Few things are sadder than a decent car that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. That, in a nutshell, is the Merkur XR4Ti, Ford’s ill-fated attempt to transform the European Sierra into a high-performance BMW rival.
The Ford Sierra, launched in September 1982, was not originally a premium car. Rather, it was a midsize family hatchback, successor to the Cortina and Taunus and a common choice of European fleet buyers.
By mid-1983, there was a sporty XR4i, powered by the 2.8-liter Cologne V6; but most Sierras were the humble five-door, four-cylinder 1.6L.
The Sierra’s claims to fame were its hatchback configuration, controversial aerodynamic styling and rear-wheel drive layout. The latter was adopted more for financial reasons than any dynamic considerations, but the Sierra did get a fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts and semi-trailing arms—much like contemporary BMWs. For the early ’80s, the Sierra had a fine chassis, although roll control was deliberately limited to discourage average drivers from discovering the potential for lift-throttle oversteer.
The Sierra got off to a rocky start in Europe, and it took aggressive marketing to jump-start sales. However, then-Ford of Europe chief Bob Lutz was impressed with the car’s ride and handling, and thought the Sierra could find a new life and new role in America.
There were obvious problems with Americanizing the Sierra, including the lack of North American production facilities, the many changes required by U.S. regulations (which also sapped the vigor of the available engines) and the fact that Ford couldn’t use the Sierra name in the U.S. without trademark conflicts with Oldsmobile. Moreover, the Sierra was about the same size as Ford’s cheaper FWD Tempo.
Ford could have offered the Sierra as a Mercury or Lincoln, perhaps replacing the slow-selling Capri, but Lutz had bigger game in mind. A former BMW executive, he was well aware that compact European luxury sedans had become the darlings of American yuppies. He saw the Sierra as Ford’s opportunity to tap that lucrative market.
Concluding that neither Mercury nor Lincoln had the necessary cachet, Ford created a new sub-brand called Merkur, German for the planet Mercury. Rather than establish a separate dealer network, as Honda did with Acura, Lincoln-Mer-
cury persuaded about 800 existing dealers to invest in parts, marketing and signage for Merkur and its initial product: a modified Sierra called XR4Ti.
An ergonomic interior complemented a plush ride.
Fundamentally, the Karmann-built Merkur XR4Ti was a three-door Sierra XR4i with 5-mph bumpers and other changes required for U.S. safety and emissions certification. The V6 was replaced with the turbocharged 2.3-liter Pinto engine from the contemporary Thunderbird, Cougar and Mustang. With a five-speed gearbox, the Brazilian-built four had 170 hp, compensating for the XR4Ti’s 280-pound weight gain over the 148-hp XR4i.
The XR4Ti was an intriguing, but schizophrenic, automobile. The styling screamed “boy racer,” but the turbo four’s powerband was narrow, body control and lateral support were lackluster and the disc/drum brakes didn’t inspire confidence. Buyers who wanted an automatic also had to settle for a three-speed and 25 fewer hp.
A plush ride and strong midrange punch lent themselves to fast highway cruising. But the XR4Ti was hardly stealthy, and cruise control wasn’t initially available. The XR4Ti was otherwise well equipped, with excellent ergonomics, but the pretense of luxury was undermined by the coarse engine and occasional reminders of the Sierra’s fleet-car DNA.
Worse, the XR4Ti suffered annoying mechanical gremlins and a noticeable lack of dealer enthusiasm. Whatever the division’s ambitions for Merkur, the attitudes of Lincoln-Mercury dealers and salespeople ranged from puzzlement to disinterest, in part because the XR4Ti had thinner margins than Lincoln’s big cars.
The XR4Ti dropped its exotic double rear spoiler in 1988; early sales literature promised "intense driver satisfaction," ample features and "European-type roadability."
Off the Marque
The XR4Ti found a few buyers who recognized and appreciated its strengths, but overall, the car and the Merkur marque were commercial failures. Positive reviews and considerable success in the SCCA Trans-Am series didn’t make up for a hazy identity and a brand name even some Ford spokespeople couldn’t pronounce.
XR4Ti production totaled only 42,464 units in five model years—that’s barely a few months’ worth of 3-series sales for BMW of North America.
Frustratingly, many XR4Ti shortcomings could have been rectified if sales had justified the cost. Later European Sierras offered a four-door notchback body style, a 2.9-liter V6, 4WD, four-wheel disc brakes and ABS. Plus, there were the wild, homologation-oriented Sierra Cosworth and RS500. The XR4Ti received only minor changes, including 15-inch wheels (1987), a less-ostentatious spoiler and 5 more hp (1988) and standard cruise control (1989).
Ultimately, the XR4Ti was the victim of muddled, unrealistic expectations. It might never have matched BMW’s prestige, but the car itself was sound, and with a few nips and tucks, an independent dealer network and an easier-to-pronounce name, it could have found its niche.
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