“Why don’t we get the great cars that the Europeans get?” has been a constant complaint of American enthusiasts, regularly falling on deaf ears at the car companies. Well, except for one pair of ears — those belonging to the legendary Bob Lutz. Before he had GM importing Opels to sell here as Saturns (and later, Australian Holdens as Pontiacs), he prodded his bosses at Ford to create the Merkur XR4Ti.

It started life as a European Ford Sierra, the 1982 successor to the storied Cortina. The Sierra was designed as a full line of affordable compact cars (with 3- and 5-door hatchbacks, a sedan, a wagon and even a van) that could be made sporty in the right configuration. While the 4-door model was just another nondescript sedan, the 3-door hatchback was visually interesting, featuring a triple-side-window design. It also wore a cool two-tiered spoiler on its hatch, which was way futuristic in 1985 and screams retro today.

In Europe, the Sierra’s XR4i trim received a 2.8-liter Cologne V6 making 148 horsepower and was available with all-wheel drive. Then there were the turbocharged Sierra RS Cosworth and the 500-unit Sierra RS500 Cosworth Group A homologation models. Those versions raised the performance bar by installing the DOHC Cosworth YBD turbo four, big brakes and sport suspension.

Coming to America

To bring the Sierra stateside, Ford had regulatory requirements to meet. Engineers had to make changes to the unibody to accommodate catalysts. Side intrusion beams and federal bumpers were added to meet crash standards. All told, the U.S. version wound up nearly 300 pounds heavier. Finally, Ford asked Jackie Stewart to tune the suspension for American buyers, and on his advice, spring rates were softened.

There were also marketing decisions to make. Ford couldn’t use the Sierra name in the U.S. because of prior trademarks for the GMC pickup truck. Further, corporate brass didn’t want the car on Ford dealer lots where it might compete with the Mustang. Nor did they want to consign the sporty new model to the stodgy Lincoln and Mercury brands.

The solution, however, wasn’t much of one: Ford launched a new brand called “Merkur,” which is just German for Mercury. The Sierra still wound up at Lincoln/Mercury dealers, but only those who signed up to carry it. The 3-door was now rebadged “XR4Ti,” in-line with the alphanumeric naming craze taking over the auto industry. The 4-door also became a Merkur, dubbed “Scorpio” for the U.S. Of course, there would be no RS versions for us. Sales were strong for the first two years and then plummeted; Merkur would disappear after the 1989 model year.

Turbo-powered

The XR4Ti received a fuel-injected version of the single-overhead-cam 2.3-liter Lima 4-cylinder engine, upgraded from previous duty in the Pinto and Mustang II with a Garrett turbocharger running 14 pounds of boost. Ford decided not to equip the Merkur with an intercooler, so output was 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. The 1985 Mustang SVO with a similar but intercooled engine generated 15 additional pound-feet of torque; a well-sorted XR4Ti intercooler retrofit kit is now available for those who want one.

A 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic sent power to the rear wheels, although when equipped with the automatic, horsepower was reduced to 145. With the manual transmission, contemporary tests recorded 0–60-mph times in the high sevens and a top speed of 129 mph. The XR4Ti had a coil-spring independent rear suspension with semi-trailing arms; it delivered good skid-pad performance at 0.80g.

When these cars were new, I was fortunate enough to spend a vacation driving a comparable British Ford Sierra from London up through Scotland and back again. The car was nimble and well balanced, and it loved to corner, especially when adding power on exit. The Sierra chassis was impressive, especially compared to what passed for “good handling” in American cars at the time. Independent rear suspension may not seem like much to crow about, but remember, the first Mustang to ditch its stick axle would be the 1999 SVT Cobra. Ford wouldn’t make IRS standard on the Mustang until the sixth-generation; it debuted for the 2015 model year and was in production until just last year.

Buying one now

Unlike many orphan brands, especially a low-volume orphan like Merkur, the XR4Ti enjoys good support. Most mechanicals were off-the-shelf Ford parts, so there’s decent hardware availability as well as a community in the form of the Merkur Club of America (www.merkurclub.net).

Although the XR4Ti never spawned a second generation, there were many updates over its short production life. Most significant were the changes made in 1987, when upgrades from the refreshed European Sierra carried over. These included 15-inch wheels and a new body-colored trim option. In 1988 the distinctive rear spoiler was replaced by a smaller, less obtrusive one in a failed effort to appeal to a wider range of buyers.

Outside of a small cult of fans, the XR4Ti has remained unappreciated by most collectors. This means that you may need to be patient to find one — and you should, as the thin market means it’s important to buy the right one. 

The high-water mark we’ve seen for an XR4Ti was a 46k-mile 1988 that went for $16,800 in an online sale last August. Decent examples can be acquired for about half that much, and we don’t expect the market for these cars to appreciate anytime soon. For little more than credit-card money, buying an XR4Ti today is an opportunity to imagine an alternate reality, where post-Malaise-era American automotive tastes followed the European lead. ♥

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