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Almost 2 million owner-driven miles ad up to a lot of satisfied thrill-seekers in the Lincoln-Mercury camp.
By Michael Lamm
     Ford's German hotrod, the Merkur XR4Ti, has been the subject of much controversy around PM's offices ever since we called it one of the 10 Best Cars Of 1986 (page 95, Apr '86) but admitted to having a lot of mechanical trouble with the car in our Long Term Test Report (page 88, April '86). We knew that our Long Term Merkur was an early "pilot run" car, and had Ford's promise that production line cars would not suffer the teething problems we encountered. That wasn't quite the case.
     Most Merkur buyers seem to be driving enthusiasts who can tell understeer from oversteer and know how to handle a fast European sports sedan. Performance and handling brought rave reviews from these Merkur owners. Take, for example, the comments of this North Carolina serviceman: "Among the cars in its class, the Merkur stands out with the pure pleasure of performance. There's no turbo lag in acceleration from 0-130 mph. Most of the Merkur's competitors run out of power in the 85- to 95-mph range."
     A California flight attendant: "An absolute pleasure to drive. Begs for long road trips. If only we had an Autobahn nearby!"
     A Missouri auto service technician: "Good power and handling. Very slight understeer under full power, transitioning nicely and controllably to slight oversteer. There's just the right amount of tuck-in on hard corners. You can actually steer this car with the throttle. It handles and rides almost as well fully loaded as unloaded, a rare trait. Most comfortable ride I've experienced." A California store owner said, "It's great fun pushing Porsche 928's and Camaro Z-28s through the corners. Trailing throttle oversteer might be a problem for some, but it's usually fun once you learn to anticipate it."
     A Texas chemist: "I had the opportunity to get the car up to 115 mph and was amazed at how stable it felt. There was an ample reserve of power and very little wind roar." A California engineer: "Rear-wheel drive is more entertaining than fwd. The feel of this car is very balanced. There's enough power to break loose the rear end at will. The transition from understeer to oversteer is very controllable.
     We could go on and on, quote after quote. The Merkur XR4Ti's greatest strength, obviously, lies in its ability to please the person behind the wheel.
     The 5-speed manual transmission though, brought more driver complaints than any other aspect of the car. "The shift gate feels notchy," wrote a Michigan physician, "and hangs up between FIRST and SECOND; delays shifting." A few others also had a hard time going into REVERSE. others noted 4-cylinder vibrations in the gearshift lever, despite the oil-cushioned engine mounts.
     And a New York forester volunteered, "The safety switch that makes you put the gearshift in NEUTRAL to start the engine should be eliminated. It's not only bothersome, but unsafe, because too much time is lost going back into NEUTRAL when you stall in heavy traffic or on a hill."
     Unfortunately, nearly 60 percent of our respondents reported mechanical problems -- mostly minor ones. Several owners noted a coolant leak between the turbo and engine. The fix involved just tightening a hose clamp. Dealers took care of two-thirds of all problems to most owners' satisfaction -- a decent but not outstanding showing.
     Then, too, service wasn't available everywhere. A South Carolina pilot told us, "I moved from Tucson to Myrtle Beach, and although there's a Lincoln-Mercury dealer here, he doesn't sell or service XR4Ti's. The nearest Merkur dealer is 90 miles away."
     Despite 175 turbocharged horses with the 5-speed (or 145 hp with the more recently released automatic), some owners felt the need for added power. "Needs more low-end torque," insisted an Alabama TV producer, "like a turbo V6 with different gearing." Several drivers suggested adding an intercooler to the turbocharger, as on the Mustang SVO.
     Ford's Motorsports Div. does have an aftermarket intercooler kit that will fit the Merkur and is not difficult to install. Most Lincoln-Mercury dealers just don't know it exists.
     Real-world fuel mileage lived up to EPA estimates -- in fact, beat them slightly. However, as a Massachusetts mechanic observed, "They boast of good mileage, but you have to use premium fuel at a premium price. What's the advantage?"
Catching the eyes
To its credit, the XR4Ti definitely turns heads. Many owners appreciate that, especially since styling was the first thing that tempted them. A Michigan business woman and consultant told us, "Nobody else around here has one, so I really enjoy the stares other drivers give this car. It's one fun aspect of the Merkur -- a sign of success -- and that's important to a woman with her own business."
     Several respondents worried aloud about the XR4Ti's eventual resale value, among them this California aerospace worker: "I'm somewhat concerned," he wrote, "because the Merkur doesn't seem to be selling all that well."
     It would sell better, felt an Ohio engineer, "if the Merkur were wearing a badge that said Porsche or Audi or BMW. I'm positive it would be a smashing success that way."
     Admittedly, the Merkur XR4Ti hasn't lived up to its early sales estimates. According to Ward's Auto World, Lincoln-Mercury hoped to sell 15,000 cars in calendar 1985 and ended up barely moving 6000.
     The fault lies not with the car because, as we've seen, our respondents tell us it's one of the best put-together, quickest, most sensuous and comfortable automobiles they've ever owned. A lot of the XR4Ti's lack of early popularity probably had as to do as much with identity as with stiff competition.
Lost in the crowd
The XR4Ti tends to get lost in a sea of sport sedan rivals like the BMW 318i, Volvo GL, Saab Turbo, Alfa GTV-6, Audi 5000S, and Peugeot 505. But more than that, the Merkur suffers terribly from not being recognized. A California industrial designer put his finger on it when he said, "Even here in this conscious state, most people are unaware of the Merkur. They just don't know what it is. It's different, and they realize that, but few can name it."
     Ironically, even some XR4Ti owners don't really know what they have. A Massachusetts photographer scribbles the following note on the bottom of his questionnaire: "This is the first American[!] car I've ever owned. If more cars like the Merkur were available from U.S. dealers, many people would probably buy American over foreign." This guy obviously has no idea that his car came from Ford of Germany, with the body built by Karmann and the engine made in Brazil! These same owners, however would probably recognize a BMW or Volvo or Audi a block away.
     Like its rivals, though, Merkur's quality of worksmanship received a good to excellent rating from 97.8 percent of our sample. That's up there in Mercedes territory.
     Front-seat comfort likewise brought praise, with 98.5 percent scoring this aspect good to excellent. Even the split folding rear seats prompted an amazing 98.5 percent to score comfort good to excellent -- virtually unheard of in a 2-door sedan of this type and size.
     "More comfortable than any other car I've ever owned," said a Kentucky pharmacist, "and much more comfortable than my friend's BMW 325e, with more room and no electrical gizmos to go wrong in the driver's seat." An Arizona machinist: "I'm over 6 feet tall, and there's plenty of legroom. more of a sports car ride than a sedan ride, but that's what I like."
     A New York mental health professional summed up the feelings of most current owners when he said, "The XR4Ti uniquely combines racy looks, and good performance and handling, plus progressive design with solid German attention to detail and quality." Who can ask for more than that?
Total miles driven 1,881,528
Average miles per gallon:
     5-speed manual  
          In town 19.9
          On the highway 25.0
     3-speed automatic  
          In town 18.0
          On the highway 22.9
Option choices:  
     Power windows and door locks 97.3%
     Moonroof 69.2
     Heated front seats 59.1
     Leather upholstry 25.6
Why did you choose the Merkur?  
     Styling 69.4%
     Performance 40.6
     Handling 22.8
     Quality 14.4
     Good price 12.2
Specific likes:  
     Styling 61.9%
     Handling 54.7
     Performance 43.1
     Comfort 40.3
     Power 26.4
     Ride 23.3
Specific dislikes:  
     Hard to shift 19.0%
     No complaints 14.1
     Fuel mileage lower than expected 6.3
     Noises and rattles 5.3
     Not enough power 4.9
What changes would you like?  
     Improve the shifter 18.2%
     Make cruise control available 14.9
     No changes 12.5
     Add intercooler to turbo 8.1
     More horsepower 7.1
How much did you pay?  
     Average $17,563
     Range $14,900-$21,000
Workmanship opinion:  
    Excellent 74.5%
     Good 23.3
     Average 1.8
     Poor 0.3
Comfort opinion:  
     Front seats  
          Excellent 80.5%
          Good 18.0
          Average 1.2
          Poor 0.3
     Rear seats  
          Excellent 59.9%
          Good 38.6
          Average 1.6
          Poor 0.0
Had any mechanical trouble?  
     Yes 57.4%
     No 42.6
What type of trouble?  
     Air conditioner 17.8%
     Transmission 14.1
     Electrical system 11.0
     Instrumentation 8.4
     Door locks 7.3
     Brake lamps 6.8
Dealer repairs satisfactory?  
     Yes 67.9%
     No 32.1
Dealer service opinion:  
     Excellent 31.2%
     Good 40.7
     Average 20.9
     Poor 7.1
Number of vehicles owned:  
     This car only 25.4%
     Two cars 39.6
     Three cars 21.1
     Four or more cars 13.8
Makes of other cars owned:  
     Ford 33.3%
     Mercury 19.5
     Chevrolet 13.8
     Honda 8.5
     Volkswagen 7.3
Would you buy a Merkur again?  
     Yes 70.2%
     No 3.3
     Maybe 26.5
Would you buy another Lincoln-mercury product?  
     Yes 44.8%
     No 13.0
     Maybe 42.2
Age distribution or owners:  
     Under 29 years 16.3%
     30-49 years 64.2
     50-plus 19.5
*Percentages might not equal 100% due to rounding or insufficient data.