Car reviews - Ford - Laser - SR 5-dr hatch
Appearance, performance, road manners
Room for improvement
Lack of standard equipment, rear seat safety omissions, fan operation
24 Aug 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
DROPPING the slow-selling Mondeo, losing the Festiva replacement to Kia (sold here as the Rio) and finding no joy with the lacklustre KA at the entry level has, not surprisingly, jolted Ford Australia into action with the Laser.
And a lot is being asked of the car Ford has shared with Mazda for the past 20 years.
No longer can its appeal be restricted to small-car shoppers. There is light segment clientele to consider. Patrons are after a medium build.
But there is an answer, too, a tantalising sports theme Ford is now using to increase Laser's desirability and get more people through the showroom doors.
While both Ford and Mazda have used the arrival of a 2.0-litre engine to offer the Laser/323 five-door hatch with a glamorous suit of armour, the Blue Oval has gone a step further by offering bark without the bite in the form of the 1.8-litre SR.
The Laser SR gains most of the evocative body adornments found on the SR2, including skirts, side rocker mouldings, a large high-mounted rear spoiler and big-bore chrome exhaust tip.
The 15-inch alloy rims exposing the disc brakes and callipers, despite looking a size too small, also do their bit to prompt an approving glance from would-be boy racers.
And, really, it's this combination of aggressive looks and the current generation's bias toward handling that perhaps makes the SR, and the SR2, the most complete Laser we've seen since the KN model was introduced a little over two years ago.
Mums and dads will not be pleased with the lack of refinement, particularly given sound-deadening measures in the latest upgrade aimed to rid Laser of the affliction. They will find the SR lacks ride comfort, too.
Yet this incarnation of Laser might be just what their sons and daughters had wanted.
This is the corner of the market where image is everything and sacrifices must be made. Going down the SR route, for example, means the buyer will forgo conveniences found standard in the similarly priced GLXi hatch - items like power windows, power external mirrors, remote locking, illuminated entry and front maplights.
On the inside, there's also nothing to separate SR from GLXi. White instrument faces - the signature of today's cheap image cars - is reserved for SR2, while the metallic finish to dash fascia is shared with both SR2 and GLXi.
It is all quite agreeable inside, apart from the half-hearted attempt to improve the fiddly heating and ventilation controls. As ever, the dash is uncluttered and appealing in its design. Instruments are legible, storage facilities in abundance and a CD stereo - a model for user-friendliness - par for the course. All good, clean, functional "Mazda" stuff.
We deplore gimmickry, however the SR should have been endowed with a more exclusive cabin fit-out to make it seem every bit as comforting as the GLXi.
Despite being trimmed in velour and offering seat cushion height and angle adjustment, the front pews would be better served with more support, bolstering and full-seat height adjustment. The steering wheel could be a three-spoker or wrapped in leather. The manual shifter could be something other than a Mazda spare part.
Were Laser's performance and road manners nothing out of the ordinary, we could dismiss the SR outright as just another poseur. But we have come to know the fifth generation Laser as one that rewards an enthusiastic driver.
If anything, the latest efforts to strengthen the body and suspension have improved vehicle dynamics further.
Though firm at all times, the Laser ride provides plenty of control and poise, while the 195/50 tyres on 15-inch rims give the SR an even sharper steering response than the run-of-the-mill Laser and a little more grip through corners.
The rubber creates an awful din on most surfaces, however, adding to the noise created by the suspension, the engine at higher revs and the wheel arches across gravel or works in progress.
Yet while the Laser lacks the civility of rivals such as the Holden Astra, its 1.8-litre engine has plenty of verve and produces more power (92kW at 6000rpm) and torque (163Nm at 4000rpm) than most in this class.
The raspy 1.8 provides excellent acceleration when allowed to rev and good bottom-end and mid-range pulling power when the going is more relaxed. Gear ratios are well spaced and the manual shift action, while not the most precise of its species, is light and works well in conjunction with the clutch.
In terms of braking, the front and rear discs show excellent resistance to fade, and the brake pedal good response, though the relegation of anti-lock brakes to the options list is disappointing.
The rest of the Laser hatch package finds a reasonable amount of room and comfort for two rear-seat passengers and good versatility with the double-folding 60/40-split rear bench seat. It's no genuine mid-sizer but, as we've identified, this is a car that requires compromises to be made.
The cargo area itself is narrow, child seat tether straps will eat into luggage space when employed and the underfloor compartment holds a standard GLXi 14-inch steel rim with a 185/65 R14 tyre.
There's also no head restraint or three-point belt for the centre-rear seating position.
Though SR broadens the Laser appeal, Ford has a tough job ahead of it convincing even the most carefree buyer that the comparable GLXi - with all the electric goodies now thrown in - is not the wiser purchase.
But let's not kid ourselves, either, about the allure of a great-looking body.
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