Scorpio's surprise attack

The new Ford looks weird but is a classy car, says James May ROAD TEST

Andrew McColm, Ford's product development man, was being remarkably candid at the launch of the new Scorpio. "Nearly every Ford designer had a go at this one," he said. Most of the motoring press has retorted that that much is obvious.

Ford, the champion of cars as consumer white goods, is changing its tune, and the Scorpio is the first fruit of this. Future Fords, the thinking goes, will have strong family identity, like BMWs, and there will be an emphasis on individuality and straightforward pleasure of ownership. The first completely new Ford to espouse this thinking will be the 1998 Escort, but until then we must make do with this month's substantial revisions of the current Escort and the Scorpio. "This is the way Ford wants to go," says Mr McColm.

The Scorpio is really a facelift of the dependable but dowdy Granada, and it is this that has compromised the "bold" styling. Most criticism has been levelled at the car's boss-eyed, gawping expression, though I find its face benign - much more successful than the similar treatment wrought on the front of the Mercedes S-class coups. The problem is that the core of the car - the cabin area - has remained essentially unchanged, so the old car's high waistline and slab sides stay. This gives the impression that the new, rounded nose has simply been stuck on, which it has. The car's most unfortunate aspect is its rear, where the single strip of lights has sunk to the bottom of the boot like cherries in a failed fruit cake. It looks too American.

The debate over whether the Scorpio's styling is revolutionary or plain revolting has tended to eclipse a more important question: is it any good? Aesthetics aside, the answer is yes. The restyled interior is a complete success, everything the driver could need (and more in higher spec versions) being repositioned in a Mondeo-style elliptical dash which has been, as Omar Khayyam would have put it, remoulded nearer to the heart's desire. The quality of plastics and switchgear is greatly improvedand the whole is surrounded with "ambience of burr walnut". Ford has to describe it thus because, of course, it is plastic, though each piece is individually "grained".

There are five engine options: a 2.0 8v carried over from the old model, a new 2.0 16v, 12 and 24v versions of the venerable Ford V6 and a 2.5- litre diesel for minicab operators. Saloon and estate versions will be available from launch, but the hatch has been dropped. In another pointer to the company's future stance, Ford's formerly baffling badging system has been reduced to three trim levels - Executive, Ghia and Ultima. Equipment is comprehensive and the interior is truly cavernous. In 24 guise, the Cosworth-built V6 has been uprated to 205bhp and, thus equipped, the Scorpio is fast, refined and sure-footed. But it is the 2.0 16v that is tipped to be the biggest seller and a head-on rival to the similarly powered Vauxhall Omega. This engineis a version of that found in the Escort RS2000. It is a much smoother and more flexible unit than the older eight-valve motor and endows the Scorpio with quite respectable performance while being a touch more refined than the 2.0-litre engine in the Omega.

The ride, however, is bested by the Vauxhall, though that's not to say that the Ford's is bad, simply that the Vauxhall's is exceptional. Revised front suspension and new bushings quieten the Scorpio and improve the steering feel, though it is stilla little soft. The interior, especially with the optional leather upholstery, is inviting and quite classy, while space - the fundamental requirement for comfort - is plentiful front and rear.

The new Scorpio is a huge improvement on the outgoingGranada. But will the styling catch on? The last time Ford tried something this radical, with the Sierra, it got its fingers burnt, though its convictions were vindicated as everyone adopted something like the Sierra's rounded form. Many Scorpios are likely to end up as business machines, and anyone who exchanges the old model for one of these is in for a surprise, one way or another.

SPECIFICATIONS

Ford Scorpio 2.0 16v £16,935

Engine: 1998cc, four cylinders, 134bhp at 63OOrpm. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox,

rear-wheel drive. Top speed 129mph, 0-62mph in 11.1 seconds. Fuel consumption 24-42mpg.

COMPARISONS

BMW 518i, £17,880

Widely considered to be the best drivers' car in the class, but in four- cylinder 1.8-litre form it's quite gutless.The six-cylinder 520i is the benchmark, but it's pricey compared with the Scorpio at £2O,550.Paucity of standard equipment and meagre

rear space are the 5-series' biggest let-downs.

Citron XM 2.0 16v SX, £16,315

The cleverest car in the class and much more radical than the Scorpio, both in terms of engineering and styling. It comes well equipped, rides very smoothly and rivals the Ford for space, but the 2.0-litre engine is a disappointment.

Mercedes-Benz E200, £21,610

This is the cheapest of the E-class range and its price seems all the more exorbitant when you compare its paltry equipment list with the Ford's. it is also painfully slow for a 2.0-litre car. However, your money buys you what is probably the world's best build quality.

Vauxhall Omega 2.0 16v Select

This is probably the best all-round version of the new Omega. It rides and handles very well and, like all new Vauxhalls, it is very solidly built.It's not quite as spacious as the Ford and the chunky interior is a little bland.

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