1989 Merkur XR4Ti
1989 Merkur XR4Ti. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Ford Motor Company has enjoyed success importing its European cars to the North American market, a practice dating back to the late 1940s. While such English nameplates as Anglia and Prefect were pretty marginal for our environment, cars like the Ford Consul and Cortina bring back good memories. More recent examples are the Mercury Capri and Ford Fiesta, although their tenure was short.

Ford had also had some less than auspicious ventures. The German-built Merkur (pronounced mare-koor, which is German for Mercury), which the company brought in during the 1980s, must rank as one of its less successful endeavours.

It wasn’t that the two-door, four-five passenger performance hatchback was a particularly poor car, although it did have some embarrassing re-calls and a low ranking on the J.D.Power Customer Satisfaction Index. It was just that for a variety of reasons it lacked wide appeal for buyers over here.

The Merkur had been introduced to high praise in Europe as the Ford Sierra XR-4i in 1983, with planned export to North America the following year. It would acquit itself well in competition by winning the 1986 European Touring Car Championship.

It reached here equipped with appropriate North American safety and emissions modifications as a 1985 model. In the transition it gained the Merkur name, Oldsmobile having a lock on the Ciera title, and a different engine.

The European version was powered by a German 2.8-litre overhead valve V6, but when the XR4Ti came to our Lincoln-Mercury dealerships it was fitted with Ford’s Brazilian-built, single overhead cam 2.3-litre inline four. The engine was already known in our market, being used in the Mustang SVO and Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. Fitted with a turbocharger, accounting for the “T” in the XR4Ti name, it developed a lusty 170 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, and 195 lb-ft of torque at 3,800.

This power was fed to the rear wheels through either a five- speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission. The automatic version had the engine detuned by 30 horsepower.

With an overall length of 4,531 mm (178.4 in), the XR4Ti was about the same length as the Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz, although at 2,609 mm (102.7 in.), its wheelbase was 71 mm (2.8 in.) longer. It tipped the scales at 1,325 kg (2,920 lb).

The suspension was independent all around with MacPherson struts in front, semi-trailing arms and coils springs at the rear, and anti-roll bars at both ends. Steering was rack-and-pinion and braking was by front discs and rear drums.

With plenty of power in a relatively light car, the XR4Ti was a good performer. Road & Track recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 7.9 seconds and a top speed of 193 km/h (120 mph). Car and Driver recorded a 7.0 second zero to 96 km/h and a top speed of 208 (129). Both testers were fitted with manual transmissions. R&T lauded the XR4Ti’s power, but disliked its lack of refinement.

Sound mechanical credentials, distribution through the extensive Lincoln-Mercury dealer network, and a price that was competitive with its competition should have made the XR4Ti a sales success. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and much of the blame can be placed on the styling, which although distinctive, wasn’t especially attractive to many.

The Merkur was just too radical looking for most North Americans. Although its “jellybean” shape was aerodynamically efficient, yielding a good coefficient of drag of only 0.32, North Americans apparently wasn’t ready for the grille-less front end, wide C-pillars, and most of all, the unusual bi-plane rear spoiler.

It had another hurdle to overcome too: the Merkur name was rather awkward and unappealing. It didn’t roll off the tongue very easily, often coming out as mer-ker over here.

There is also the question of whether Lincoln-Mercury dealers with their tradition of selling soft, luxury sedans, were out of their depth trying to cater to the more sporting desires of the Audi, BMW and Saab crowd that Ford saw as the XR4Ti’s potential clientele.

The result of all this is that Merkur sales never really took off. They reached about 9,000 in 1985, far less than the 20,000 Ford had hoped to sell. They rose to more than 14,000 in ’86, then went into decline.

A less outre single-blade spoiler replaced the bi-plane design for 1988, but it didn’t help. When sales reached only some 4,000 in 1989 Ford gave up.

A larger four-door hatchback version called the Scorpio, powered by a 2.9-litre V-6, also came on stream in 1987, but it wouldn’t find any more popularity than the XR4Ti. It too was soon discontinued here.

While the XR4Ti was well engineered and had more than competitive performance, it couldn’t overcome its appearance and unusual name. Buyers had many other more appealing choices in the sports sedan market, so the majority stayed away from the XR4Ti. Only those motorists who really wanted to make a bold statement with their cars chose the Merkur. Unfortunately for Ford, there weren’t enough of them.

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