TWENTY-FIVE years ago the Ford Escort XR3i and Vauxhall Astra GTE were synonymous with villains and boy racers, but can they still cut it among today’s hot rides? Ex-MI5 boss Jonathan Evans and the Met’s former anti-terrorism chief Peter Clarke put their foot down
Vauxhall Astra GTE 16V
SO, IT’S Vauxhall Astra versus Ford Escort. Luton versus Dagenham. Luton, the spiritual home of Vauxhall, has a big international following. I can remember several Middle Eastern security types wanting to talk to me about Luton when I ran MI5’s counterterrorist branch in the 1990s.
I never had similar questions about the spiritual home of Ford. Maybe the tourist board had been underpromoting the delights of Dagenham in its overseas marketing campaigns.
So, who drives which car in our test? We toss a coin and I’m pleased to get the Astra GTE 16V — the fastest hot hatch of its day.
It’s not a big car — roughly the same length as the latest Corsa — but with a double overhead cam 2-litre engine that delivers 148bhp its performance is very convincing, reaching 60mph in about seven seconds and topping out at more than 130mph. It delivers that performance in a controlled way. The gearbox is easy to use, the handling is neat, even the soundtrack is engaging.
By comparison, the Ford feels a bit of a tearaway, and one that has nowhere like the same power at its disposal.
The GTE’s styling also aims for greater sophistication than that of the Escort XR3i. The white wheel trims are not everyone’s cup of tea but little details such as the twin exhausts, headlight washers and smart badging give the impression that this is a rather more upmarket offering than the Ford.
Inside, the Astra’s seats are comfortable, with a wide range of adjustment; the noise is reasonably well suppressed, while still letting you hear what is going on; and the trim quality is higher than in the Ford, where it is all too easy to knock something off (as I learnt when adjusting the door mirrors). The GTE came equipped with a fully digital display as standard. On the test car this worked pretty well, though the very simple Ford dash seemed easier to use.
The most obvious difference in driving the two cars is that the Astra has power steering. At low speeds the Ford can put up a bit of a fight, although once you are on your way it is easy enough to manoeuvre. The Astra is not overassisted, so it retains feel, but you are saved the hard work when parking. The only downside of the Astra is that the ride can be a bit unforgiving. This is not a great surprise on a hot hatch, but Ford judges the ride-handling balance a bit better than Vauxhall. Overall the Astra offers a faster, more complete and more modern driving experience than the XR3i, though the simplicity and authenticity of the Ford have a definite appeal.
There is no doubt that the natural habitat of both these cars is Essex, so we made a pilgrimage from Dagenham, in east London, to Thurrock along the A13. Arriving at Lakeside shopping centre I realised both the retail complex and the GTE date from the same year — 1990. Was this just a spooky coincidence or was someone trying to tell us something? Whatever the truth of that, one thing was clear: the Astra GTE has weathered the passing years much better than Lakeside. Jonathan Evans
- Price: £14,821 (when new)
- Engine: 1998cc
- Power: 148bhp
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Performance: 0-60mph: 7.4sec
- Top Speed: 135mph
Ford Escort XR3i
I HAVE always been ambivalent about the Ford Escort. Perhaps I was biased by bad experiences. In the 1970s I can reveal — and I realise I run the risk of being badly misunderstood here — that I twice hired Escorts. On one occasion a fan belt broke on the M6. The following year, in the Lake District, a head-on collision with a car on the wrong side of a narrow road put a dent not only in the Escort but also in my student holiday budget.
Later, in 1987, I was a detective in the East End of London. Hoxton was not the trendy area teeming with edgy bars, art galleries and hipster beards that it is now. In those days it was tougher and poorer. Many of the locals still regretted that the Krays no longer ruled the streets. “The twins kept the troublemakers under control,” they would say without a hint of irony.
One evening in Hoxton a man was deliberately run down by a bright red Escort XR3i and suffered terrible injuries. We tracked down the vehicle and driver. He went to jail and his car went to the police pound. There it mysteriously ignited. A revenge arson attack or spontaneous combustion? We never really got to the bottom of it, but it did nothing to improve my view of cheap-and-cheerful Fords.
So from the East End in the 1980s to Dagenham in 2015 to test an XR3i and an Astra GTE — not quite Life on Mars but a chance to step back a few automotive years. Both cars were in immaculate condition, and the irony that as a competitor to the Volkswagen Golf the car I drove was put together in Germany was not lost on me.
To be fair, it wasn’t really a fair fight between these cars. The Astra was younger and fitter. It was also quicker, slicker, naughtier and more fun to drive. With a mere 105bhp the Escort was no real match, but then nor was it designed to be. Yet something about the Escort made it very popular in its day — particularly with thieves. It’s hard to say exactly why; certainly they weren’t being stolen for ram-raiding or pulling doughnuts in supermarket car parks. The car wasn’t up to that.
More likely the culprits were villains who fancied something tasty in which to take their girlfriend to Clacton for some jellied eels, or for a weekend outing to a static caravan on the Isle of Sheppey. The XR3i may have been basically an updated version of an older model, but it was a bit flashier and a bit racier — and that made all the difference.
It was also competitively priced (a new one cost just £6,278 in 1986) — that is, for those who bothered to buy and insure their own vehicle rather than steal other people’s. The best thing about the XR3i, though, was that it could be more things to more people. It’s a sensible, small family saloon that’s stylish, comfortable and good to drive. If a lot of XR3i drivers seemed to behave badly back then, it certainly wasn’t the car that was to blame. Peter Clarke
- Price: £6,278 (when new)
- Engine: 1597cc
- Power: 105bhp
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Performance: 118mph