Featured: This Is What It's Like To Drive The Ford Escort RS Cosworth

This Is What It’s Like To Drive The Ford Escort RS Cosworth

By Chris Pollitt
November 15, 2017

Photography by Steve Fry

I was born in the early 1980s, so I missed the Sierra RS Cosworth excitement. I was too young, too busy trying to bite the dog or hide my dad’s wallet down the toilet, two years old when the whale-tailed three-door Sierra took to our roads in the name of homologation. I may not be able to remember the first time I saw one, but its existence meant I grew up knowing about the Cosworth name and what it meant.

Championed by Ford’s then Head of Motorsport, Stuart Turner, the Cosworth version of the Sierra was designed to dominate Group A in the British Touring Car Championship as well as on the muddy stages of the rally championships of the era. Turner wanted the car to have 300hp in race trim, while homologated road cars were planned to deliver 180hp. Several companies raised their hands, but it was Cosworth that got the contract.

The company was keen and also vastly proven to be up for the job thanks to its rich motorsport background (think DFV for instance), and its past history working with Ford, but there were caveats. First, the road cars would have over 200hp, not 180. And Cosworth would only build the engine for Ford if it placed an order for 15,000 of them—not the 5,000 Turner had originally asked for. Ford obliged.

The first Sierra RS Cosworth, the “three-door,” was a handful. Only available with rear wheel-drive, it was a machine that required a talented set of hands at the helm to be driven at the edge, and as such it wasn’t uncommon for them to end up in ditches when the skills couldn’t match the pace.

Ford still had some surplus YB engines, and it decided to stick them into the traditional three-box sedan version of the car, the Sierra Sapphire. Ford also got rid of the Borg Warner T5 gearbox in favor of a Ferguson MT-75 and gave it four-wheel drive too. It was a more civilized car in terms of appearance, and that killed the thrill of it for some when compared to its more radical-looking predecessor, but it was a better, more surefooted car to drive.

There is a point here with all this Sierra talk. When you look at an Escort RS Cosworth, (if you aren’t a euro Ford fan, this is the car you’re looking at in these photos), you’re seeing what is essentially a re-bodied Sierra Sapphire RS Cosworth. The turbocharged 2.0-liter YB Cosworth engine, the Ferguson five-speed, the four-wheel drive powertrain with a 34/66 front/rear split; that’s all Sierra, it was just shoehorned into a smaller Escort.

If the plain Sierra seemed an odd choice to hoist into motorsport, the Escort was a real head-scratcher. Yes, the Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts of the ‘70s and ‘80s were legends, piloted by the likes of Alan Mann and Ari Vatanen, but the MkV—the Cosworth generation—wasn’t such a revered rally car at the outset. Even in standard 1.1-liter guise the first Escorts were fun. The MkV Escort was not. It was a basic, not particularly refined, slow, clattery thing. It’s not hard to see why the notion of a Cosworth version was the subject of much mockery. Until that is, Ford and Cosworth built it.

Ford went all out. It knew people were left wanting by the Sapphire Cosworth’s “hire car” aesthetic. That wasn’t going to happen with the Escort. Ford gave it flared arches, big alloys (not the ones pictured, more in a moment), deep bumpers with huge apertures for ventilation, and of course the big, unashamedly daft rear spoiler. Frankly it could have been powered by a blender and nobody would have cared. Just look at it!

This example has been upgraded in period-correct fashion with its WRC-style Compomotive wheels and headlights most noticeably, but I did have a chance to drive an OEM example not too long ago, and as I stood there in Ford’s Heritage tin shed to drive one of theirs, it really did stop me in my tracks in factory form. It took a moment to compute the fact I was going to drive it, and I was somewhat conflicted; never meet your heroes, they say. Up until this point, I hadn’t. I was anxious. What if it shattered my illusions of the Cosworth magic? Sometime during that train of thought, I apparently plonked myself in the driver’s seat. Okay then, I was doing this.

First off, getting into the car is an odd sensation. As I said earlier, the base Escort was a fairly dull, unremarkable car. It was tinny and cheap. You don’t get that from the RS Cosworth version. The cars were built in Germany by Karmann and it shows. The doors shut with reassuring thumps rather than weak rattles. It feels solid. And that’s important when you have 227hp under your right foot (the Escort RS Cosworth had more grunt than the larger Sierra, thanks to new engine management and a trick turbo setup). Torque? You were looking at a healthy 229ft-lbs. More than enough for 2,810lbs of car.

Inside though, not much is changed. For instance, the dashboard makes for a familiar (at least here in the UK) vista. It’s an Escort, clearly, and there’s only a bank of gauges at the top of the dash for current, boost pressure, and oil pressure to suggest this isn’t your sister’s daily commuter. There are other sportier appointments like the Recaro seats, but even those, while deep and winged, aren’t over the top. But then you see it in the rear-view mirror. The wing. The big, silly, over-the-top—almost literally—wing. It reminds you of what you’re sitting in.

Turn the key and there’s no fanfare or overt noise to speak of. It’s just a car. Unlike those early rear-drive Sierras, there’s no trepidation here. The Escort sort of lulls you into truly believing that you’ve got this totally under control. The clutch isn’t that heavy, and the shift into first isn’t a fight. Again, it’s all very normal.

This was where things went downhill for me, and I started to wonder, with a degree of panic, if I’d made the wrong choice in driving one of these cars. I worked through to second gear and stabbed the throttle: not a lot happened. In fact, it was slow. This was a rally-bred weapon, François Delecour and Carlos Sainz piloted this car to plenty of stage victories in the Word Rally Championship, how could it be so slo—. Then the turbo does its business and informs you that the Escort RS Cosworth is in fact not slow. It has more lag than you’d expect from a car as new as the ‘90s, but once you make it over the hump it’s definitely fast.

You have to learn the car before you can keep it feeling that way though—you have to get used to paying attention to keeping the revs in the right range to keep the car on boost. If you get it wrong and exit a turn in too high a gear it will let you know with the sensation that it’s been driven it into thick mud.

On paper, the lag probably isn’t that bad as I make it out to be, but when you consider that today’s cars don’t have turbo lag to speak of, it makes the Escort stand out after having these modern reference points. But by having that lag—the need to be worked hard to get the most out of it—you’re rewarded greatly. You have to have a heavy right foot, you have to love banging it through the gears and keeping it wound up. You have to push yourself and your abilities if you want what it can offer. It likes to be driven like this; modern cars do it all for you, but the Escort RS Cosworth is old enough to make you earn it while still being new enough to make the “it” a truly rapid experience.

I didn’t have a race track at my disposal for my drive. Instead it had to be the roads of Dagenham, and with them, other motorists. As such, apex-clipping and top speed runs were out of the question, which is a shame considering the Escort RS was quoted as being able to hit 150mph. I don’t doubt it. I also don’t doubt there was more capacity in the handling capabilities. I pushed it where I could, and it gave me grip without fail, and it felt real, from mechanical, analog origins.

I always knew where I was with the Cosworth. I knew how hard I could push it. It asks you to. When you think “I got away with that last corner,” it seems to nudge you and suggest you go into the next one even harder. It also feels, and I don’t mean this in a “bad” way, safe. It’s powerful, it wants to go fast, but it doesn’t scare you in the process with the sense that it can’t keep up with itself. It is, in the truest sense of the word, an experience. It’s a car that wants to be on the limit, but it won’t spit you out if you make the slightest error. It makes for an extremely enjoyable drive characterized by temptation and reward with minimal risk.

My time with the Ford Escort RS Cosworth was brief, but it was wonderful. If you look at it objectively and understand that much of it was developed in the late 1980s and that it was in essence nothing more than a slightly shorter Sierra Sapphire, you’ll get it. You’ll appreciate it. You can’t compare this to modern performance cars, it’s a poster-child of a different generation, and as a member of said generation, I can tell you that driving it confirmed its worthiness as a poster on my wall. It was every bit the car I hoped it would be.

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Peter J Smith
Peter J Smith
4 years ago

The UK got the cool, small Fords! Here, in the States, the Escort was a horrible, FWD, piece of sh*t.

4 years ago

2 different registration plates…2 different cars?
Same colour, same spec…Odd.
This is one of those cars I wanted but couldn’t possibly afford in the early 90’s.
Likewise the Subaru WRX, Porsche 964, Lotus Carlton and the Audi RS2.
I now own a 964 and am still lusting after the Escort Cossie and the rest…
I recently had someone attempt to humiliate me by asking if I had a white Ford Escort..(I’m from Essex…that can be viewed as not good if you don’t come from Essex and in Essex the registration L444 KYY is written how we pronounce the word lucky.)…I shot him down with “no, but I want one!“.
The time has come for these machines to top the price and desire lists… some people of a certain (ahem…nearly 50) age now have the wherewithal to afford the unattainable of the past and enjoy them in the future…shame so many ended up as 90’s tree ornaments in Epping Forest (near the fabled Dagenham!).
The force is strong with this Cosworth.
Spot on little article.
Spot on little car!

5 years ago

It seems odd to have a car with OZ labelled wheels but Compomotive centres.
More importantly though a bit misleading with the article;
The 2WD Sapphire Cosworth, in production for longer than the 2 dr, had the exact same mechanical package as the Sierra, but with minor suspension tweaks.
When the Sapphire 4×4 was launched, power increased from 204 to 220HP, to mitigate the increased weight & drag.
The Escort installation added another 4HP.
The Sapphire, and then the Escort, along with other 4×4 Fords of the time used a Fergusson 4×4 system, but Ford’s own gearboxes. The MT75, MTX75 was a range of gearboxes used in RWD (Sierra, Transit, Granada/Scorpio) and FWD (Escort, Focus, Mondeo, X-Type) applications. The MT75 was not a Fergusson gearbox.
The Mk1/2 RWD Escorts has competition pedigree, largely lost with the move to FWD, the thrashyness is largely attributed to the CVH engines. The Mk5 had a lacklustre platform and initially retained these engines.
The Mk5 was also criticised as it took some time for any “hot” variants to be introduced; the CVH powered 1.6i S being very disappointing, sharing the somewhat date Mk4 XR3i’s powerplant, but with added weight and far from market leading dynamics. The 1.8 Zetec 105PS XR3i didn’t do much to help.

Hans de Silva
Hans de Silva
5 years ago

Why didn’t you mention the fact that there were two versions, the first BIG Turbo model and the second small Turbo one buth with less lag obviously…?

Chris Rowles
Chris Rowles
5 years ago

A great read and well written first article. Good to see some 90’s ‘Cool Britannia’ on Petrolicious!

Ae Neuman
Ae Neuman
5 years ago
Reply to  Chris Rowles

indeed, all it needs are better photos.

Martin Philippo
Martin Philippo
5 years ago
Reply to  Chris Rowles

Better photos???