Ford's corporate fingers are now crossed in the hope that the Probe, which goes on sale next month, can revive the old magic. Much will depend on reactions to the sleek shape. To quote Ian McAllister, Ford's top man in Britain: 'This type of car must have what my American colleagues call 'eyeball'.'
Ford's styling team for this joint venture with Mazda (whose MX-6 coupe serves as the basis of the Probe) was directed by Mimi Vandermolen, a Dutch/Canadian in her late forties. It was clear after I had covered only 50 miles in the car that she has succeeded in giving it eyeball: the reaction was enthusiastic.
The not-so-good news is that, unlike the Capri, the Probe cannot claim to be a coupe with the interior space to qualify as a family car. Only two people can be carried in comfort. Adjusting the driver's seat to my demands left a gap of little more than three inches for the knees of a passenger in the rear. However, big windows prevent the interior from feeling claustrophobic, and the boot can swallow 14cu ft of luggage - although heavy items have to be heaved over a sill high enough to challenge a pole-vaulter.
There is little to complain about from the driver's viewpoint. The cloth-trimmed seat's adjustment enables you to get comfortable behind a steering wheel the hub of which incorporates cruise control buttons and an airbag.
Budget shoppers can choose the 2.0-litre, 115bhp version, for which Ford claims 0-60mph in just over 10 seconds and a top speed of 127mph; it handles very well, and is expected to cost pounds 2,500-pounds 3,000 less than the version I drove.
Wider, squatter tyres are among the few external clues to the top-of-the-range model. Built by Mazda, the 2.5-litre, 24-valve V6 produces 165bhp and will rev all the way to the 8,000rpm mark - if you are keen to remind yourself what Japanese engineering is all about. The engine is complemented by a very smooth, light, precise gearbox, the only quibble being that fifth is too low for really long-legged motorway cruising.
A high maximum speed is of little interest nowadays, but crowded roads make the ability to overtake safely more important than ever. The V6 Probe is not the swiftest in its class, but it accelerates fast enough to make progress risk-free.
Its alloy wheels with 7in rims are shod with Michelin Pilote 225/50 tyres. They provide a tremendous amount of grip, but make a lot of noise on coarse surfaces. The low-profile tyres explain why this Probe's ride is appreciably firmer and less comfortable than its 2.0-litre stablemate's. But keen drivers will like the poise, agility and balance, and the delightfully fluid, confident cornering.
This is a good car - no doubt about that; but will it appeal to Capri fans? I put that question to John Partridge, a 39-year-old technical sales rep from Stafford. He has owned six Capris and clocked more than 300,000 trouble-free miles since buying the first for pounds 1,600 in the mid-Seventies. His pride and joy - 'I will never sell it' - is one of the last batch of Capri 280s, built just before production stopped.
He said: 'My initial reaction to the Probe was rather indifferent, to be honest, but that changed after a few miles at the wheel. It's far nicer to drive than I'd expected, although the steering feels a bit too sensitive after the Capri. One of the interesting things is that, despite the Mazda connection, there's a very definite Ford feel to the Probe. Will it become a real classic like the Capri? That probably depends on how long it remains in production.'
Ford Probe 24v, about pounds 20,000
Engine: 2,497cc V6, 165bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 133mph, 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds, 23mpg.
Vauxhall Calibra V6, pounds 19,870
Sensational styling, excellent aerodynamics, four usable seats and a good boot contributed to the Calibra's initial success. Assets now include an impressive 2.5-litre engine. Has an obvious edge on the Probe in terms of looks and space. Volkswagen Corrado VR6, pounds 19,998
Lacks the Probe's sleek shape, but beats it under most other headings. One of the world's finest engines goes with an equally superb chassis and a quite practical body. The best of the bunch for pure driving pleasure.
Rover 220i Turbo, pounds 18,790
The price is attractive and the 2.0-litre, 197bhp engine delivers blistering straight-line performance. Ride, handling and other facets of the well-equipped Rover's character are less appealing.
BMW 325i, pounds 22,659
Another step up the price ladder, but a front-running contender if the budget can be stretched a little. Elegant rather than extrovert styling complements a delectable six-cylinder engine which blends vivid performance with surprising economy.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content