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.