Motoring / Road Test: Motoring: Second time lucky: The first Ford Escort Cosworth was great. The new one is better, says Brett Fraser

Damn joyriders and the insurance companies. If it was not for them, more of us would be able to have a Ford Escort RS Cosworth. And then what fun we would have - especially now there is a new, improved version.

If you read any of the rave reviews of the Cosworth when it was launched in May 1992, you might wonder how it could be improved. Well, the biggest problem with the original (and with the Sierra Cosworth that preceded it), was a phenomenon called turbo lag. You would floor the throttle pedal - and then have to wait. Before its turbocharger reached operating speed, the Cosworth was as perky as a grizzly bear on the first morning after hibernation. Then - zammo] - the turbo would suddenly do its thing.

The annoying thing is that Ford could have avoided the problem from day one if it had not set its sights on winning the World Rally Championship. A rally car, like a racing saloon, has to be based on a production car - so manufacturers such as Ford build a suitable production car as the basis of the rally car. Which is why the original Escort Cosworth had a big turbocharger to produce massive power at high engine speeds.

But a big turbocharger takes a while to wind itself up. This is fine in a rally car, but a pain in everyday road driving.

The new Cosworth has a 'small' turbo. The peak power and torque figures, and the 0-60mph time and top speed, are the same as for the old car. But now, when you squeeze the throttle into the carpet, there is hardly any gap before you get the full benefit of 227bhp.

As a result, the new Cosworth blitzes away from the 'big turbo' car in normal driving conditions. There is no question of guessing when the turbo is going to come on song while overtaking, no need to use embarrassing amounts of revs to out-accelerate double- decker buses from the traffic lights. This is a much easier car to drive than its predecessor, and considerably faster: on an empty, twisting country road, a Porsche 911 would struggle to stay in touch.

Apart from modifications to the engine (which include a vastly more sophisticated computerised engine-management system), Ford claims to have made no mechanical changes. Strange, because the new Cosworth steers with more accuracy and finesse than before, and handles with a new delicacy. In part this is down to the fitting of a different tyre (Pirelli P-Zero), but that cannot be the whole answer. Why the Cosworth is now much more rewarding remains a mystery, for which we must be thankful.

Some people will also be thankful that it is now possible to buy a Cosworth without the outrageous rear wing. Frankly, this is false modesty: the bodywork is littered with so many scoops, grilles, bulges and add-ons that it could never be mistaken for an ordinary Escort. Besides, a Cosworth without the wing is like the Statue of Liberty without her torch.

Inside there is now a driver's side airbag as standard, with the option of one for the passenger. The safety theme continues with reshaped front seats, to prevent you sliding from underneath the seat belts ('submarining') in a head-on accident, and belts that automatically tighten briefly in a crash. And there is now a more sophisticated alarm/immobiliser fitted as standard.

Though it has been a long one, the wait for the 'small turbo' Cosworth has been worth it; the car is safer, faster and more enjoyable to drive. It is how the Escort should have been in the first place.

SPECIFICATIONS

Ford Escort RS Cosworth, pounds 24,775

Engine: 1,993cc, four cylinders, turbocharged, 227bhp at 5,750rpm. Five-speed gearbox, full-time four-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 140mph, 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds. Consumption 21-30mpg.

COMPARISONS

Subaru Impreza Turbo, pounds 17,499

Four-wheel-drive Subaru is more understated and far less expensive than the Cosworth, but almost as fast. Dowdy, flimsy interior. But even with an optional suspension package to sharpen its handling, it is still cheaper than the Cosworth.

Toyota Celica GT-Four, pounds 29,235

The coupe Toyota is hot on the Cosworth's heels in acceleration and has a higher top speed. Phenomenal roadholding, too. Shame about the price.

Lancia Delta Integrale, pounds 25,000

Available to special order only from selected Fiat dealers. As fast as the Cosworth, and a more involving drive. Looks the business as well. Pity it will not be in production for long.

(Photograph omitted)

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