existent Giant Test of March 1999 by Haul Porrell:
“We have to make decision about these cars. All of them offer something more than the saloons they are based on (in the case of the Accord, not much more). Trailing in fourth place is Lancia´s charming but flawed Kappa. It is nicely made but too eccentric and oddly arranged – the starter motor is an acoustic offence. We expect more of the brand. Volvo´s C70 lacks much sparkle but is very well constructed and at times entertaining if you like wheelspin and understeer. The poor outward visibility and appalling colour of the paint marks it down, as does the colour of the optional carpets. Who wants a car that can be ordered in gold metallic even if no-one ever does check that box? And we also hated the station the radio was set to as well. That leaves the Accord and the Cougar. If you like a smooth ride, the surprisingly compliant Cougar is the winner. It feels even more stable than an XK-S. We also adore the New Edge styling and vague whiff of the working man´s club even if such things died out more than twenty years before we tested these cars. But the Accord is the best blend of elegant good looks, ample boot-space and sporty but refined handling. The Cougar drives better but it is ultimately a shade too coarse in comparison. Yes, the Honda looks as dull as grey inside but the controls are butter smooth and the car looks stunning in black. It is also fabulously well-constructed and a delight to sit in. So, Accord, to the front.”
Hi Richard. Please be assured that my tongue was firmly in my cheek when I replied so bluntly!
My cheeky reply was purely in response to your final question, as to whether we could include the Cougar in the group test. My reason? The Accord, Kappa and C70 coupés were all rather lovely in their own, different ways, whereas the Cougar…wasn’t! I mean, just look at it!
It has an overly long wheelbase for a coupé. Look at the amount of bodywork between the trailing edge of the door and rear wheel arch. Even so, it still has overly long front and rear overhangs. The windscreen to front axle relationship is horrible. The car has a huge backside and looks hugely over-bodied or under-wheeled. I hate it!
Coupés should be the easiest cars to design, as they don’t have to be particularly space-efficient or practical, just really attractive and appealing. How could they have made such a mess of the Cougar?
Other opinions on the Cougar are, of course, very welcome!
As ever, some astute observations especially about the wheel-base (if you look at that photo). In real life it does not look so looooong. The last time I saw one I felt the need to re-appraise my initial views. On balance, I really like the Cougar exactly as it is. I included it in the test as it may have been the second last mass-market brand coupe (the Laguna holds that title) and I´d like to contrast Ford´s democratic approach to Lancia´s patrician attitude plus, I feel the Cougar might do very well in a test like this: V6, roomy, striking looks and Ford´s DCDQ values all baked in.
Regarding the Cougar, I would recommend not even ignoring it.
Yes, the Ascot Innova and the European Accord differed in that “small” detail. A detail that must cost Honda a lot of money. But it seems the company was eager to please the JDM and their love for the “hardtop” look, although the Innova and our Accord hardly look very different.
About the last Accord coupé sold in Europe (from ´99 to ´02?) is a very neat looking car and surely smooth to drive, but the automatic transmission high rate of failure on the V6 made me steer clear of them.
The Cougar is so much the under-cat you have to like it:
Again, like the Accord, more expensive than you might expect for one in v.g.c., one lady owner, no smking, f.s.h… etc
That’s a very cryptic comment, Fred, but I think it’s safe to assume you’re not a fan of the Cougar!
Richard, the Laguna coupé makes for a striking contrast to the Cougar. This is how a coupé should look:
Just like the Ford, it’s FWD from a mainstream manufacturer, but is actually rather beautiful. Let’s include it in the group test!
It is lovely – does it really ride as bad as they said it did?
Surely the Laguna is from too long after the other cars to be a fair comparison?
Yes, the Laguna coupé is around a decade newer than the Cougar, but it’s still thirteen years old, and far too nice to exclude. The boot shut-lines are masterful!
Here’s the last Accord coupé that b234r mentioned, another lovely coupé:
I remember that in the late 90’s, the newer version of this vehicle (the so-called mk6), were considered to be heavily budget vehicles. No one compared them to the Golf, or even the Astra. And I’m talking about the Polish market, where post-communist cars were still strong. Focus was really a new quality, nobody looked down on this car and it made a good impression on the roads, it was also much more expensive. That is why Ford offered the Escort until 2000 as a (slightly more expensive) alternative to Fiats or Polonez’es… and that’s saying something about the car
I think that post is the most damning indictment of the Escort possible; people who were used to Soviet era cars considered it crap!
Post- and late Soviet designs like the Polonez, Škoda Favorit or Lada Samara were bad in different ways. They were outdated, lacked quality control and road-prestiege, but they did not necessarily feel overly-cheap: at least not in every aspects. The Escort Mk5 – especially the lowest trim levels aimed at Eastern European markets – was in contrast a very cost-conscious design both in terms of interior, drivetrain and suspension, meaning you got less than what you paid for no matter from which angle you looked at the car. The market was expecting something on par with a Peugeot 306, Volkswagen Vento (Jetta) or at least a Renault R19, but what Ford delivered was not in line with the glory of the Escort RS Cosworth seen on repair shop walls and motorsport events. Even the Mk6 barely improved on this situation, it was less confusing and added a lot of modern options, but was still underwhelming for it’s name.
One year Car magazine compared a Lada Samara with a Ford Escort.
I have a copy of this magazine in my massive nine-storey basement archive:
As both lifts are out of order the moment I can´t check what the result was exactly. I do recall the Ford did not win it conclusively. Does any car magazine do this kind of creative testing any more?
I cannot enlighten you on this occasion, Richard. I have a gap in my archive from August 1988 to October 1989.
I’ve thought about raiding your archive to fill the gap, but the razor wire and rottweilers are a bit scary…
Daniel: you´ll need to do a bit more research as the razor wires and attack dogs are not all that I have prepared for unwanted visitors. I have a Pontiac Aztek parked outside the main entrance. The place is very secure apart from the ventilation shaft serving bunker 9 where I am awaiting a delayed parcel of heat sensor, lasers, “swarm-of-darts” traps and a huge carved boulder which rolls down to crush on-comers. I also need to get a grille or metal gate to close off the ventilation shaft´s outer aperture which is just outside the very high walls of my estate. I´ve been assured by the contractor these last few items are on the way. One really annoying thing about the ventilation shaft is that it is handily sized for humans and is served with steel ladder and lighting all the way in. The only item I did receive on time was a thin mesh grille located where the vent leads out from the Archive Section B-F.
Hmm, why do feel like a trap is being baited? Just because I was rude about the Cougar…
I don´t mind criticism of the Cougar, it´s the plan for the breath-taking heist the unsettles me.
Good morning, Daniel. Back in the Days the Dutch sales figures usually showed the Opel Kadett in first place, followed by the VW Golf and Ford Escort coming in third. The year the Mk V Escort came out, third place went to the Opel Vectra, the Escort was in fourth place. I have enough experience with the Kadett and Golf, but only driven the Mk V Escort once. The less said the better, but the Corsica I mentioned in a reaction to Richard’s post was worse still.
Quite easily one of the worst cars on the road at the time, and the Mk6 was no better.
I’ve driven quite a number of these and whatever trim it came in they all felt cheap inside. The ride and driving experience was always really poor, even as a passenger it was horrible.
I inherited a 1.4 ‘93 Astra and the contrast was remarkable, the interior and ride were head and shoulders above any of the many Escorts I got in. I drove lots of the Escorts’ competitors and it was easily the worst of the lot and I never understood who would choose to purchase one new.
Probably the best thing about the last few Escort models was they helped the Focus look even better when released!
Of course the Astra F was quite a stellar car in many ways (as regular readers will have heard me say already). I won´t disagree very strongly with Daniel on the Escort´s styling but it is a long way from terrible. The demerits of the car came firmly from the cost-accounting department. Jack Telnack was head of Ford´s design from 1980 to 1997. His record is creditable – I think other factors separate from aesthetic design weighed on the Escort. No doubt it should have been better, that much is clear. What happened also was a step change in the customers´ expectations of quality in this class. I had a look at some stats from the World Bank. In 1990 Germany approached a peak of GDP growth. A recession doesn´t explain the Escort´s clear cost-cut character.
Richard, Jack Telnack was European design VP at one point, but spent the bulk of his career at Dearborn. The man who directed Ford’s European studios and succeeded Telnack as Euro design veep was Uwe Bahnsen, and what can be said with some authority is that the European Fords from the early 1970s until his departure in 1986 bore his authoritative stamp, not that of Telnack.
Given the development timelines, I would suspect that the 1990 Escort at least started out as a ‘Bahnsen’ car, but he was on the back foot by then, having the likes of Telnack and the supervisory board breathing down his neck over the perceived buyer resistance to the Sierra, and to some extent, the Scorpio as well. Following his ‘sudden’ departure from Merkenich, Andy Jacobsen took over and I’d imagine the Escort V was completed under his supervision. By this point, Ford management had become incredibly risk-averse to appearance (see also the 1989 Fiesta) and in the Escort, it really showed. But I would agree that the styling was the least of the Escort’s problems. Compared to a contemporary Corolla (a truly excellent, if also rather anodyne car), the Ford genuinely felt like something knocked up in someone’s shed. (The example I drove was brand new, I might add).
I would broadly concur with regard to the Sierra’s durability. They drove quite nicely when new (engines notwithstanding) but went ‘off’ really quickly. Dampers in particular. The interiors didn’t stand up very well either, even if they were a lot nicer to sit in than the equivalent GM offering. From what I have learned, the Sierra was a comparatively easy car to write off, not because there was anything particularly deficient in its passive or active safety (alleged aero issues aside), but that they tended to become ‘uneconomical to repair’ a lot more readily than contemporaries. A factor which might have contributed to their subsequent attrition.
Hi Eoin: thanks for clarifying that. I didn´t do enough due diligence on who gripped the reins at Ford EU at that point. The Escort is then an interregnum car. Who was this Andy Johnson person and where did he go after this?
Linked In says he is retired. I don´t have a premium account at that site. If someone does it´d be great to ask further about it.
Richard: There isn’t a great deal to be found on Jacobsen. He presided over a curiously underwhelming period of Ford design; one that succeeded Bahnsen’s precision approach but preceded Claude Lobo and New Edge. I cannot be certain of this, but I suspect that after Telnack’s mid-’80s schisms, a lot of genuine talent left; the likes of le Quément I believe being one of them. This itself could only have adversely affected the design quality emerging from Ford’s Cologne studios. I also suspect that Dearborn took more of a direct role with regard to Merkenich’s output, which may have contributed to the lack of a cohesive stylistic approach and an over-emphasis on a riot of oval-shaped stylistic punctuation marks hither and thither.
I am however uncomfortable singling out Jacobsen as fallguy. I think he may have been victim to circumstance and while certainly no Ford design chief for the ages, probably suffered more interference than he would have liked. I would suggest that Lobo had a bit more creative freedom. Purely conjecture on my part, but my two Euro’s worth. (Inflation, dear boy, inflation…)
Eóin is correct. The early Sierras had a problem whereby the sheet metal would crease in expensive to repair places during even minor crashes. I wonder if this was a side effect of the computerised finite element analysis that Ford boasted about using in the launch brochure, it being used to eliminate unneeded metal and save weight. I believe this got fixed later.
They also used cheaper steel for a while on the pre-facelift models.
Ah: Jacobsen. I mis-read it as Johnson. Erk.
Good morning all, and thanks for your comments. The Escort Mk5 really was terrible! A colleague and I on a business trip to Scotland rented one at Glasgow airport. I drove it first and couldn’t believe just how bad the steering was, which caused me to drive it rather erratically on twisting roads until I got used to it. My colleague, who had little interest in cars, didn’t believe my complaints until he took over, and found out for himself just how bad it was!
I had the misfortune of driving a lot of these in the late 90s and 00s and if they were mediocre when new they aged like milk left out in the sun. They always felt very cheap and insubstantial, with very poor ride, wallowing handling, and plenty of knocks and groans even at low mileages. I never drove one over 60,000 miles that didn’t feel horrid. This is perhaps the last truly poor mass market car from an established manufacturer?
I will forever remember my shock at driving a Mondeo after my experience of various dreadful Dagenham Dustbins like the Sierra and Escort: “Ford made this car?? FORD?!?!”
Was the Sierra really that bad? The fossil record is partial. I have a copy of Gavin Green´s glowing description of a highland´s blast in a Sierra (admittedly one of the fancier ones).
As always with Fords in the 1980s, the engines let the Sierra down. The ride and handling were regarded as a big step forward from the Cortina in 1982.
All the positive things I ever heard about the Sierra were, unsurprisingly, written about new ones. My experience is that their durability was utterly woeful and by the time they had a few miles on them they were hateful things to drive, soggy, noisy, flimsy, and feeling miles behind the Mk2/Mk3 Cavalier much less the likes of the 1990 Primera or 405.
It’s quite telling that by the turn of the millennium Sierras were already getting decidedly thin on the ground, despite only being out of production for 7 years at that point.
The contrast between this model of Escort and the first Mondeo is fascinating: Equally dowdy on the outside and world’s apart on the inside, Ford having put MK1 Nissan Primera level effort into the Mondeo’s engineering. Later on, a more confident Ford took the exterior styling to task too. That seems a long time ago now.
This is only a tiny detail, but it seems symptomatic of the whole sorry mess. There’s a kink in the base of the front side window aperture. It’s partly hidden by the mirror attachment, but it’s there nonetheless, and once seen can never be unseen. It’s as if someone discovered late in the day that the side windows didn’t align with the windscreen and tried to hide it.
Hi Jonathan. Well spotted. That was an awkward detail they tried to cover with the mirror sail panel. It’s obvious in this photo:
You can enjoy that feature for very little money (I can´t see it, by the way).
One aspect of the design of these Escorts I always liked was the tidy A-pillar and door frame treatment.
60bhp AND a pop-up sunroof…be still, my beating heart!
Jonathan: take a look at the same area of an 1986-1992 Audi 80 Typ 89. There is also an odd step where the wing meets the base of the a-pillar. I don´t know why that was not ironed out. It is otherwise a very orderly car.
It´s about 10.10 CET and I am feeling very sorry for the Ford Escort now. It´s had a bad day.
You’re feeling sorry for the Escort Mk5, Richard? Have you been raiding the DTW sherry cabinet again? Eóin has already issued us with a written warning about that after the recent unfortunate incident and police raid. 😁
The amontillado´s ABV was higher than I expected. Good stuff though.
I always found the design of the car commensurate with the feel of getting into the car. The cheap dowdy look of the car paired with a cheap dowdy interior.
At least the even uglier offerings of “Japanese and European clones” offered either a decent driving experience or superior build quality and longevity. The Escort offered nothing.
A dismal car from a highly variable period for Ford. I remember the ride as harsh, the seat unyielding and the whole thing thrummed like a drum over any surface rougher than newly laid asphalt. Then there the quality and durability problems, with oil leaks and deep rust appearing around the rear arches within five years from new. Funny to think that the contemporaneous R8 Rover 200 knocked the Escort into a cocked hat, albeit for a mild premium.
I had very little experience of the Mk5 Escort, but I remember being surprised when they “facelifted” it with that piggy snout.
Hi Mervyn. That ‘piggy snout’ as you accurately describe it was an emergency measure and of debatable value. It was certainly more distinctive, but poorly executed. Look how poorly it fits against the unchanged headlamps:
They finally did the job properly (or, at least, better) with the Mk6:
Not a good car, but as has been said the nett result was the mk1 Focus, so every cloud…
I stumbled across this slightly unusual accessories advert for the mk5 Escort. I think it’s very well done – unusually so for its type. The car looks a lot better at the end of its transformation and the collaboration with the clothing brand, Next, resulted in a nice visual metaphor.
I’d be slightly worried that the technician seemed to be tightening the nut on the new steering wheel by turning it anti-clockwise…
I think it is quite telling that it is one of the few cars ever made that looks better for having more plastic tat addded to it.
I would also feel a bit put out as I drove off the forecourt that I had forked out for all that but it still drove like it had solid plastic wheels.
Nice one, Charles. The music was very fitting,too. The car may still exist, although now painted red but hasn’t been on the DVLA books for around fifteen years.
They should have painted the mirrors white too – but then the kink in the window line would be too obvious…..
I believe that in italy the station wagon was kind of success. Segment C station wagon, the only one i would never ever buy is/was the Golf.
The ’95-on Mk.6 has only been mentioned in passing, but going by my own experience, deserves some credit as a late redeemer of the final European Escort’s reputation.
My own daily driver at the time – very much not of my own choosing – was a Rover 416Si (HH-R), an ill-handing, badly made, stuffed shirt of a car. I had occasional use of a ’96 Escort, usually on long and demanding journeys, and found it a delightful, unpretentious car by comparison with the Rover. Steering, chassis feel, and ride had a feeling of rightness which suggested rigorous development. The 90bhp Zetec 1.6 was responsive and unobtrusive – the Rover’s K-Series gave another 20bhp from the same capacity, but the Ford was lighter. I can’t comment on the contemporary Astra or Golf, but that Escort had the feel of a proto-Focus; you could spent a lot more and end up with something less satisfactory.
Zetec apart, the raw material was different only in settings and minor details from the 1990 Mk.5, so no excuse for not getting things right first time.
Your comment about the Rover 416 runs contrary to receieved wisdom: Honda chassis and Rover suspension nous. The badly made part and stuffed shirt part is not a surprise – above all it was a badly assembled Honda. I thought the car at least drove well and that´s why Car or Autocar thought it was a BMW 3-series competitor. So, in fact those reports amounted to yet more jingotastic opinions?
As I recall, the Mk6 was generally regarded as a useful improvement over the execrable Mk5, in that it was a much more thorough re-engineering job than the facelift Mk5. I imagine that we’ll take a proper look at the Mk6 in due course!
The Spanish motoring press used to be extraordinarily mild, so it was a shock to read the mediocre reviews the Escort received in 1990.
These cars, as the 1989 Fiesta, had an “innovative” type of seat: the foam was injected into the upholstery fabric inside a mould, forming a single piece. Surely this method would be cheap to manufacture, but then the seats didn´t “breathe”, making them incredibly uncomfortable in mild weather. Imagine in a typical 40ºC Andalusian summer day.
Non power-steered Escorts had like 4.5 turns lock to lock or so. It must be a delight to drive in a multi storey park.
One thing I like about DTW is the insights from various bits of Europe – the curiosities of the Greek market, for example, or why subsidies skew the US market (courtesy of reader secretasian) and now this, the sweaty seats of a 1989 Fiesta. This is excellent. I think the sweaty seat was not confined to southern Europe – it can get quite hot in other places and I seem to recall finding the Ka´s seats to be a bit odd (I still love that car though).
Hi b234r. I remember Ford’s publicity about those moulded seats at the time, how much cheaper and less time consuming to make they were compared with traditional ‘cut-and-sew’ construction. As I recall, Ford reverted to traditional construction after just one model cycle. Now we know why!
The one piece design of seat foam and cover greatly helped Ford‘s implementation of JIT concepts in manufacturing. In Saarlouis the seats were made by an on-site supplier (Johnson Controls) that had a mere thirteen minutes between the order for a seat and delivery to the production line. The seats had to be assembled in record time to meet this.
One thing Ford introduced with the Escort Mk5 and corresponding Fiesta were front suspensions where the mounting bolts for the wishbone bushes were bolted in vertically. Normally you would expect a horizontal bolt to let the wishbone ‘rotate’ around it but these vertical bolts relied on distortion of the rubbers to let the suspension arms move. In the Escort this was particularly badly executed and could only be amended but not fully cured with the Mk6 – in the Fiesta they somehow managed to re-tune the bushes for a much better result.
In the early Nineties I had some jobs to do in their Saarlouis factory. One day there were thirty-eight Orions standing around with a production fault called assembly offset, every production engineer’s nightmare. Car number one had the rear suspension originally intended for car number two, number two had the parts from number three and so on. The cars were transferred to a quickly rented hall and all rear suspensions were unbolted from the cars, pushed one car to the left and bolted up again.
Hi Dave. Might I please ask you to explain more about ‘assembly offset’? Not knowing anything about it, I would have assumed that the suspension assemblies would be absolutely identical and therefore not specific to an individual car. I must be missing something.
An assembly offset can be caused by glitches in ERP systems.
One car on the production line gets a part that was originally intended for a car one position further up or down the line. It might happen that a car in diesel powered base version that should have no ABS, drum brakes and soft springs gets the sports suspension of the RS car on front it complete with stiff springs, useless ABS sensors and disc brakes. A case like the one with the wrong rear axles it is relatively easy to fix and just needs time and lots of space. Imagine such a fault involving wiring looms, interior trim items or bits under the bonnet. You then relatively quickly arrive at a point where the cars get thrown away and scrapped because it isn’t economically sensible to fix the fault.
Understood, Dave, thank you. I’d overlooked the fact that cars are no longer ‘mass-produced’ and all identical, but built to order depending on what options the buyer has specified.
Thanks to increased IT power in ERP systems and optimised equipment production processes have come a long way since the Eighties.
No longer are cars painted all white for one week, yellow the next, orange the third until you arrive at black and then painting is stopped and equipment cleaned and flushed to start with white again. Today every car on the production line can be painted in any randomly chosen colour without influence on process or equipment. There are also things like direction-bound, asymmetric tyres in different sizes front and rear, effectively demanding a different tyre at every corner of the car – this would have been impossible not too long ago. The result are millions of theoretical versions of your favourite car (and manufacturers trying to sell you ‘bundles’, mostly of unnecessary electronic crap that doesn’t cost anything because it’s software but sells at eye watering margins).
And all this combined with JIT and JIS, giving you the chance to completely change the specification of your BMW 7er until a couple of hours before its actual production starts.
Then there’s still the chance for human error. Like the guy entering a production order for fifty cars in police specification with an additional hole in the roof for the cables to the entertainment bar on the roof and making a typo for five hundred such roof panels – you need a quick idea for welding up those holes in 450 roof panels. Or the legendary IT fault that produced cars with two doors on the left side and one on the right and it took fifty cars until they recognised the fault….
In 1990 the mk5 Escort/Orion wasn´t available in Spain with factory installed air conditioning. Back then a/c, hardly a luxury item in our summers, was starting to appear in small and medium size cars (you could buy a Supercinq or a 205 with factory a/c from 1987 or so). I remember the 1989 restyled R21 had a/c as standard across the range, it was a huge USP and sales success followed.
So you couldn´t get your sweaty seats brand new mk5 Escort with a/c, while you could order chilled air in your new R19 for 700€. Guess which one sold best.
I´m reading the new cars price list in a November 1990 Spanish car mag and I don´t see the 1.3 and 1.4 Escorts/Orions, only the 1.6 petrol and 1.8 diesel. Wasn´t there a recall on the small engined models?
To what extent if any was the mk5 Ford Escort’s mediocrity and Ford’s overall complacency a reflection of GM’s own issues with the similarly average mk3 Vauxhall Astra and the rest of their lineup, brought about by their own problems and further as well as Jose Ignacio Lopez’s negative Lopez effect that particularly undermined the enviable reputation GM Europe built up during the 1970s-1980s?
In the case of GM Europe, it was something which unlike Ford they were never able to bounce back from.
You could say that late 80s Ford and late 80s Opel ran parallel in terms of not-quite-so-goodness. I´m inclined to say Opel made a better job of the cost cutting mantra – nothing they made was a not-quite-so-good as the Escort we´re discussing. Why were Ford and GM like this at the time? Were I in the moood I´d look at the mantra of shareholder value and ask did it affect the companies? I´d examine the state of the US car market in 1985 onwards and see if both firms were having a harder time than normal; or I could examine the US economy and see if that affected EuroFord and Opel and meant money was repatriated more than normal meaning more cost-cut products.
Neither of them were sold in the US at all, instead Ford had a completely different Escort based on the Mazda 323 platform but mostly with the 1.9 injected CVH engine except in the top trims (Ford Escort GT and Mercury Tracer LTS, the former a “warm” hot-hatch by Euro standards – if you wanted more Ford would show you a 5.0 Mustang – and the latter the same but in sedan form) which had the Mazda DOHC. This car was also what Australia had (as the Ford Laser) but always with Mazda engines and curiously rather than our mini-Taurus wagon theirs was a straight rebadge of the prior-generation 323 wagon.
It was considered quite good by both the press and the public and you still see a few on the road even in my heavily-road-salted area.
On the few occasions when a Car and Driver/Road and Track/Motor Trend etc reporter got their hands on a non-Cosworth Euro Escort in the ’90s they reported, almost with an air of astonishment, that for once our version was better than the Euro one.
Interesting reading about a car I haven’t paid much attention too – can’t recall ever seeing one other than a couple of RS Cosworths, the only ones anyone would bother importing (we had a version of the Mazda-based US Escort as the Laser).
The styling is competent but not outstanding, and the comment on trying to keep the cost of headlights down (glass lenses I assume) is slightly comical to read in light of what cars look like these days!
This is, by some distance, the worst car I have ever driven.
Poor performance, unrefined, awful ugly and cheap cabin (including terrible seats), dangerous road holding. I once nearly crashed one by taking a corner I knew well at roughly the same speed as I would in my Golf MkII – the Golf could negotiate it comfortably, the Escort understeered over to the wrong side of the road and only some fairly brutal correction avoided hitting the car coming the other way…
The Mk 6 (really, a heavy facelift), was much, much better – a car transformed. The new cabin was of a much higher quality, new engines had decent performance and were less thrashy, and I think significant chassis and body changes made the whole thing drive much better.
I never had the displeasure of driving a Mk5 Escort, and reading the experiences of the DTW community makes me grateful that I didn’t. However I did pretty much learn to drive on a 1990 Mk3 Fiesta, which was very closely related.
The Fiesta actually wasn’t a bad car, although it lacked very much in the way of inspiration. Handling was a bit stodgy and the steering low-geared, but what did I care? It was a car, and I was driving it!! I mention the Fiesta in this context because a few years later it was replaced as my parents’ daily driver by a 1992 version of the same car. There hadn’t been an actual facelift between 1990 and 1992 for the Fiesta, but there had been quite a number of running changes, very much akin to those made to the Escort for the ’92 facelift. Slightly wider, squarer section, tyres, alleged changes to the bushes, and a re-sculpting of the foam seats. So, an improvement? Not really. The re-sculpted seats looked better, but actually offered less support, and the steering now had an artificially sharp initial turn-in. The result was a car that felt superficially less stodgy but was remarkably tricky to guide smoothly through a set of S-bends. So much so that my mother (whose back hurt most of the time, especially when inflicted with lateral acceleration) distrusted it pretty much refused to travel in it unless she herself was driving.
I’m rambling on about all this because I was fascinated by how much of difference “minor” tweaks could make to the driving experience, and not for the better. It all suggests to me that the Mk5 Escort was essentially an underdeveloped expansion of the Mk3 Fiesta, and Ford’s value engineering of the platform was cruelly exposed by its inability to make that expansion work properly.
Also: I wonder if the unusual mounting of those bushes mentioned by Dave was partly responsible for the rapid deterioration of these car’s suspension behaviour? Maybe doing it that way led to rapid bush wear?
The Escort Mk 5 was an exceptionally cynical piece of design. Spend 10 minutes with one and the evidence of cost cutting was glaringly obvious.
So I do not know if the base engineering wasn’t up to the job, or it was simply brought to market by a company that simply didn’t care.
The facelift and then subsequent (heavy) facelift produced better cars, suggesting that Ford could have done a decent job in the first place but couldn’t be bothered.
Of course, the Focus that eventually succeeded it was excellent.
“Of course, the Focus that eventually succeeded it was excellent.”
For which, bizarrely, we might owe the Escort Mk5 a debt of gratitude!
I never ever thought the original Focus was “excellent”, although the chassis and roadholding were brilliant when they were fresh, provided you had the opportunity to thrash it.
A truly dreadful car who’s lack of quality and longevity was the real issue. You can forgive a lot if a car is robust and reliable but these Escrotes simply fell apart. They looked bland, they were uncomfortable to sit in, they drove awful but they rapidly broke and felt tired. That makes them worse than the Nissan Sunny in my book and both were sold and serviced in quite some numbers at the garage where I worked in the ’90s.
Good morning Steven and thanks for your comment. I hadn’t realised that the Escort Mk5 were also troublesome, in addition to all its other failings. The contemporary Nissan Sunny might have not been the most exciting car, but I’m sure it was reliable, and not unpleasant to look at: