Vintage Views: Merkur XR4Ti

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in our January 2016 issues of Grassroots Motorsports. Some information may be out of date. Prices for the XR4TI have remained consistent according to Hagerty, with a No. 1 example fetching nor more than $7000 in 2019 values.]

Let’s pretend it’s 1985. MTV is playing the latest by Duran Duran, your hair looks mahvelous, and your status in life says that it’s time to upgrade to a fine German sports coupe. In addition to the usual suspects from BMW, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, there’s one more brand to consider: Merkur.

What is this exotic nameplate, you ask? It’s probably time for a refresher, since Merkurs haven’t graced American showrooms since the Reagan administration. So grab your Walkman, slip on a pair of boat shoes, and pop your collar: Let’s all take a quick trip in the way-back machine.

The automotive landscape was maturing during the ’80s, with many owners trading their chrome bumpers, bench seats and columnshift automatics for something a bit sportier and more upmarket–often something with a European accent.

Ford had successfully brought past European offerings to the States; witness the 1970-’77 Mercury Capri and the 1978-’80 Ford Fiesta. Could they do it again? This time, though, they would do it under a new nameplate: Ford of Europe’s Sierra, a brainchild of Bob Lutz, would come to America as the Merkur XR4Ti. That new Merkur brand, named for the German word for mercury, would be handled by Mercury dealers–yes, the same people who were mostly versed in whitewall tires, velour interiors and landau tops.

The XR4Ti arrived for the 1985 model year, and at the time it was the sole Merkur offering. The three-door coupe featured contemporary styling, from the flush-mounted headlamps to the biplane rear wing. Suspension was independent at all four corners, and standard equipment included bucket seats, alloy wheels, AM/FM cassette sound system and full instrumentation. The Sierra’s V6 engine didn’t agree with American emission regulations, so Ford fitted their turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four–the same engine used in the Mustang SVO.

Final verdict? Mixed. Performance, both in a straight line and around turns, matched the status quo from Europe. Brakes could have been better, but the interior fully delivered that desired European experience.

The negatives? Styling. Also, foot traffic in Merkur dealerships never came close to expectations.

Ford scrambled to update and improve the XR4Ti, upsizing the wheels to 15-inchers for 1987 and color-matching the body cladding. The polarizing biplane spoiler disappeared for 1988; that year also saw the four-door Merkur Scorpio, a transplanted European Ford Granada, joining the XR4Ti in the marque’s lineup. In the end it was all for naught: The Merkur nameplate was gone by 1990.

So why do you want one today? We’d call it a cool, retro alternative to an E30-chassis BMW or other ’80s coupe. It’s a fairly safe bet, as the Merkur’s turbo engine is a known quantity. Prices are right, too: A peek at Merkur Club of America’s website shows that $2000 to $5000 still buys a decent example.

Shopping and Ownership

Ed Senf regularly tunes the race cars found at the top level of our sport; he’s also no stranger to the Merkur XR4Ti. He offers the following:

The five-speed version is a weak Ford T9, which is fine for low-power-output engines, but should be replaced with the Borg Warner T5 found in many U.S. Ford products.

I cannot imagine what engineer at Ford let this car go to production without any intercooler–it’s shameful. There are too many options to list for retrofitting some other production intercooler. It’s a good exercise to keep a car guy busy in a junkyard for countless hours.

The headlights from the factory are the worst possible ’80s plastic crap; they must have been coated with a yellowing accelerator when produced. Driving around with two jack-o’-lanterns strapped to the hood might well be more effective. Sadly, the only real fix is to replace the entire assembly with the Euro versions, which also requires some minor metal work in the front radiator core support. I did one of my cars and the result was like driving a modern car.

An easy wheel and tire upgrade is available from a Ford Focus.

The ECU was an old chip-type Ford unit that should be replaced with any Megasquirt ECU with wide-band oxygen sensor feedback. Wiring wasn’t bad for the time, but the cars are 30 years old now and under-hood temps cook anything to death in that amount of time.

Turbo upgrades are very easy, since the factory used the most common Garret T3 turbo. Don’t be tempted to throw a 500-horsepower turbo on the single-cam 2.3, however, because some extensive head and cam work needs to be performed to get the airflow to a point where reasonable power can be supported–the head only has eight valves.

The brakes were not fantastic. There are many ways to upgrade them with other Ford OE parts and pieces.

Parts, Service and Community

Rapido Group
(541) 544-3333

Merkur Club of America

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Comments
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pres589
pres589 UberDork
9/1/16 3:58 p.m.

I wonder if things would have gone better if Ford hadn't tried to be so smart and just called them Mercury products. A Mercury XR4Ti and Mercury Scorpio (and no Sable, just leave that as a Taurus) would have probably worked a lot better and saved marketing time & costs.

I'm curious what other things caused consumers to not take home more XR4Ti's.

Brett_Murphy
Brett_Murphy PowerDork
9/1/16 7:27 p.m.

Or just sold them as Fords. There may have been some concern with cannibalizing Mustang sales, though. However, given how people reacted to the Probe, it may not have happened. Hell, most Mustang fans didn't like the Turbo model Mustangs, either.

Raze
Raze UltraDork
9/1/16 7:39 p.m.

They're fun!

captdownshift
captdownshift UberDork
9/1/16 7:53 p.m.

They make fantastic rally cars

paranoid_android74
paranoid_android74 SuperDork
9/2/16 8:02 p.m.
captdownshift wrote: They make fantastic rally cars

I get to crew for one this month. Tee hee!

Trackmouse
Trackmouse Dork
9/3/16 9:06 a.m.

Always loved these. Even that crazy bi wing.

dansxr2
dansxr2 Dork
9/3/16 9:30 a.m.

One of my cousins friends had a Blue '87 when I was about 10. I will own one before much longer! On my next car to own list!

mad_machine
mad_machine MegaDork
9/3/16 11:31 a.m.

I would love one.. but all the ones around here have fallen on very hard times.

irish44j
irish44j UltimaDork
9/3/16 2:39 p.m.

There are three of them registered for Black River Stages in 2 weeks.

fearlesfil
fearlesfil New Reader
12/5/17 6:50 p.m.

I rented one at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport once, for a road trip to San Francisco. It was in a darkened parking lot, and it took me 20 MINUTES to find a knob or button to light up the dash. When I did it lit up like the cockpit of the space shuttle! Had to laugh. Not so funny was the lack of cruise control. I just couldn't warm up to the idea of the 1500 mile round trip without it.  So I traded it in for a luxo-barge (free upgrade). I enjoyed driving it around Phoenix though. Always like the idea of them. By the time I moved back stateside in '91 they were already gone though.

PT_SHO
PT_SHO New Reader
12/7/17 1:40 p.m.

An autocross acquaintance developed one of these for several years and finally won the SCCA Nationals Autocross in D-Street Prepared in 2009.  Beating a host of Beemers, Subies, and misc.  Some great shots of basically the entire field at speed at http://forum.merkurclub.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=15573  

Amusing to see that several cars were actually lifting both inside tires for a moment at the tight corner.  I'm speculating that the relatively stiff tire/suspension setup would start losing grip at about that point to act as an anti-roll effect.  I wonder if the in-car data would detect the extra roll angle and assume it was just hella cornering, or whether there is a setting you could program in to tell the driver "back off NOW!!"?

Kreb
Kreb UltraDork
12/7/17 1:53 p.m.

Terrible name for a sub-brand, funny looking car with a terrible reputation for reliability. If they'd revived the Mercury Comet name, ditched the silly spoiler and made them reliable, it could have been a success. 

Jumper K Balls
Jumper K Balls PowerDork
12/7/17 3:04 p.m.

Very timely GRM. There is an 88 XR4Ti in my driveway that I keep waffling on what to do with it. Offload it as is, fix and flip or build for me. I seem to change my mind every day. 

 

My dad worked at the Ford/Lincoln/Mercury dealership in '85 when these came out. I remember our family of 5 in our 68 bug struggling to achieve the federally mandated 55mph speed and my dad telling me to look back. A brand new black XR flew up behind us and then leapt into the left lane and passed us like we were in reverse. It looked like the future and made strange turbine noises that I didn't understand. I wanted one bad from then on. I finally got a terribly worn out example of an 85 in 94 before the internet started solving the parts availability issues and it beat me up trying to keep it going.  It is hard to separate the good memories from the bad.

Leaning towards keeping it now.

Ransom
Ransom PowerDork
12/7/17 5:06 p.m.

In reply to Jumper K Balls :

They're *so cool*! I think you should keep it at least for a while. In the same way that I should've given the Miata a bit more of a chance, the opportunity to see what one's like with a little care and feeding seems so good.

Doubly so if you have a whack at autocross!

EvanB
EvanB UltimaDork
12/7/17 5:09 p.m.

I need to get mine going soon. I had a burst of motivation when I bought it and that stopped just short of getting it running. Now that I have a couple open bays in my garage I'll pull it in and hopefully get it going. 

LanEvo
LanEvo HalfDork
12/8/17 9:10 a.m.

I've always wanted to build a homegrown Sierra RS by putting a 2.3L Duratec from a Ford Ranger (plus turbo kit) into an XR4Ti.

Considering Ford will sell you a brand new 2.3L Ecoboost (complete with turbo, starter, alternator, and wiring harness) for $5500 these days, that's probably the better option:

 https://fordracingpartsbydonwood.com/crate-engines/ecoboost/2-3l-mustang-ecoboost-crate-engine-m-6007-23t/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIiaTkudn61wIVB7XACh2QjAJzEAQYASABEgJigfD_BwE

jimbbski
jimbbski Dork
12/8/17 2:19 p.m.

Bad marketing on Fords part, expensive on list price, and expensive to fix when they broke.  But I still loved them although I never owned one. For the same price, but faster and cheaper to own was the SVO Mustang.

EvanB
EvanB UltimaDork
12/8/17 2:27 p.m.
LanEvo said:

I've always wanted to build a homegrown Sierra RS by putting a 2.3L Duratec from a Ford Ranger (plus turbo kit) into an XR4Ti.

Considering Ford will sell you a brand new 2.3L Ecoboost (complete with turbo, starter, alternator, and wiring harness) for $5500 these days, that's probably the better option:

 https://fordracingpartsbydonwood.com/crate-engines/ecoboost/2-3l-mustang-ecoboost-crate-engine-m-6007-23t/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIiaTkudn61wIVB7XACh2QjAJzEAQYASABEgJigfD_BwE

Dave Clark has an Ecoboost in his rally xr4ti:

https://www.autocar.co.uk/opinion/motorsport/how-ecoboost-power-keeping-sierra-xr4ti-rally-car-podium

http://www.rallyanarchy.com/phorum/read.php?5,106139

 

darkbuddha
darkbuddha HalfDork
12/12/17 10:25 a.m.

I'm always so conflicted when articles like this give XR4TIs attention.  First, I'm all like "Cool!  Someone is finally giving the XR a bit of positive recognition."  Then I'm like "Crap!  This going to increase interest and push up prices."  Fortunately, the XR seems to have been relatively immune to receiving either positive attention or increasing prices.  Still, I'm glad to have gotten mine when I did, and have no plans to get rid of it.  And hopefully, the abandoned XR project I'm working on will be done for the $2018 Challenge.

BTW, with regard to the bad marketing on Ford's part, yeah, there is that.  Poor marketing, poor name choice, poor dealership choice, poor salesman education, poor understanding of the car in general, poor consumer interest, and all that.  But it's frustrating to see all those things still negatively impact the perception of what is a very straight forward and simple, easy to work on, relatively reliable, decent quality, comfortable and capable, inexpensive, fun to drive car.  Even in completely stock form, there's something very likably European about them, and if modded in wise ways, they can be quick and fast as well without losing that composed European character.  And despite rumors to the contrary, a well sorted and tuned up 2.3 Lima isn't that unrefined.  And for the record, parts sourcing isn't all that bad either... certainly not any worse than sourcing parts for most and 30 year old European car (or domestic really).

MotorsportsGordon
MotorsportsGordon New Reader
12/12/17 10:29 a.m.

I’ve seen one here in Edmonton that had a 302 swapped in.

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/20/19 8:31 a.m.

I've always wanted one of these, just so I could correct people when they inevitably pronounce the name wrong. 

grover
grover HalfDork
9/20/19 8:40 a.m.

Had a neighbor with one in our small town that never moved that I could tell.  Every time I’ve gone back home in the last 20 years I would look to see if it was there, last year it was not. I was sad. I always thought it was cool. 

Saron81
Saron81 Reader
9/20/19 8:49 a.m.

A very similar article in a 1999 issue of GRM made me seek one out that year. They were hard to find, as were some parts with very light internet back then... even though some were only 10 years old at that point. Lots of mail order with Rapido and BAT. 

I ended up driving one for either my daily, or as a fun car for the next decade. I had 4 of them.  Had a lot of fun with them. Built up a powerful 2.3, and bought all the genuine RS500 body parts from the UK. Sold off the parts before it was ever finished though... car ended up getting rusty rockers that I didn’t want to deal with. That cladding was good at hiding rust. Lots of good memories and friends made through the Merkursport website. I still kick around the idea of buying another one.... They were misunderstood by many people, and gained an (IMO) unfair reputation of being unreliable. The truth is most people didn’t know how to fix them.

Nice to see other people appreciate them! 

slowbird
slowbird HalfDork
9/20/19 9:41 a.m.

Been wanting one for a long time, they're obscure enough that they fit my oddball personality. Because I can't just own "regular" cars...I have to own obscure regular cars. laugh

gswaybright
gswaybright New Reader
9/20/19 11:42 p.m.

I bought a two year old '89 and loved it. It was the first "nice" car (not a beater) I owned. The great thing buying these slightly used, was the massive depreciation that hit the 1st owners. I bought a low mileage car for less than half the original sticker, drove it in the '93 and '94 One Lap of America, and many other adventures before eventually selling it after I started driving Miatas for fun. 

 

Schmidlap
Schmidlap HalfDork
9/21/19 11:02 a.m.

When I was a kid I remember shopping with my family somewhere around Detroit and flipping out because we parked beside a RS500 Cosworth with manufacturers plates and my family had no clue why I was so excited.  Years later one of my uncles got an XR4ti and took my dad and I for a ride and my dad said he finally understood why I was flipping out.  The funny part is that as a kid I thought the RS500 was some kind of 400hp monster because I had read so much about the competition versions and I remember being very disappointed to learn that it actually came with "just" 225hp or something.  Still, I've been kind of keeping an eye out for an XR4ti but it's hard to find a rust free car up here in Canada.

If anyone is bored and wants to do some reading, Ford Motorsport's "How to Prepare the Sierra for Motorsport" manual is free for download here.

wspohn
wspohn Dork
9/21/19 11:52 a.m.

Some of the remaining cars have had their BW T9 transmissions removed to supply the popular transplant into MGBs...

livinon2wheels
livinon2wheels New Reader
9/24/19 2:31 p.m.

I had a red 87 and loved it when it ran right. Half the time you couldnt get it to make boost due to some gremlin in the electronics and the dealer couldnt figure it out either. I finally gave up and traded it for a nissan nx2000 which was a hell of a lot better car all around. All of that said, I wish I had it back now, I think I would find a way to swap in another engine...maybe one of the modern ford v6 engines with the factory ecu. Make a real nice road rocket. 

TXratti
TXratti New Reader
9/24/19 4:03 p.m.

I love my '89 XR! It's slowing becoming more racecar as time goes on. Underappreciated in its time (shouldn't have been sold in Mercury dealers), quirky and finicky but really fun to drive!

irish44j
irish44j MegaDork
9/24/19 8:18 p.m.
darkbuddha said:

  Fortunately, the XR seems to have been relatively immune to receiving either positive attention or increasing prices. 

I wouldn't worry, the proportion of the populace into masochism isn't really that big - and half of them already own Biturbos. . 

irish44j
irish44j MegaDork
9/24/19 8:20 p.m.

I'm kind of amazed nonack hasn't managed to notice this thread in three years, honestly.

Image result for nonack merkur

Ian F
Ian F MegaDork
9/24/19 9:18 p.m.
wspohn said:

Some of the remaining cars have had their BW T9 transmissions removed to supply the popular transplant into MGBs...

Or Triumphs.  Or Volvos.

I actually have the T-9 that was once in Nonack's car. My eventual plan is to install it in my 1800ES, since the M41 shifter feels like it came from a truck. 

In reply to irish44j :

My guess is he feels his opinions about the car are well known. wink

TXratti
TXratti New Reader
10/8/19 8:49 p.m.

In reply to Ian F :

I think the T9 actually feels pretty good, as long as you keep enough fluid in it... It could use a good short shifter though.

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