It might not have been the first or the fastest hot hatch, but the Escort XR3 can certainly lay claim to being one of the most significant and well-loved. While the Golf GTi had already been around for a few years before the late 1980 launch of the original Escort XR3, it was the fast Ford that really hit the mark with UK car buyers and saw thousands realising that they could have the best of both worlds – a practical, modern family car that had all the fun of a sports car.
It wasn’t just a breakthrough model for many drivers either, the XR3 being the first sporting front-wheel-drive Escort and the first of Ford’s exciting new XR line-up.
Based on the recently launched Mk3 Escort in three-door format, the XR3 utilised a tweaked version of the new 1.6-litre CVH (Compound Valve Hemispherical) engine. A tight development schedule meant there was no time to equip it with fuel injection, but Ford’s engineers added a twin-choke Weber carburettor, hotter camshaft, plus a freer-flowing exhaust and manifold, to boost power from 79 bhp to 96 bhp. It worked too, the XR3 covering the 0-60 mph sprint in 9.7 seconds and boasting a heady top speed of 113 mph.
While it couldn’t quite match the benchmark Golf GTi in terms of speed, it was more than a match in terms of style. Ford pulled a blinder in making the XR3 look every inch the hot hatch thanks to a host of matt black body extensions, including a rubber spoiler that wrapped around the wings and front valance, rear arch spats and a large tailgate spoiler. The door mirrors and metal sections of the bumpers were also finished in body colour, but the most distinctive feature of the XR3’s exterior was undoubtedly the 5.5x14 inch ‘Cloverleaf’ alloy wheels. The radical four-dial design wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but it did little to deter car buyers, the XR3 being an instant hit.
The eagerly awaited additions of a five-speed gearbox and Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection in 1982 made the performance-focused Escort even more appealing, the latter signalling the end of the XR3 and the arrival of the XR3i. As with its predecessor, the XR3i scorched out of showrooms, racking up sales of over 25,000 in 1983 alone.
Fast forward to 1986 and the XR3i’s popularity ensured it would feature in the new Mk4 Escort line-up. Perhaps not so good was that the ‘new’ XR3i didn’t really build on the performance credentials of the Mk3. Instead, the new XR3i was softer in more ways than one, complementing its smoother, more rounded styling with suspension that was more supple than before. It was even marginally slower from 0-60 mph, however, there was no denying it was easier to live with and more comfortable than the earlier version.
Once again, there was no shortage of customers and running production changes kept the Mk4 XR3i in the hearts of hot hatch fans, such as the introduction of Ford’s own EEC-IV fuel injection and engine management system and, notably, refreshed styling in Autumn 1989. Just a few months later though, and it was all over for the Mk4 XR3i as it and the rest of the range were shelved in favour of the forthcoming Mk5 Escort range.
The XR3i name would reappear in the latest generation Escort too. Available with outputs of 105PS and 130PS, it featured a much superior DOHC Zetec engine. However, the Mk5 version would never prove as popular as the CVH-powered cars and it would be the final XR3i.
Twenty-five years later and the XR3i is now a recognised modern classic, as well as being a car that for many defined the 1980s and the hot hatch genre. There are decent numbers of survivors too, but for anyone contemplating buying one they don’t come cheap and, for enthusiasts, it’s the earlier Mk3 cars that are the most desirable.
But maybe you’ve already had an XR3 or XR3i? If you’ve memories of owning or driving one, or if the XR3i has left a lasting impression on you, then let us know in the comments.