Vintage Views: Merkur XR4Ti
Written by David S. Wallens
From the Jan. 2016 issue
Posted in Buyer's Guides
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 jacko’- 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
Merkur Club of America
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.
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.
They make fantastic rally cars
captdownshift wrote: They make fantastic rally cars
I get to crew for one this month. Tee hee!
Always loved these. Even that crazy bi wing.
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!
I would love one.. but all the ones around here have fallen on very hard times.
There are three of them registered for Black River Stages in 2 weeks.
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