One of the grand homespun traditions of the domestic
automobile industry has been it's ability to take perfectly good European cars
and transform them into mediocrities. Or, worse yet, to take merdiocre European
cars and turn them into ambulatory catastrophes. This might be described as the
silk-purse-into-the-sow's-ear syndrome, and the examples of GM's and Chrysler's
final desecrations of helpless bottom feeders like the Opel Kadett and the Plymouth
Cricket come to mind. The honor roll also lists assorted faux pas from the East,
including some rather decent Mitsubishis that were blessed with Americanization
by the visionaries who ran the "old" Chrysler Corporation.
With this haunting record roiling our memory banks, you
can understand how the news that Lincoln-Mercury planned to import a version of
the wonderous, German-built Sierra XR4i was recieved. After all, this is the
organization that produced such milestones as the Montego MX Brougham and the much
lamented Turnpike Cruiser. These guys are going to give us a Dearbornized autobahn
rennwagon? Sure, and where are the wire wheel covers and the fake hood scoops?
Well, not exactly. In fact, you might want to reconsider,
as we were forced to do after our initial exposure to the new Merkur XR4Ti (pronounced
"Mare-coor" -- "Mercury" in German -- but doomed to be known as
"Merker" among the great unwashed). Even those who recall such immortal
L-M offerings as the Comet Caliente and Cyclone GT will be hard pressed to recall a
vehicle that offers the following: a 0-to-60 time of seven seconds flat; a top speed
hovering near 130 mph; handling characteristics essentially unchanged from the original
European specs; radical, aerodynamic (0.32 Cd) three-door-sedan bodywork; and a smooth,
high-revving, turbocharged and fuel-injected four-cylinder engine.
As you can see, bucky, this ain't you average mercury we're
talking about here. In fact, it outperforms it's brother, the twin-spoilered V-6 Sierra
XR4i, which has been adulated in every European country with the exceptions of Bulgaria
and Albania. So before we ramble any further, let us, in the words of one R.M. Nixon,
make one thing perfectly clear: We are discussing here a legitimate automobile -- a
machine that has been effectively yanked off the autobahns and removed to our Interstates
with no penalty whatsoever.
That this minor miracle has been accomplished is the doing of
a single man. he is Robert A. Lutz, recently named chairman and cheif executive officer
of Ford of Europe. Slot that nam in your brain. You have heard that aged public-relations
bromide about men in the car business "having gasoline in their veins"? With
Lutz, make that nitromethane. A native of Switzerland, he is one of us: a hard-core car
crazy by night who operates as a responsible executive by day. It was Bob Lutz who got
the Merkur to these shores. It was Bob Lutz who grabbed the Ford North American engineering
staffers by their collective throats and growled, "Don't mess with this car."
In the names of loyalty and job security, the boys in Dearborn
took him seriously. Although the essential character of the car remains unsullied, some
changes were necessary to comply with various federal emissions and safety mandates. In
all, 850 small bits and peices were altered, mostly in the areas of the door beams, the
latches, and the interior body structure. The bumpers had to be modified of course, but
they were so effectively integrated into the polyurathane-polycarbonate rocker-panel-and-bumper
complex that the coefficent of drag was actually decreased on the American version.
The single biggest change came in the engine room. The german V-6,
a 2.9-liter autobahn screamer with a wildly oversquare bore-and-stroke ratio, simply could
not be housebroken to meet U.S. emissions standards without hurting its high output.
Therefore, the 2.3-liter T-Bird/Mustang turbo four was selected as a replacement, but not
without getting some serious obedience lessons of its own. Often criticized for lusty power
at the espense of noise and vibration, the 2.3 was the object of a massive campaign to
reduce what tech types call NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness). It was discovered that
the engine itself was not at fault. The crudeness was traceable to the manifolds and the
various engine-driven accessories. A major redesign of the mounting brackets for the
power-steering pump and the alternator, plus a new intake manifold and a retuned exhaust
system, did the trick; the 2.3 turbo now has all the silkness and free-revving eagerness
one has grown to expect from small fours made in places like Munich and Hamamatsu.
And the 2.3 has a real punch, thanks to a computerized variable
boost control that can compensate for different octane levels in the fuel supply by
varying the turbo output. Given the right premium unleaded gasoline, the turbocharger
will produce a blast of up to 15 psi of boost but will automatically back off at the
first sign of detonation. A different camshaft profile and modified intake valves also
aid in giving the engine 170 horsepower. Capped with a pretty new cam cover in cast
aluminum, this Brazilian-built motor has advanced by eons from the lumpy little wheezer
that underwhelmed the compact-car market when it appeared in the 1974 Pinto. In its
present form it stands on equal footing with any medium-displacement turbo-charged
engine in the world.
The merkur's suspension is essentially unchanged from its origins
in the Sierra. The front units are basic MacPherson struts, gas-filled for the life of
the car. At the rear is an independent system utilizing a pair of semi-trailing arms
mounted to an upsewpt tubular-steel crossmember. Variable-rate coil springs and gas
shocks complete the rear suspension. The steering is variable-rate power-assisted, with
a tight 32.8-foot turning circle and 3.7 turns lock-to-lock. The brakes are 10.1-inch
ventilated discs at the front and 10.0-inch drums at the rear.
The American version of the Sierra gained 280 pounds during its
immigration-and-naturalization process. Ford attributes about 175 pounds of that total
to federal safety and damage-resistance equipment, while the rest can be credited to
the new engine and exhaust system (22 pounds) and to extra equpiment added for the U.S.
market (about 80 pounds).
It makes no difference. At 2920 pounds, this slickly shaped,
twin-spoilered little three-door will transform you into klaus Ludwig in a matter of
moments. It's power band is broad and abundantly useful. Its handling is that of a
classic rear-drive, nose-heavy, short-wheelbase (102.7 inches) sports sedan with
a firm, independent suspension and good tires (Pirelli P6 P195/60HR-14's). It offers
steady, predictable amounts of understeer but possesses enough power to kick teh tail out
when serious motoring is desired. This entire process of throttle control is aided
by the excellent five-speed gearbox, which shifts with precision and possesses perfectly
match ratios not only throughout the power range but at top speed in fifth gear (129 mph
at 5800 rpm). The Ford engineers claim similar behavior for the automatic model that
will be ofered.
The merkur interior is laid out in the modern European idiom.
Mr. Lutz is a devotee of analog instruments, and therefore the dash panel is devoid of
any viedo-game identity aside from the clock. Big, easily read dials with needles dominate.
The driver and the front-seat passanger are given well-bolstered, fully adjustable seats
in gray or blue cloth (gray leather will be optional), and the enviormeny is very hospitable
indeed. Ford describes the Merkur as a five-passanger vehicle, and it ist's kidding, although
four adults make an ideal compliment. There is enough rear headroom and footroom to accommodate
a pair of six-footers for long distances, which, when coupled with the 60-40 fold-down
seatback and the rear hatch door, puts the merkur in the same league as the Saab three-door
in interior room and overall functionalism.
To be built under contract for Ford by the famed Karmann
coachworks in Rheine, West Germany, the Merkur will be sold as a distinct line through
Lincoln-Mercury dealers. With an expected base price of well under $20,000 (the only
options are leather upholstery, a sunroof, an automatic transmission, and metallic paint),
the Merkur is going to pile into the upscale sports-sedan market -- now occupied by such
cars as the BMW 318i and 325e, the Saab Turbo, the Volvo Turbo, the Pontiac 6000STE, and
the Audi 4000 Quattro-- like a runaway freight train.
Aside from a braking system that produced mediocre stops from 70
mph (212 feet), there is very little to complain about other than purely subjective notions
about interior and exterior styling treatments. The brakes on out test car are something
of a mystery: they modulated well and fade was not a problem. Perhaps the flaw is in the
tires, which simply may not lay a sufficently large patch of rubber onto the pavement for
Whatever the source of the problem, an extra twenty feet or so in
stopping distance hardly blights the appeal of this machine. The Merkur is one neat
automobile (though it is regrettable that Oldsmobile's franchise on the "Ciera"
name prevents the car from arriving here with its European degisnation). Still, it marks
a major turning point in the domestic industry: a European automotive silk purse has
arrived in Detroit and has not been "Americanized" into a sow's ear.
And you can thank a fellow car freak named Lutz for that.