Sierra Shock (Part Two)

First impressions are very positive, but trouble lies ahead.

The UK automotive press were inordinately impressed by the apparent sophistication of the new Sierra. Car Magazine featured it on the cover of its October 1982 issue with the headline, “Sierra Shock! It really is a good car.” The magazine devoted a six-page feature to the Sierra including an analysis of the design by Steve Cropley, driving impressions from Mel Nichols and an interview with Bob Lutz, Ford Europe’s (former) chairman, who had recently been promoted and returned to Dearborn.

Cropley’s opening remarks set the tone for his piece: “If ever a car… deserved a complete break from the cloying, boring image of the ubiquitous Ford ‘nail’, this Sierra does. It is wholly different; wholly better.” He continued thus: “It is good enough to be compared with the new Audi 100, and to be mentioned in the same conversation as a Mercedes-Benz W123.(1) The eulogy continued: “Never again will a car maker be able to style a car for effect rather than efficiency, to produce a car with an indifferent ride because ‘the public won’t notice’ or to skimp on noise / vibration suppression, on refinement of any kind, because Ford’s Sierra, still intended as transport for those with no interest in car design, has been designed with an eye on the standards of Mercedes-Benz and BMW.”

As the piece progressed, however, Cropley’s tone became somewhat more nuanced: “it is important not to see [the Sierra] as a true rule-breaker. Its drag factor of 0.34 has already been bettered by the new Audi 100 and is about to be matched by the middle-model [Citroën] BX. It has no flush glass (that’s in the Audi), lacks a particularly progressive suspension design (that’s in the Citroën), nor does it bristle with new materials. Rather, it’s a modern refinement of established principles.” That last phrase is quite telling and sounds like one that might in the past have been used to describe any new Cortina.

Image: favcars

Regarding the styling, Cropley wrote that “Cortina buyers are likely to be shocked at first by the decision of the Ford creators to neglect their chance for a purely imposing shape in favour of an efficient one. The sheer rounded sleekness of the car will frighten some of them off.” Ford’s senior designer, Patrick le Quement, justified the radical shape by saying that “It was a matter of making the break, or letting someone else do it.” The Sierra’s body was, according to Cropley, “designed for maximum strength, using minimum materials” and “the result is a lighter car (by 100-150 lbs [45-68 kgs] compared with corresponding Cortina models).” Weight was saved by a “reduction in complexity (there are 75 fewer parts in the Sierra’s body than [in the] Cortina’s.)”

The Sierra’s suspension was actually a largely conventional set-up with MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, but Ford was very proud of the effort its engineers had put into refining the details of the layout to optimise the ride and handling compromise.

Regarding the decision to retain rear-wheel-drive for the Sierra, Cropley suggested that “Ford publicists have done some of their best work” by pointing out that “rear drive cars can have lower bonnets (which benefits styling and aerodynamics), they can run a bigger range of engines (the Sierra has engines from 1.3 litres to 2.8 litres), there are handling benefits (many faster drivers prefer the behaviour of rwd cars). Ford also claim that buyers ‘downsizing’ from bigger cars are more ready to accept rear-drive than front.”

Having trotted out Ford’s PR spin, Cropley did finally get to the true rationale behind the decision to retain RWD: “there can be little doubt that it’s far, far cheaper to stick with rwd for a new model when you’re using an established range of engines and gearboxes, minimally changed. In fact, if it costs £660m to build a new range of cars without the engines and drive layout changed, its downright terrifying to think what it might cost to go the transverse front-wheel-drive route, using new engines, as GM have done with the Vauxhall Cavalier.”

In that paragraph, buried in the body-text of the piece is, I would contend, the fundamental reason for Ford’s decision to stick to rear-wheel-drive for the Sierra: simply, the cost. It might not have mattered if the Cortina’s engines had been class-leading, but they were some way off the pace(2). Was Ford’s brave new car about to be undone by its old-school drivetrains?

What about the Sierra’s driving experience? Mel Nichols’ initial impressions of its abilities over twisting Sardinian hill roads were very positive: “On the handling front, then, real ability. And for ride and comfort, genuine quality.” Nichols continued: “Hallelujah! – the Sierra is light years away from its miserable predecessor. The great unwashed, if you’ll excuse the condescension, have been given a decent Ford at last. The car feels fluid, mature, competent. The fundamental quality of the Sierra’s dynamics seems to come through from the moment the wheels start rolling.”

However, then some caveats emerge: “But if you’re driving a 2.0 litre Sierra, another impression also comes through: the carried-over single ohc Cortina engine feels rough, old, crude and out of place in a car that is otherwise patently refined. Powerplant and chassis are not in harmony, and the Sierra 2.0 is robbed of a feeling of overall quality. It doesn’t even have the strength to go with its roughness: low and mid-range isn’t much better than the 1.6.” Nichols described the smaller engine as “quite sweet, and since the Sierra is quite light, the performance loss is not worth worrying about.”

It was with the 2.3-litre V6, however, another carry-over engine, that “the Sierra comes fully into its own. Here’s an engine that not only has a good performance spread but revs decently and willingly and is smooth and quiet with it. It isn’t a lovely new engine, but it does blend well with the rest of the car.” Disappointingly, though, “The new five-speed gearbox… works well enough without being anything to write home about.”

Image: autoshite

Despite the reservations expressed concerning the drivetrains, the overall assessment was that the new Sierra was “a bloody good car.” Overall, Ford cannot have been disappointed by the reception Car Magazine gave to its new model, although might have felt some disquiet about the criticisms of the carry-over engines and new five-speed gearbox.

Just three months later, however, the Sierra faced its arch-rival, the new Cavalier, in a Car Magazine Giant Test(3). The cars brought to the launch event in Sardinia had all been top-line Ghia variants, but both the Sierra and Cavalier UK test cars were in low-line 1.6L trim. This was most apparent on the Sierra where, instead of the Ghia’s wide dual headlamps and fully faired-in front end, there were single rectangular lamps and a slatted front grille which was described as “shovel-nosed.” Inside, visibility was “adversely affected” by the thick window frames with their rounded corners and the sparse facia looked “a little bare” compared with more upmarket versions.

The performance of the Sierra fell a little short of the Cavalier. Its 1,593cc engine produced maximum power and torque of 75bhp (56kW) and 88 lb ft (119Nm). The figures for the Cavalier’s 1,598cc engine were 90bhp (67kW) and 93 lb ft (126Nm). The Sierra’s 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time and top speed were 12.5 seconds and 102mph (165km/h), compared to 11.0 seconds and 105mph (169km/h) for the Cavalier. The Vauxhall was also the more economical on test, achieving an overall 32.9mpg (8.59 l/100km) versus 31.3mpg (9.02 l/100km) for the Ford.

Image: aronline.co.uk

At high speed, the Cavalier was “arrow straight on a motorway, even in conditions of gusting sidewind.” The Sierra, however, demonstrated a “slight waywardness [that was] mildly annoying.” There were also concerns about the Ford’s on-the-limit handling, where “initial gentle understeer turns with increasing speed into the other thing [oversteer]…and any lateness with opposite lock can set the car very sideways indeed.” In contrast, the Cavalier “cannot be provoked into any sign of misbehaviour [and is] a model of consistency.”

Car’s overall conclusion was that “The Sierra is not a force which sweeps all before it. It is very roomy, it rides exceptionally well, it is decently quick and economical and it handles pleasantly except for that gentle sting in the tail. Balance all that against the Cavalier which is both faster and more economical, which is a more than adequately comfortable four-seater, and whose handling is a model of consistency with no visible vice whatever… Our own balance inclines us towards the Cavalier.”

Image: fordsierranet.com

So, first blood to General Motors, which must have been a bitter disappointment to Ford, given the investment it had made and the Sierra’s very positive initial reception. But that would be just the start of the Sierra’s difficulties.

The story of the Sierra concludes shortly in Part Three of this series.

(1) Hardly a stunning endorsement as the W123, while undoubtedly a fine car, was already seven years old at this point.

(2) The base Sierra was saddled with an old 1.3-litre engine that produced a feeble 60bhp and was mated to an archaic four-speed gearbox.

(3) The third contender was the Volkswagen Passat Mk2, which finished last in the comparison.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

30 thoughts on “Sierra Shock (Part Two)”

  1. The ironic thing with the Car cover is that the actually innovative car, the BX is relegated to the bottom of the page. I very much admire the Sierra despite its compromises; it also made a brave effort to bring better things to the middle market. That said, the more conventional-looking Ascona did it a bit better (or the Ford wasn´t much worse) and the BX just carried on Citroen´s more progressive way of doing things. It would be instructive to put a BX, Ascona and Sierra in a Giant Test and see which really was the best effort. We could compromise and say all three offered something distinctive. If we´re being a bit hard-nosed about it, the Sierra comes last which is no shame on PlQ´s excellent aesthetics, note. The BX has to be first for having engineering and styling in allignment, while Opel moved on the game in many ways but concealed their light under some hay (the appearance is deceptively orthodox). Practical minded people would think the Ascona the best compromise: fwd efficiency and no wierd buttons or experimental plastics).

    1. In NZ and Australia we nearly didn’t see the Sierra at all, as the Cortina was replaced by the fwd badge engineered Mazda 626, the Ford Telstar. But the Mk1 Telstar/626 didn’t have a wagon version available. In Australia, they didn’t bother, but in NZ a wagon was essential. Thus, coming down the same assembly line as the Telstar and 626 in Auckland came the Sierra Wagon. It actually sold well enough on it’s own to make it a top ten seller, occasionally out selling it’s Telstar cousin.

  2. Was it the “gentle sting in the tail” or the aerodynamic deficiencies that undid Frank Williams ? Or was he simply going too fast ?

    1. I don´t know how fast he was driving, but it seems that the N8 road, next to the Paul Ricard circuit and where FW suffered his accident, was rather twisty and a few F1 drivers and journalists liked to do a bit of “spirited driving” in it, even racing between them in rental cars.

  3. I’ve said it before, but the “Sierra shock” was mostly a UK thing and a severe over reaction. After the first shock had calmed down it quickly captured the mid market in Sweden together with the Ascona and the Passat. Even though Volvo was the most common car in Sweden it was also more expensive and seen somewhat as an aspirational car. Besides, neither Saab or Volvo had anything smaller or cheaper, leaving the field open.

    If anything, the Sierra wasn’t radical enough? The switch to fwd was inevitable, and even Ford US made the switch in the same time period, with the Escort and Escort-based Tempo. The rear wheel drive platform lead to packaging problems leaving the rear seats somewhat cramped and with a very high loading lip to the tailgate. For a family car it could’ve benefited from a platform a whole decimeter longer in the rear and a lower load area, like the later Mondeo.

    1. That high loading lip is burnt into my memory. The smallest girl in my class at secondary school played the cello, and I always winced internally as she heaved the blessed thing into the back of the family Sierra after school. God forbid that I would offer to help her – neither of us would ever have lived down such gallantry. (Nor, I noticed, did any of the rugby playing he-men in our year ever rush to her aid.) Teenagers, eh?

      Getting back to the cars for a moment, didn’t the Ascona have a similarly high loading lip? Didn’t seem to hurt sales in the slightest!

    2. Good day all. Here’s the boot high loading lip as mentioned.

      The boot was also rather shallow too.

    3. Dear all, you can criticise the Sierra as long as you like, I never liked the Sierra, so I don’t really care about any criticism.
      But don’t criticise the Sierra because of a high loading lip!
      (I don’t know if the use of an exclamation mark is actually allowed for commentators. Never mind. I’ll just do it now.)

      The Sierra does NOT have a high loading lip, it had a VERY VERY LOW loading lip.

      I have an Alfasud Sprint, I know what a high loading lip looks like.

      Large luggage compartment, by the way. Some people in our golf course car park are dreaming of this, as they have just half the load capacity of a Sierra with a car twice the size of a Sierra. But that is another topic…

    4. Bit grumpy today, Fred, at we? 😠

      As buying a ‘classic’ Alfa is an act of self-flagellation for the terminally masochistic, a high loading lip is the lead of your worries…😁

    5. The loading lip was pretty much the deciding factor in car testing back then. Car A is great, but it has a high loading lip, unlike car B. Car B is worse in every other respect, but it still wins our test.

      Before the loading lip it was the size of the glove compartment or the position of the ashtray or something like that.

      To me high loading lips are good. Lifting stuff in the back is probably the only exercise the weak undertrained part of the population gets.

    6. The YouTube channel, Carwow, is famous for assessing cars’ ability to store various sizes of water bottle, to the point that it is parodied by other channels. I’m sure that charging speed will soon become an assessment factor, if it isn’t already.

      Coming back to boot lips (high or low), I wonder if some markets’ reviewers are more ergonomically aware, perhaps?

  4. Daniel, I´m enjoying this Sierra series. I´m not a Sierra expert in any way and the more I read about it, the more I´m convinced that it´s a very clever, refined and superficially modern restyle of the Cortina. RWD when everybody were completing the switch to FWD and very old engines (and the Sierra didn´t get a new DOHC 2.0 until seven years later!), it seems the Sierra looked better in the paper than in the reality.

  5. The Sierra must have caused the writers at Car magazine some headaches. On the one hand, it was just a much better Cortina, as b234r says, albeit with trendy new aero styling which would upset the fleet market. On the other, there was the more conservative looking, but mechanically more modern Cavalier. Ideally, Car would have liked everyone to have bought BXs and driven around with experimental jazz playing in the cassette player. That wasn’t going to happen, so I think they applauded any step in the ‘right’ direction, away from cars which were barely good enough and sold on cost, ubiquity and the fact that they were ‘British’ (or made by a company with a large commitment to UK manufacturing).

  6. The Cortina had a solid rear axle, the Sierra had a semi-trailing arm rear suspension (like Mercedes and BMW), the Cavalier had a twist beam.

    1. True, gooddog. I’ve always slightly suspected that the Sierra was dressed-up to look more radical than it was and that’s probably a bit unfair. I’ve travelled in a few (high and lower spec) and they were genuinely good in their own right, and naturally a big improvement over the Cortina.

    2. Thanks for your reply, Charles. You did say “much better Cortina”.

      Is it possible that Cropley’s “gentle sting in the tail” comment was taken to heart by whomever named Ford’s Granada successor?

  7. The ‘shock’, OTT, early headline is typical of Cropley, isn’t it? He did the same when the Maestro was launched, massively over-egging what a great leap forward it was. Both the Maestro and earlier Sierra then fell at the first Giant Test (when these were to be taken seriously).

    The Sierra’s styling (inside and out – the interior was also quite a revelation) was let down by the car’s mechanicals. The chassis and in particular the drivetrains were little more than carry-overs. And, of course, even the much vaunted aerodynamics were neither that slippery or properly sorted in terms of higher speed stability. Finally, there was the thing where relatively minor knocks resulted in cars being written off due to irreparable chassis damage. The latter meant that some car fleets in the UK refused to lease them (it was the reason my Dad ended up in a Montego when his entire previous company car life had been in Cortinas). So, all in all, it seems that Ford’s big leap forward was half baked … journalists used to slay British Leyland for such under-development …

  8. I presume there are some numbers to go with these allegations of a high rear loading sill. It doesn´t look worse than the one on similar cars from the same period. On balance, we find in the Sierra a car that looked modern but wasn´t really. However, we can exonerate the stylists who presumably lacked support from other departments. Isn´t Lutz responsible for this?

    1. Perhaps it’s a Swedish thing? I remember the loading lip height being an issue on practically all tested cars in Sweden? Presumably because the market was more consumer/family oriented at the time. I remember cars like the VW Golf II, the Sierra, and the Volvo 740 getting flack, in a country where the Saab 900 hatch had bumper level loading height. Incidentally, that very same issue may be the only real input the Saab engineers had on the development of the Lancia Prisma, going from a Golf style rear to standing rear lights and bumper level loading height. The issue was pressed in a country like Sweden where women had more input in the more practical aspects of car ownership. Imagine lifting a stroller into the Sierra hatch and imagine doing that job every day?

    2. Lancia Delta, naturally. Also, the loading height issue on the Sierra was rectified for the Mondeo.

    3. Invar, with today’s cars, people lift over a higher loading sill than what demographic, decision-maker or influencer group back then would ever have had to do with the Sierra.

      The question I’m asking myself is: what does that say about the contemporaries of that time and what about the contemporaries of today? And was the height of the load area ever an important issue? Or just Zeitgeist? A sow that was driven through the village, a topic that was considered totally important because we were saturated?

      I saw someone stowing his cargo in a Ford Puma a few days ago. You guessed it, it wasn’t the little coupe but this new whatever-you-call-it.
      The driver was the age of that contemporary who back then would have rejected a car like the Sierras and the like “because the loading sill was so high”. And he is older today than he was then.

  9. The Sierra could indeed be mentioned in the same conversation as the W123, but not in a good way.

    The review kind of sums it up for the Sierra in general. Lots of noise about how radical and great the Sierra is while the detail states that it was not very radical and was barely comprable against the competition. I often heard a freind talk about how great their family Sierra was only to find that a trip in said car betrayed the paucity of their assersions. Since every one of my familys cars were either true poverty spec or a Mini it wasn’t as if I was comparing it to something as superior as a W123 either.

    As for it’s design, it only really looked radical compared to it’s predecesors.

    It is curious why such a bombastic headline as Sierra Shock was chosen given their own conclusions, unless it was intended to be ironic?

  10. Mervyn

    You asked a really perceptive question.

    Early Sierra could be unstable in crosswind. Look carefully at the rear window surrounds, especially trailing edge. Notice how that detail was subtly modified in later models. That was to avoid an unwanted aero effect which could be unsettling.

    The semi-trailing arm rear suspension was notorious for toe change, especially in droop (by one or both sides) and even more so with sudden throttle change (lifting off mid corner was not such a great idea).

    So what did Sir Frank Williams in? If it was a windy day perhaps it was a cumulation of both attributes. If the weather was still, then perhaps it was the suspension after all.

    1. Good morning JT. We’ll be covering this issue in the final part of the series.

  11. The late Cortina rear suspension was live rear axle. This was not a problem of itself. The handling woes this car demonstrated were caused by the geometry of the links used to control the articulation of the axle. A few alterations to these components and the car would handle well.

    In Australia 3.3 litre and 4.1 litre six cylinder engines were fitted to the later Cortinas. The extra weight of these engines was blamed for the less than ideal handling of the cars fitted with them. The reality was that the rear suspension was the cause, not the added engine weight. All the Cortinas were less than good handlers though, not just the big engine ones. It was that rear axle geometry.

    Once the Cortina rear suspension geometry shortcomings were remedied the results were very obvious. Some of the cars with altered rear suspensions were successfully campaigned in motorsports, including one outstanding example in rally-cross. For the road car the improvement generated superior handling to the replacement model, the Sierra. Unfortunately Ford (in particular Ford Australia understood what was wrong), although well aware of the rear axle geometry issue from very early on and aware of the best solution (proposed by Ford Australia engineers), never saw fit to fix it up. And that fix is so simple, easy to do for a manufacturer, even as a running change on the line.

    Sticking big engines into Cortina was accomplished by Ford Australia as the result of the Commercial Travelers and their award (cars needed to have air-conditioning fitted- most necessary in Australia- and the Ford Europe and UK engines were too weak to allow for this). Nevertheless the champion effort for fitting bigger engines into modest Fords has to be Ford of South Africa who got the 302 Windsor V-8 into Sierra. Well done there! Now imagine if they moved up one further and tried the 351…

  12. LJK Setright was still recommending the Sierra until the bitter end in his Frontline column on account of its RWD chassis.
    Certainly I never had any issue what-so-ever selling them and they felt half a size bigger than the Mk2 Cavalier.

  13. Remember that cover, issue, when it was new on the newsagent magazine stand. Was the surface shipped one, so a couple of months later. Probably why it doesn’t seem like that long ago…

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