When the XR2 debuted, the Mk1 Fiesta was already five years old. It had received surprisingly few changes during that time: new trim levels (cheaper Popular and Popular Plus and the mid-level GL) for 1980; new black bumpers for all models in 1981 and an optional 1100 Economy package that sought to improve fuel consumption with taller gearing, a variable-venturi carburetor, and vacuum-triggered economy and upshift lights; and for 1982, 13-inch wheels for the Fiesta S and softer suspensions for most models except the XR2. There was also a lengthy series of special editions with unique trim and extra equipment.
While the Mk1 Fiesta was still selling briskly (total production had passed the 2 million unit mark in 1981), it was competing in an increasingly crowded segment. Compared to newer rivals like the Fiat Uno, Peugeot 205, and Austin/MG Metro (which displaced the Fiesta from its position as Britain’s best-selling car), the Fiesta was starting to look its age.
In the fall of 1983, Ford unveiled the Mk2 Fiesta. The Mk2 occupied the hazy middle ground between facelift and all-new car, featuring a slightly wider, somewhat longer body (on an unchanged wheelbase) and freshened styling. The revised body tidied up the Fiesta’s dated aerodynamics — although the new car’s 0.40 Cd was still unimpressive for the mid-eighties — and provided space in the engine bay for Ford’s new SOHC CVH engine, which was gradually replacing the five-bearing pushrod Kent. Also added with the revamp were a faster steering ratio, standard 13-inch wheels, and an optional five-speed gearbox borrowed from the FWD Escort.
The three-bearing “Valencia” pushrod fours continued for low-line Mk2 Fiestas, although the 957 cc (58 cu. in.) versions were consolidated into one and the 1,117 cc (68 cu. in.) engine was retuned for greater torque at some cost in power. Both engines now had Ford’s variable-venturi carburetor, which was supposed to provide better fuel economy. Shortly after launch, there was also a 1,608 cc (98 cu. in.) diesel with 54 PS (40 kW). A new Fiesta 1300 with a 1,296 cc (79 cu. in.) CVH engine and 69 PS DIN (51 kW) followed in the spring of 1984, although this was to be short-lived. It was replaced in 1986 by a 74 PS (54 kW) 1,392 cc (85 cu. in.) “lean burn” engine with a narrower bore, a longer stroke, and the ability to run at air-fuel mixtures of around 18:1 in the interests of lower emissions.
With the Mk2, Ford attempted to improve the Fiesta’s ride, which had come in for a fair amount of criticism. The results were not wholly successful: The Mk2 Fiesta’s ride was still busy, although better sound insulation made it quieter than before. Some testers also complained that the combination of greater body lean and lighter, quicker steering made the Fiesta feel more nervous in sudden maneuvers than its actual dynamics merited. It was nonetheless one of the better-handling cars in its class, if not on the same level as the Peugeot 205.
In all, the Mk2 Fiesta remained a mid-pack performer whose greatest single virtue was Ford’s attention to minor details. The Fiesta, particularly in Ghia trim, was what an average buyer might term “a nice little car,” with a reasonably quiet cabin, pleasant trim, and good ergonomics. The smaller Metro was better packaged, a Honda Civic was faster, and the Peugeot 205 had the better chassis, but the Fiesta was a respectable compromise.
FORD FIESTA XR2 MK2
The Mk2 Fiesta XR2 debuted in May 1984. Again the work of SVE, the new XR2 was much like its predecessor, but traded the 1,598 cc (98 cu. in.) Kent for the newer 1,596 cc (97 cu. in.) CVH engine. This engine, previously seen in the recently superseded Escort XR3, had a single Weber carburetor rather than the Bosch K-Jetronic injection of the latest Escort XR3i, but still boasted 96 PS DIN (71 kW) and 98 lb-ft (133 N-m) of torque, useful improvements over the previous XR2. A five-speed gearbox and gas shocks were standard equipment.
With additional power and little-changed curb weight, the new XR2 promised sprightly performance: Ford claimed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 8.7 seconds a top speed of 112 mph (180 km/h). Independent testers again found those figures hard to replicate, concluding that the new XR2 was not substantially quicker than its predecessor. While the CVH engine’s overhead camshaft and hemispherical combustion chambers theoretically made it a freer-breathing, higher-revving engine than the pushrod Kent, the OHC four’s muscle was concentrated at significantly higher engine speeds, which meant it had to be pushed harder to extract the same performance. Worse, the CVH engine was none too pleasant when you really applied the spurs; the word “thrashy” appears frequently in contemporary reviews.
In other respects, the XR2’s personality hadn’t changed. The ride was incrementally softer, though still far from supple, but the crisp turn-in and cornering grip that had made the first car a favorite of boy racers were undiminished. Automotive reviewers tended to prefer the Peugeot 205GTi, which had a sweeter engine and an even sharper chassis, but the Peugeot’s more neutral balance could be a double-edged sword; the Ford was less likely to bite back, at least as long as the road was relatively smooth. The XR2’s aggressive persona (combined with Ford’s considerable marketing muscle) kept the Fiesta a consistently strong player in this class, if not the frontrunner.
THE PARTY CONTINUES
The Mk2 Fiesta remained on sale into 1989, when it was replaced by the all-new third-generation car. Total production for the Mk1 and Mk2 Fiesta was more than 4.9 million units, which represents a very respectable average of more than 400,000 units a year, with peaks approaching half a million. That’s about what Ford anticipated during the Fiesta’s development, so it appears that despite the initial fears, the company eventually got its money’s worth.
The Fiesta is now one of Ford’s longest-lived nameplates. Many of its original rivals are long gone, and while today newer models fill most of the same roles, the fact that Ford has kept the Fiesta name for almost four decades says a great deal about its success in this class. Its critical standing has fluctuated over the years and it’s no longer no small as it once was (the recent U.S.-market four-door sedan is about the size of a Mk2 Cortina), but the Fiesta remains one of the benchmarks of the B-segment.
That might not be a sexy achievement or the sort of thing that gets much recognition from automotive historians, but it is nonetheless a considerable one. Entering a new market segment, especially one that requires a heavy investment in new technology, isn’t easy under the best of circumstances. Over the years, many companies have fallen on their faces in the attempt, and when the company makes the move reluctantly, the potential for disaster is great.