Twin Cam. Mexico. S. Lotus. RS. Cosworth. ST. Shelby. GT. Sport. Cobra. SHO; the list of Ford’s global performance derivatives and ‘sub-brands’ goes on. And one of the Blue Oval brand’s most popular and significant sporting tags, XR, first appeared on European-built sporting Ford models 40 years ago with the launch of the third-generation Escort XR3 in 1980.
The nine best XR sportscars
This excitable spoiler-clad Escort wasn’t the Dearborn firm’s first model to proudly wear the XR badge though (although it was the first with front-wheel-drive), that honour going to its Mustang-based Mercury Cougar XR7 cousin in the USA, way back in 1967, with Ford of Australia also applying the XR tag to some local Falcon models in the late ‘60s. But with the introduction of the first of Ford’s XR nomenclature in Europe 40-years ago, the feisty Fiesta, Escort and Sierra XRs became the mass-production performance derivatives of choice throughout the 1980s for thousands of go-faster fans, particularly in the UK. Frustratingly, these 1980s Ford XR models also became the ‘hot hatches’ (with the emphasis on ‘hot’!) of the British underworld too, with the fast and agile derivatives becoming some of the most stolen cars of the decade, the XRs seemingly tailor-made for joyriding, this contributing to an increase in insurance premiums for all performance machinery as a consequence.
So, 40 years on, here is a fittingly quick celebration of nine best Ford XR models, from XR2 to XR8, some of which will be familiar to you, with others possibly rather less so...
Mercury Cougar XR7 – 1967
As already mentioned in the introduction, the very first Ford passenger car to carry the sporting XR nomenclature was the XR7 (a.k.a. XR-7 occasionally), introduced through the Dearborn firm’s luxury Mercury division in 1967, via its Mustang-based Cougar 2+2 ‘personal coupe.’
During the Cougar’s 35-year production run between 1967 and 2002 (with a one-year break in 1998) the XR7 was constantly available as the sportier, performance-orientated model within the Cougar range.
Mostly sold as a two-door coupe, Mercury also offered the Cougar XR7 as a four-door sedan, large station wagon, and even a hatch, from time-to-time.
The Cougar gradually lost its sporting emphasis and ‘muscle car’ appeal over time, with the XR7 remaining the most driver-focused derivative, it being Mercury’s counterpart to Ford’s own Thunderbird, the large coupe on which later versions of the model were based. Having launched its more up-market Mercury marque in 1938, Ford retired the brand in 2011 due to its own financial difficulties and Mercury’s falling sales.
Ford Escort XR3 – 1980
Widely available in a series of sporting derivatives in its first two rear-wheel-drive saloon incarnations, including the Sport, Mexico, Twin Cam, RS1800 and RS2000, performance versions of the Ford Escort have always been key to the model’s success and popularity, aided hugely by great rallying victories throughout the 1970s.
When Ford introduced its first front-wheel-drive format for its third-generation Escort 40 years ago in 1980, offering a sporting model from the outset was a must. The Escort XR3 was the result. It was Europe’s first XR model, sold in the form of a desirable ‘hot hatch’ three-door variant, enhanced by sportier styling with black front and rear spoilers, four-hole ‘telephone dial’ alloys and a sports interior.
Powered by an eight-valve 1.6-litre engine, developing 96PS (70kW), the early XR3 was capable of around 112mph, enough to add some excitement to the Escort Mark 3 range, Britain’s best-selling car throughout the 1980s with more than 1.5 million examples sold. By 1984, with increased competition from C-segment hot hatch rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Vauxhall Astra GTE, as well as Ford’s own 116PS (85kW) Escort RS1600i, the XR3 gained fuel injection and a 9PS (6kW) power boost to become the XR3i.
The model continued in that form until being replaced in 1990 by the new Escort, an under-developed and inadequate successor that was widely panned, even in its latest XR3i guise. When the final Escort was replaced by the considerably more capable Focus in 1997, the last XR3i had become a poor seller, living in the shadow of the more overt Escort RS Cosworth, with its wild bodywork and stronger performance. A sad end to the once-proud Escort XR3 name.
Ford Fiesta XR2 – 1981
Since its original 1976 launch in mainland Europe (early 1977 in the UK), the popular Fiesta has always included a more spirited model as part of its range, kicking off with the mild (by today’s standards) 53PS (39kW) 1.1-litre ‘S’ Sport. With a more potent 1.3-litre S added for 1979, followed by a more overtly sporting ‘SuperSport’ in 1980, Ford of Europe had nicely set the scene for the first Fiesta XR2 of 1981.
Sharing the same three-door bodyshell of the 1976 Fiesta, at launch the XR2 was upgraded with distinctive circular head lights and extra driving lamps, plus ‘pepper pot’ alloy wheels, sports stripes and front and rear spoilers, with a sportier interior, including heavily bolstered seats and red trim surrounding the instrumentation binnacle.
The new Fiesta XR2 boasted a 1.6-litre Kent Crossflow engine, developing 83PS (61kW), to give a 106mph top speed, with 0-60mph taking 10 seconds. Lowered suspension and ventilated front disc brakes were added to the specification too.
In late 1983, the Fiesta range was improved (with lower frontal styling) to become the mis-named Fiesta 2 (actually just an elaborate Mark I facelift), these changes carrying across to the XR2 too in early 1984. The revised XR2 finally gained a five-speed manual transmission, plus a power hike, up to 97PS (71kW). From 1986 the younger lean-burn engine from the Escort XR3i replaced Ford’s previous Kent motor.
This improved XR2 was eventually replaced by the all-new Fiesta BE-13 in 1989, with this later fuel injected XR2i continuing until 1994, to be replaced by the more insurance-friendly Si 1.4 model, with the more vigorous Fiesta RS 1800 Zetec and RS Turbo derivatives also made available for extra fun.
Ford Cortina XR6 – 1981
Resembling a contemporary self-customised car from a keen tuning amateur, the Cortina XR6 (one of two uses of Ford’s XR6 performance name around the world) was introduced as an official performance model late in the Cortina’s career by Ford’s South African division.
Launched in 1981 to replace the previous Ford Cortina 30S sporting saloon in South Africa, the XR6 remained a unique model only sold in that market. The Cortina XR6 featured matt-black trim highlights, bespoke wheels, front and rear spoilers, sport seats and performance add-ons, powered by a 139PS (102kW), 3.0-litre Weber-fed Essex V6, mated with a four-speed manual transmission and able to sprint from 0-60mph in around 9 seconds. The XR6’s rear suspension had a unique five-link setup – instead of the more fragile trailing-arm system of the European Cortina/Taunus TC – to better cope with the more demanding South African road conditions.
The ultimate Cortina XR6 was the Interceptor, a limited production homologation special, built to compete in South African production car racing. This ‘muscle car’ was equipped with tubular exhaust manifolds, modified cylinder heads, aggressive camshafts, high compression pistons, an uprated suspension, wider 13-inch Ronal alloy rims, a 3.08 differential, plus triple 42 Weber carburettors.
The XR6 Interceptor’s homologation special combination delivered just under 162PS (119kW) with 0-60mph taking less than 8 seconds – not too bad for a Ford Cortina! Sold only in red, between 200 and 250 XR6 Interceptors were made. These were followed by a special edition XR6 TF to celebrate 'Team Ford’s' XR6 racing success before South African Cortina production ended in 1984 (two years after the UK).
Ford Sierra XR4i – 1983
Ford’s 1982 replacement for the traditional but beloved Cortina saloon was the modern but blobby Sierra hatch, which proved a bold but initially contentious choice.
Slow to gain acceptance in conservative Britain (but instantly popular on the Continent, especially in German), the Sierra was in urgent need of an image-enhancing ‘halo’ derivative to help secure more sales. The performance XR4i of 1983 was the result, a rapid three-door sports model with a large rear spoiler, bespoke alloys and body kit, plus unusual double rear side windows, in place of the ‘regular’ single pane glass of the lesser three-door Sierras.
With a powerful 2.8-litre V6 EFi engine, developing 152PS (112kW) to give a 130mph capability, the generous specification of Sierra XR4i looked tempting on paper, yet the model never realised Ford’s sales ambitions. To this end, Ford even offered the model in the USA, sold as the Merkur XR4Ti, as a more affordable alternative to aspirational sporting European premium sporting rivals such as the BMW 323i and Saab 900 Turbo. The plan failed, with the XR4Ti soon being dropped, alongside the larger Scorpion model and Merkur brand name, although ironically, the XR4Ti does now enjoy a degree of cult status in the United States as an entertaining drift and track day car.
Closer to home, the three-door XR4i morphed into the more standard-looking XR4x4, a highly accomplished all-wheel-drive five-door Sierra, fitted with a 146 (108kW) 2.9-litre V6 capable of 126mph, marginally lower than the lighter three-door XR4i.
The XR4x4 continued into the early 1990s, but its performance and status was soon usurped by the more urgent and extreme 200PS-plus Sierra RS Cosworth models, offered in both three-door RS500 form (with ‘conventional’ side windows) and the plush three-box booted Sierra Sapphire RS Cosworth saloon.
Ford Sierra XR8 – 1984
Towards the end of its near-60 year production run, in 2014 Ford Australia introduced its ultimate high performance version of the Falcon, the Falcon XR8.
Thirty years earlier, Ford Australia’s Commonwealth cousins in South Africa first used the XR8 nomenclature for its serious 219PS (161kW) Sierra XR8, the most powerful five-door version of the hatch ever produced, and almost matching the 227PS (167kW) produced by the legendary Sierra RS500 Cosworth.
With 0-60mph acceleration taking just 6.5 seconds, the Sierra XR8 powered on to a maximum of 144mph, this speedy South African Ford using a American Mustang-derived 5.0 V8 ‘Windsor’ engine. Externally little different to the European-built Sierra XR4x4, the powerful rear-wheel-drive-only XR8 was distinguishable by its clumsy three bar grille (unique to this V8 model), plus a give-away tailgate badge.
The Sierra XR8 was created to tackle (and beat) its South African Group 1 touring car competitors, such as the locally-built BMW 745i and unique 3.0-litre Alfa Romeo GTV6. Ford’s plan worked, with this rare XR8 homologation special being the outcome.
To compensate for the Mustang’s 30kg heavier V8 engine, the Sierra XK8’s front spring rates were stiffened by 50 per cent, plus 40 per cent at the rear, with beefed-up four-piston brake calipers and 11-inch AP Racing ventilated discs to help bring this lively (and tale happy) beast to a halt in a hurry. Just the job for a retro shell suit-wearing fan of performance Fords.
Ford Falcon XR6/XR8 – 1991
The second unfamiliar Ford XR6 summarised here is the performance version of the Australian Falcon, a regular family sedan and station wagon produced in standard form across seven generations down under between 1960 and 2016, with the Australia- and New Zealand-only models developed and built locally from 1972 onwards.
The first of Ford Australia’s XR6 (and upgraded XR8, including the ute version pictured) derivatives appeared in the fifth-generation (1988-99) Falcon EB model in 1991, replacing the previous S sports models. Developed locally by Ford’s then-newly established Tickford Vehicle Engineering (TVE) division, the first Falcon XR6 used a lusty 4.0-litre, 362PS (270kW) V8 to take on local rival Holden’s HSV performance tuned sedans.
The TVE-developed XR6 models (plus XR8s) remained a regular part of the follow-up sixth- and seventh-generation Falcon ranges, right up to Ford withdrawing its local production from Australia in 2016, with these final fast Fords using 5.0-litre V8 units.
Ford Capri XR2 – 1992
A Capri XR2?! Surely no such performance derivative of ‘the car you always promised yourself’ ever existed? Well, while true of the popular (now cult) European-built Ford coupe of 1969-86, the sporting XR insignia was applied briefly to the revived (but now largely forgotten) Capri of 1989-94, the awkward-looking 2+2 soft-top, built by Ford of Australia for the early 1990s.
Mechanically based around the contemporary Mazda 323 (badge engineered as the Ford Laser down under), the dumpy front-wheel-drive Capri convertible was developed primarily for the lucrative North American markets, where it was re-branded as a Mercury and aimed firmly at the jugular of the (superior) Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Offered as a moderate 83PS (61kW) naturally-aspirated 1.6-litre or livelier 136PS (100kW) 1.8-litre turbo, in 1992 the slow-selling Capri received a mild revamp, with a sportier XR2 derivative joining the regular Barchetta and Clubsprint models. Poor build quality (particularly roof leaks), combined with front-wheel-drive and questionable styling saw the Ford Capri being prematurely dropped with little ceremony in 1994, with less that 10,000 examples sold in its domestic Australian market.
Ford Focus XR5 – 2005
A Ford XR5 designation is possibly a new one to you, but in Australia and New Zealand, this performance model is widely known and admired by motoring enthusiasts.
With an XR5 badge attached to the tailgate of a sporting second-generation Ford Focus, the XR5 Turbo was a five-door-only performance hatch, more familiar to us in Europe as the Focus ST.
Built in Germany, the well-sorted Antipodean Focus XR5 was powered by the same acclaimed 225PS (165kW) Volvo T5 five-cylinder, low-boost turbo engine found under the bonnet of ‘our’ more local Focus ST, combined with a slick six-speed manual gearbox. Visually, the Focus XR5 Turbo was the mirror image of the European-market ST models, right down to its ‘snowflake’ alloy wheels, wider tyres, lowered stance and larger brakes.
Unlike the UK and European Focus ST models, which were available in three body styles, the XR5 Turbo was only sold as a five-door hatchback, getting to 60mph in a short 6.3 seconds, with 100mph taking 15.6 seconds.
As the hotter 300PS-plus Focus RS wasn’t sold down under, the XR5 was the liveliest front-drive Ford hatch sold on the other side of the world, with high demand for the ST in Europe leading to a delayed launch of the much-anticipated XR5 until early 2006 (a year after the European ST), with the model still in strong today demand as a sought used car.
Main image by Joe Harding.
Which is the best XR?
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