Launched in 1984, the second-generation Fiesta XR2 is the plucky underdog of 1980s hot hatches. Forever associated with yoofs sporting baseball caps and Reebok Classics, it has never been esteemed by enthusiasts like many of its rivals.
However, with prices creeping upwards and bona fide classic status on the horizon, perhaps it’s time to revisit the much-maligned XR2? When an invite to a special ‘fast Fiestas’ event in Dagenham popped into the MR inbox, we jumped at the chance.
What are its rivals?
The XR2 competed with sportier (SR and GTE) versions of the Vauxhall Nova, plus more celebrated hot hatches of the era, such as the Renault 5 GT Turbo, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Peugeot 205 GTI.
Money-no-object, we’d choose the Peugeot for its chic styling, superb steering and delicately-balanced handling (a little too delicate for some). But a 205 GTI will typically cost you more than twice as much as an equivalent XR2.
What engine does it use?
The original – and much rarer – Fiesta XR2 of 1981 boasted a modest 85hp. For the Mk2 version seen here, Ford upped output to 97hp with the aid of a new 1.6-litre CVH engine from the Escort XR3.
In a car weighing just 839kg (a new Fiesta ST is 1,163kg), that meant 0-60mph in 10.2 seconds and a top speed of 112mph.
The Fiesta also inherited the Escort’s five-speed gearbox, replacing the four-speeder in the first-generation car.
What’s it like to drive?
With unassisted steering, no ABS and no electronic driver aids, the Fiesta offers a refreshingly back-to-basics driving experience.
Its rorty, carburettor-fed engine feels eager, while compact dimensions and great all-round visibility make it a joy to duck and dive through the streets of Dagenham.
Heading to open roads, the XR2’s limitations become more apparent. It thumps over bumps and leans like a listing ship in fast corners. And the brakes – front discs and rear drums, with a cross-linkage to the master cylinder that deadens pedal feel – don’t inspire confidence.
On a more superficial level, public reaction to the XR2 can’t fail to give you a buzz. Pensioners point, a lorry driver nods approvingly and two young lads even request a selfie. Everybody, it seems, loves a fast Ford.
Reliability and running costs
The quality of the Fiesta’s interior trim would make even Dacia blush. There are no soft-touch plastics here. Despite its flimsiness, though, there’s little to actually go wrong. The CVH engine is pretty robust, and most problems can fixed with a spanner and a well-thumbed copy of the Haynes manual.
Fuel economy is quoted as 32.9mpg at a constant 56mph. That’s half what the current Fiesta 1.0 Ecoboost achieves on the combined cycle, while producing a near-identical 100hp.
Could I drive it every day?
Thousands did in the 1980s, so there’s no reason why not. But we’d keep our XR2 for high days and holidays. Its rough-and-ready charms might wear thin if used every day, and the threat of rust is ever-present – particularly if you drive the car in winter. Best not to think about crash safety either.
How much should I pay?
XR2s have been vanishing from our roads (many as victims of the scrappage scheme) so – in common with other 1980s hot hatches – prices are rising rapidly. Expect to pay £2,500 for a scruffy-but-usable example, up to around £8,000 for restored cars in as-new condition.
Emerging classic kudos means the Fiesta should hold onto its value, though, and may appreciate over time. The Mk1 XR2 is a surefire investment opportunity – if you can find one.
What should I look out for?
The Fiesta’s 1.6-litre engine is simple and tough. Even so, it needs regular oil and cambelt changes, so check the condition of the oil using the dipstick and look for blue smoke from the exhaust on start-up.
Corrosion is the biggest potential problem. Inspect the wheelarches and sills carefully, as dirt and moisture can become trapped between bodykit and metal. The front suspension turrets and bulkhead (at the base of the windscreen) are potential rust traps, too.
Cosmetic items, such as seat fabric or the rear spoiler, can be hard to find – and thus expensive. On that note, check the V5 registration document to ensure the car is a genuine XR2. Plenty of fakes were built by aspiring boy racers back in the day.
Should I buy one?
Of all our Retro Road Tests so far, this one surprised us the most. We approached the XR2 with low expectations and it resolutely won us over.
Its engine is rough, performance is mediocre and it’s hardly the last word in dynamic finesse. But the XR2 is also a car that you can wring every last horsepower from. It connects you to the road in a way that few modern cars can.
So while would be difficult to overlook such faults in a daily-driver, in a classic car they simply become part of its character. Like a cheeky Eastender done good, the XR2 is a rough diamond. And we love it for that.
Ford eventually replaced the XR2 in 1989 with the fuel-injected XR2i. However, it was dull to drive and roundly panned by the motoring press. In January 1990, CAR magazine ran a cover story with the unequivocal headline: ‘XR2i: another duff fast Ford’.
It would take until 2004, and the first-generation ST, before the Fiesta became a credible hot hatchback again.