Golf matched at last?

The Escort XR3 has much of the appeal of VW's Golf GTI.

But only one of them qualifies as our best high speed hatchback.

From What Car? magazine, January 1981. 

A family hatchback is the most unlikely base from which to create a highly sought-after small sporting saloon. Yet that is just what Volkswagen did when they devised the GTI version of their Golf.

On its arrival here in right hand drive form last year it became an instant hit, a small measure of its popularity being that several motoring journalists actually handed over their own money to buy one - a rare gesture of confidence. Naturally, the GTI had a role that other manufacturers envied, particularly as its British success simply echoes similar achievements in the rest of Europe.

Ford have always had a keen eye on motor sport and competition orientated marketing, so it was obvious that their new front wheel drive Escort range would include a strongly sporting model, following on from the RS2000 and Mexico versions of the old car, and that this new sports Escort would be a natural rival to the GTI, since it would be based around a parallel, front-drive, small hatchback configuration. That Ford contender is the XR3, announced with the rest of the new range, but only actually put on sale now.


An aggressively sporting machine the XR3 is too, much more overt in its pretensions than the relatively low-key Golf. The basic Escort body shape, already distinctive amid a market of look-alike hatchback boxes, gains a large, flexible tailgate spoiler, a deeper front air dam, very attractive cast alloy wheels, evocative of those on the 22,000 Porsche 928 and black trim around aggressive bright red paintwork on our test car.

Mechanically, it uses a tuned version of the new 1596cc CVH engine, a revised camshaft and a twin-choke Weber carburettor upping power to 96bhp. Suspension is the same all independent system as on cheaper Escorts, except for the fitment of Bilstein gas filled dampers. The front brakes are ventilated discs, while those 5.5 inch wide alloy wheels are shod with ultra low profile, 60 series tyres - Goodyear NCTs on our car.

The all black Golf looks quite staid beside the XR3; only the alloy wheels and slightly lower stance distinguish it from its more humble brothers. There are, in fact, also a larger front air dam, small wing extensions and side stripes fitted. The GTI's 1588cc engine is, like the Ford's, mounted transversely and of belt driven single overhead camshaft layout. It is fed through Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and drives via a five speed gearbox, the Escort having the standard four gears. Suspension is by struts at the front and Volkswagen's semi-independent torsion beam rear axle. Like the Ford, the brakes are ventilated front discs and rear drums. The Golf's alloy wheels are similar in width to the Ford's, but are fitted with one size narrower tyres ( 175 x 13) that are also slightly higher profile 70 series (Continentals on the test car.)

Volkswagen do not yet offer the option of low-profile tyres and the attendant larger-diameter wheels, so the Escort has something of an advantage in the all-important tyre department.


For made no secret that the XR3 was being launched as a GTI beater and claimed it to have very similar performance. Unfortunately, neither subjectively on the road nor objectively at the test track, does it really prove anywhere near as fast. The Golf certainly feels the quicker car. Its engine is so uncannily smooth as to be a constant delight and running on fuel injection means it has an instantaneous response to the throttle, whatever the revs. It howls round to its rev limited 6750 rpm without a trace of mechanical fuss and would certainly rev further were there not that sensible electronic cut-out.

In contrast, the XR3's engine does not really like high revs where it starts to sound strained and nasal. While the Golf has a smooth build-up of power with revs, and a torque peak very high up the rev range at 5000 rpm, the Ford prefers the mid-range where it does have a noticeable punch - its peak torque coming a thousand revs lower than the Golfs.

The VW really gains, though, from having a five speed gearbox. The relatively close ratios mean that a driver has no difficulty in always keeping the engine on boil; it's always running in the meat of its power band. By contrast, the Ford driver finds himself constantly having to stretch into the harsh top end of his engine's powerband to keep performance up.

The test track performance figures confirmed road driving feelings. In standing start acceleration tests the Escort simply refused to beat 11 seconds to 60 mph until we turned a blind eye to the rev counter for one run and held on to second gear well into the red sector to reach 60 mph with one less gear change. Then we knocked the time down to 10.6 sec. In contrast, the Golf (which also needed two gear changes) was up to 60 mph from a standstill in only 8.7 sec - a really quick time for such a small capacity car. By 90 mph, the gap between the two had widened to some three seconds.

Ford claim an incredible 8.6 seconds to 60 mph for the XR3 but quite frankly, following testing with our own fifth wheel speedometer, we have to view that with considerable scepticism. While agreeing that the tune of individual models can vary, our car appeared to be running perfectly. The VW's 14 bhp power advantage, lower weight and the similar overall gearing of the two cars would appear to confirm that the Ford must theoretically be the slower.

Though acceleration may differ, maximum speeds of the two are fairly similar; the Golf reaches 112 mph in fifth, with fourth gear taking it as far as 97 mph, while the XR3 almost keeps up, by getting to 111 mph. The gear changes of both cars are outstanding. The Golfs is a known quantity these days, having light, quick movements across a narrow, delicately defined gate, and an exquisitely quick shift from fourth to fifth instead of the so common awkward move. But having praised the VW's change, we must go on to say that the Escort's four-speed is better still. If there is a fault with the VW's change, it is that it might be considered too light and delicate. The Escort has the same speed of shifting but with an added bite that makes it feel much more like a good-to-use, solid rear drive shift. But the clutch of the Ford comes to notice by being rather sudden in its initial engagement.


If the Volkswagen had the edge in performance, then the tables are turned in the handling section. The Golf's handling and road holding were a hard act to follow but Ford have done it and more in the XR3. Its steering is beautiful to use; quick, accurate and without a trace of front drive tug or kick-back, it's reminiscent in its accuracy and its firm, direct feel to that of the old RS2000, and that's a considerable achievement in a powerful front-drive car. At parking speeds the small steering wheel does make manoeuvring a shade heavy for some drivers. Odd it may sound, but the XR3 really does go where it is pointed. The combination of that steering and a front end that simply refuses to lose its grip means it can be cornered with none of the typical front drive tyre scrub and understeer, again having the handling precision of rear-drive, yet with superior front-drive standards of road holding.

The Golf tries hard but can't keep up round corners. Its front tyres start to chirrup their loss of grip and the driver has to wind on more lock to counter the insidious build up of understeer. Sometimes it will lift a back wheel when driven hard through a tight corner and then it feels slightly nervous, less stable than the rock steady Escort.

The Golf's body rolls a little more in cornering, too. Its steering hasn't quite got the taut feel of the Escort's, lacking that sense of immediacy with the road. It is very good nonetheless; light and quick, in though winding rather sharply off the extremes of lock when powering away from a junction. Much of the difference between the two cars behaviour can probably be explained by their respective tyres. This was our first experience of Goodyear's low 's profile NCT tyre but we have been impressed by the sheer grip offered by similar tyres like Pirelli's P6 which are certainly considerably better than the Continentals of the GTI. Wet weather performance of these latter tyres isn't particularly good, either, and it is easy to spin the wheels or slide wide on a greasy it bend. A P6 or NCT shod Golf would be an interesting Escort challenger.

Our particular, and perennial, disappointment with the VW concerns its brakes. They have a long travel and a very dead feel, though actual stopping power is not lacking. It is a problem related to the right hand drive conversion as we have not noticed it on continental models. By contrast the firm Escort brakes are faultless. The ride of other new Escort models has been widely criticised and, despite the use of sophisticated Bilstein dampers, it still has shortcomings on the XR3. One expects a firmish low speed ride on a sports saloon as the price for taut handling, but the Escort really does leap around unpleasantly and even at higher speeds tends to bounce too much when it hits a sudden defect in the road surface. On less demanding surfaces, though, it does cope well sitting level and tight, as well as being little affected by side winds. The Golf, too, is quite joggly at low speeds over the now typical poor road surfaces of towns, but does not get bounced about as badly as the Ford. At higher speeds its ride is a bit more supple, but it doesn't have quite the rock-steady feel of the XR3.

The Escort is noticeably the noisier of the two. Its engine note is always clearly audible but there is rather an unpleasant boominess to the sound particularly annoying to anyone sitting in the back seat. The NCT tyres generate quite a lot of road noise as well, though the extent depends on the type of surface, but there is little wind noise at speed.

The Golf is also rather boomy, again especially in the back, but less so than the Ford. The engine is considerably quieter in hard use. It suffers to some extent from wind noise around the screen pillars at speed, but less so from tyre roar.


The two cars are quite similar in their interior layouts. Both retain the main ingredients of the cheaper models in their respective ranges and modify them with rally style seats and jazzier trim colours to match the sporty image of these cars.

Our Ford seats were trimmed in grey cloth with red pin striping. Front seats are of the high-backed rally pattern, with integral headrests and heavily built-up sides to hold occupants during cornering. In use they prove very comfortable; firm but well upholstered. Less satisfactory is the very hard rear bench. Driving position is good, the front seat backs adjusting to any angle of recline, though even with the small steering wheel most drivers still find their knees rather close to the wheel and steering column.

Our Golf upholstery was in black with silver checks. Front seats are similar in execution to the Ford's, though slightly narrower and thus a tighter fit for broad users. Adjustable headrests are fitted and the seats recline to any angle. Driving position is conventionally good and slimmer rear pillars allow rather better rear three quarter vision than in the Ford.

Neither car has a great deal of room in the back, and the Golf is worse off than the Ford for legroom, which is very restricted, though slightly better on headroom. Both cars are of course hatchbacks, which gives a welcome degree of added practicality.

Despite the differences in ages between the two designs, the 1973 VW and the 1980 Escort, there isn't a great deal to choose between the two hatchback layouts. The Golf has a relatively high sill - but so does the Ford - and both have underfloor spare wheel. The boot capacity of the VW is officially quoted as being slightly superior to the Ford's when the rear seat is in place, but it is not so roomy with both seats folded.


Both cars are much less temperamental in everyday use than their sporting specifications suggest. Indeed, the Golf is a constant delight because of its docility. Its injection engine always starts instantly from cold, idles and runs smoothly. There's never a hesitation or a suggestion of fluffiness. The Ford is by no means bad either, it starts promptly on an automatic choke and runs smoothly, though it does tend to become temporarily fluffy after prolonged town driving.

Controls of the Escort are well planned out, though the rather bulky grey plastic mouldings of facia and door trims are not to everyone's taste. Dashboard is neat, with matching circular speedometer and rev counter, and minor fuel and temperature gauges set between. The three stalks are Ford's familiar pattern. A microprocessor controlled bank of warning lights monitor fluid levels. A central console houses the standard push button radio and a very flimsy seeming cassette rack. Volkswagen have revised their Golf facias for 1981. The new dashboard is similar in style to that in the smaller Polo models and features rectangular matching speedometer and rev counter with inset temperature gauge (not featured on test car.)

Out test XR3 came fully fitted with optional extras, some of them intriguing like the sliding/tilting glass sunroof with an independent sun blind, at 209. Others fitted were the electric front window lifts (130), and central locking (127) and headlamp washers (69). As standard, the two cars are fairly similarly equipped, though the VW has no radio, but the Ford is available with many more options.


The Ford starts off with a sizeable price advantage: it costs 5123 compared with the Volkswagen's 5700 and that may be sufficient to decide some buyers. It is likely to prove a shade cheaper to service too, needing less servicing hours over a comparable mileage and having a much wider dealer spread -1200 dealers compared with 350. Ford service intervals are every 12,000 miles for 1.7 hours attention, with a brief lubrication service at 6000 miles, while the VW needs 1.4 hours attention every 10,000 miles and has a shorter 5000 mile oil change.

Where the Golf hits back is in its fuel consumption; it really is remarkably good for such a quick car. We returned between 26.8 and 36.9 mpg, averaging 30.6 mpg over the test period. The Ford doesn't fare quite so well, though it is still economical for a performance car. Our best brim to brim consumption was 34.4 mpg and our worst, after track testing 22.6 mpg, with an overall average of 28.2 mpg.


A very difficult decision it is, too. The Escort has a marker edge in handling and road holding over the Volkswagen, where it really does behave superbly. But it is not as quick as the Golf, nor is its engine anywhere near as enjoyable to drive behind as the smooth, lively and flexible VW unit. It's considerably noisier, too, and the ride is decidedly poor over bad roads. As a piece of packaging the extrovert XR3 will obviously be very appealing to certain buyers but we have to say that we still prefer the more sophisticated charms and refined performance of the Golf GTI.


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