Sport compact cars have come a long way since the days when they were warmed-over econoboxes. We’re now spoiled with fire-breathing, 300-plus horsepower compacts that’ll rip a new one to genuine high-performance machines, cars like the current Honda Civic Type R or the I’m-still-hanging-in-there Subaru WRX STI.
The new breed of high-performance compacts is so good, that when we get behind the wheel of an older-generation pocket rocket, we typically tend to be disappointed by how slow and not all that well put together it actually is.
There are, however, some exceptions to that rule.
Take the Ford Escort RS Cosworth from the early 1990s, for instance. Back in its heyday, it was regarded as one of the best hot hatchbacks money could buy. It was so good, fast and dangerous, that insurance companies in Europe actually tried to kill it. And they kind of succeeded.
Curious to find out if it can still hold a candle to the current crop of super-quick small hatchbacks and sedans, I took one out for a spin under a diluvian downpour, its natural habitat.
I’m here to tell you that even 26 years later, the “Cossie” is still up there among the automotive greats.
(Full disclosure: The opportunity to drive a 1996 Ford Escort RS Cosworth came from the same Canadian Jalopnik reader that let me drive his Renault Clio V6. He basically emailed me and asked me if I wanted to review his Escort.)
Released for mostly the British and European markets, the Ford Escort RS Cosworth was, yes, a homologation special born out of Group A rally racing, but was also developed for Group N, where it saw the most success. It followed in the footsteps of the equally intense Ford Sierra Cosworth, and it’s the precursor to the Ford Focus RS we know and love today.
In case you still don’t know what Cosworth is, it’s a British performance arm that has a rich heritage of developing high-performance engines for–ahem–Formula One cars. The outfit basically built the entire engine for this go-fast Escort.
Mechanically, the car was a direct evolution of the Sierra Cosworth, but with the addition of all-wheel drive. However, because the fifth-generation Euro-spec Escort was built on the principle of a front-wheel-drive layout, a lot had to be done to the car to accommodate the new drivetrain.
For instance, this little Escort’s entire floor pan had to be re-engineered for the longitudinally mounted engine. Its front and rear tracks had to be widened, and a new body, with flared wheel arches, had to be designed to fit the wider, stiffer structure.
The car was also fitted with one of the most batshit insane rear wings to have ever been grafted onto the trunk of a production automobile. Just look at it:
There were actually two variations of the road-legal Escort RS, both powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four good for a claimed 224 HP and a dead equal 224 lb-ft of torque. All that power would be transferred to a rear-bias all-wheel-drive system via a five-speed manual gearbox.
Early cars (1992 to 1994) had a reputation of being quite visceral due to their direct implication in rallying. To meet FIA regulations, the road cars were fitted with a larger turbocharger, which led to massive turbo lag and a much more violent rush of power when it kicked in.
Later models, like the one you see here, had a smaller and “tamer” turbocharging setup for road use.
No matter which turbo your Escort RS Cosworth had, Ford claimed it could sprint to 60 mph from a standstill in roughly 5.7 seconds, which is very quick, even by today’s standards.
In the early 1990s, rally racing gave birth to a full plethora of high-tech, turbocharged machines, especially from the Japanese, with cars like the Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru STI and Toyota Celica GT-Four. The Escort RS Cosworth was Europe’s way of fighting back.
The car was just as high tech as its Asian rivals, except it had a Ford badge, which made it appear like a genuine home-team effort for British fans. This version of the Escort was of course, not sold in America, nor was rally racing as popular west of the Atlantic ocean. But in Europe it was the textbook definition of the Win on Sunday, sell on Monday ethos, showcasing Ford’s flourished experience in racing.
The Cossie was also a clear indication that Ford’s European division could manufacture much more interesting small cars than America ever could, which explains why we eventually got the European-made Focus and Fiesta.
Although the Escort Cosworth was hand-built in limited numbers (7,145 cars in total), it sold rather well, especially in England, where it garnered a solid fan base of enthusiasts who re-baptized it The Cossie. Sadly, high insurance premiums and noise emissions regulations forced Ford to stop production in 1996.
The car you see here is the one that matters the most. Not only is it a ’96 car, only ten Zinc Yellow examples were ever produced.
When Rob contacted me to drive his car, he didn’t yet have it in his possession. The story behind how I got my ass behind the wheel of this thing is a case of two grown-up kids wanting to have a bit of fun.
Rob bought his Cossie from a special importer in Halifax, Nova Scotia where it was shipped by boat from France. His plan was to drive up there, pick up the car, and haul it back to Toronto in a trailer. Since he was road-tripping through the province of Quebec to get home, Rob and I arranged to meet up during his journey.
However, because his car was still not inspected, insured or registered for Canadian roads, the only place I could legally drive the Escort was at a racetrack. Luckily, Sanair wasn’t too far off his route, so I made a few phone calls and we agreed to meet there.
At this point, I will say that I’m a very lucky man. People contact me to drive their cool old cars, and I get paid by Jalopnik for doing so. I can’t complain.
But as much fun as it is, doing this sometimes feels unreal, and at times scary, to be honest, especially in this case, where the car in question had never actually been driven by anyone on North American soil. Not even its damn owner! “What if I wreck this generous man’s precious,” I thought.
Rob was basically unwrapping his birthday gift in front of my eyes, which made things even more stressful in my case.
We were both so shit-pants excited that a life-sized Ford Escort Cosworth, a car we had only seen in Gran Turismo or old Top Gear videos, was sitting right there before our eyes, that we both didn’t really think about what could go wrong. We just wanted to drive the hell out of this thing.
Needless to say, our man Rob trusted me with his latest jewel which looked absolutely pristine in the wet. The car had some slight aftermarket bolt-ons from the Wolf Cars parts catalog in Europe (this is not a Wolf Escort), but all of it looked legit, especially the period-correct 17-inch OZ wheels, which gave it the kind of rally car stance you want from a Cosworth.
After Rob performed a quick run around the track in his car, he threw me the keys so I could have a go at it. As I said: unreal.
Nitpicking flaws on a car that you’ve long dreamed of driving is very difficult.
By default, you tend to love everything about the vehicle, and globally speaking, the Escort Cosworth is just ass kick-ass as you’d imagine it to be. It still feels fresh and fun, even today.
But I was still let down by a few things. The shift lever is incredibly sloppy for a high-performance machine such as this. Yes, I was expecting it to feel worn down being a 23-year-old machine, but it’s just an awful thing to row around, with no precision whatsoever.
Reading reviews from back in the day revealed that the Ferguson gearbox was, in fact, an issue even when the car was new.
This means that you can’t be too rough with it. Instead, casually take your time to dump the otherwise heavy clutch, and carefully make sure your desired cog is engaged before going all out on the throttle. To be honest, I’ve felt much better shift action from an early ’60s Honda S600.
I was also, sadly, quite let down by the sound of this car’s engine. There’s really nothing engaging about the way it sings its music. Sure, it generates a lot of power, and there’s immense flexibility in its powerband. But except for some chirps and spools emitted from the turbocharger, the Cossie sounds rather lame and agricultural.
Because this is basically a race car for the road, it’s a loud and stiff car that requires a lot of attention when driving it.
That said, because we are after all talking about an Escort, this car is actually quite good at taking on the everyday stuff. Step inside its economy car interior, and except for some added boost gauges and a pair of retro-cool Recaro leather seats, it’s all the ho-hum switchgear you’d expect from a small European car of that era.
Except, build quality is significantly better than the lame Escort we North Americans were stuck with.
It also has a fairly large trunk, given its hatchback configuration. Fine, there’s a spare tire occupying most of the space back there, but if you remove it, and lower the rear seats, you end up with 40 cubic-feet of total room. That’s actually more than a Toyota C-HR crossover (36.4 cubic feet). Well shit.
So yes, the Cossie is practical enough to carry some grocery bags or even some small furniture, as long as you don’t get a flat tire. A rear seat and all-wheel-drive also means you could daily drive this thing with friends year-round without too much worry.
Obviously, this is why the Escort Cosworth was built, and why you came here to read about it. Yes, folks, as expected, this thing is fast as hell, handles impeccably well, and will slap a big giant smile on your face along the way.
But what I didn’t expect is how much it still rips for an old car.
I drive a lot of vehicles for my job, and this summer, I’ve sat my wide frame inside everything, from a second-generation Acura NSX to a McLaren 600LT, yet, this little Escort is still up there among the biggest thrills of reviewing cars this year.
The Cossie was fitted with a set of Michelin Pilot Sport tires, good rubber under a warm sun, but not ideal when there’s two inches of water underneath them.
Grip was an issue, but even if the car had a tendency to slide out under load, its lightweight chassis and all-wheel drive system proved remarkable in these conditions. Apply throttle upon corner exit, and the 34/66 front/rear power split allows the entire car to gracefully slide outwards until the front wheels grab on to straighten everything out.
Meanwhile, that enormous early ’90s circular object Ford called a steering wheel communicates every little secret the front wheels are trying to keep from you through that hydraulic pump. If only it didn’t sit so upright in front of my face, it would be the perfect setup.
The Cossie never really scares you, but rather helps you get the perfect apex each time, almost as if it has already traced it out. It’s like that trusted companion who’s always ready to follow you on your crazy, drunken adventures.
At this point I was darting down Sanair’s full-mile back straight full steam, with the urgent little turbo engine providing plenty of puff all the way to its 6,500-redline, rain flying off that gargantuan wing.
While, sure, the engine never sounds all that exciting, it’s actually quite rev-happy once you get past the turbo lag, which remains very apparent even though this is the more “toned down” version. I can only imagine what the “big turbo” cars must feel like.
But the surge of power is strong and constant. It’s also a loud car when beating on it hard. Yes, you hear the whooshes, and the chirps from the turbo engine, but also the entire drivetrain doing its thing underneath you as differentials, a driveshaft, and a transfer case apply their magic.
By the time I had reached the end of that straightaway, I was doing well over 110 mph. I pressed the hard clutch down to the floor, slammed in fourth gear with the long, dangling shifter, and jumped on the brakes, which felt just as strong as what you’d get in a modern Golf R.
Obviously, the Ford Escort RS Cosworth is a very sought-after automobile, so don’t expect it to come in cheap. The good news is that some left-hand-drive cars did make it stateside, so you can find a good bunch of clean ones for sale on sites like Bring a Trailer.
Pricing will vary depending on year, color and mileage, with the earlier, big turbo cars retaining more value. The rarer colors, like this Zinc Yellow example, still hang up there among the most expensive ones you can find. Fair-looking Cossies will hang around the $40,000 mark, with pristine, rare, low-mileage models climbing up closer to $80,000.
And yes, chances are their value will continue to climb given their historical significance, both for Ford and the sport of rallying. Anything from the nineties related to the WRC is a collectible now.
I know what you’re thinking, that Clavey drove an Escort RS Cosworth, says it’s good, because everyone else says it’s good.
That’s only half true.
Yes, I did come at the Escort wanting to love it, because yes, like all of you, I grew up watching Jeremy Clarkson rambling about how great his Cossie was. If it wasn’t that, it was the slew of online videos showing the damn thing ripping apart rally stages. You’re right—I was expecting the Escort RS Cosworth to kick serious ass.
What I didn’t expect was to get behind the wheel of an automobile that’s a quarter of a century old, beat the crap out of it in the wet, and come out of it feeling just as fresh as I do out of a modern sports car.
Sure your Honda Civic Type R can connect to your Spotify playlist, and your Golf R is as comfortable as an Audi, but those cars will never make you feel as connected to a machine as this old Cossie.
It’s like an old man, sipping his beer at the bar, just waiting to pick a fight with the next kid that’ll piss him off. And he’ll probably win, too.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.