Car reviews - Ford - Laser - SR2 5-dr hatch
Engine performance, handling, seating versatility
Room for improvement
Lack of exclusivity, safety omissions, refinement
20 Jul 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
FORD Australia hasn't quite returned to the heady days of the TX3 Turbo 4WD, circa 1990, but its renewed focus on Laser - a result of dropping the slow-selling Mondeo and being left without a Festiva replacement for the interim - has at least injected some spirit into its small-car line-up.
Alas, there's no all-wheel drive, no 117kW twin-cam turbo and not much chance we'll see this latest portion of the long-running badge-engineering program with Mazda going hell for leather around Mount Panorama.
Yet Ford is nonetheless pursuing the hearts and minds of Australian youth with the SR2 Laser, producing a blend of appearance, performance and handling that hasn't been seen since, well, the turbo TX3.
There is, of course, an equivalent Mazda - the 323 Astina SP20 - that has as much, if not more, appeal than the Laser. It has a Nardi leather steering wheel to die for. A leather-bound gearshift. And superb, supportive front sports seats.
But there is something about a Blue Oval badge and a cheaper price - even if it's loose change, not big bickies, in this case - which prompts prospective buyers to don the blinkers.
Upon reaching the showroom floor, it will come as a rude surprise to some that Ford has used its excellent SR costume on two models - both the 2.0-litre SR2 and the 1.8 SR. It is a move designed to broaden Laser's appeal but at once it reduces the SR2's sting. Mazda has not made the same mistake.
For what it's worth, the body adornments are quite outstanding: squarish front bumper, 360-degree skirts, flared wheel arches, big-bore chrome exhaust, a large high-mounted rear wing. Great stuff.
Only the 16-inch rims could be said to give the SR2 more visual appeal than the lesser Laser - though that' debatable and, like the SR, the wheels tend to look rather small in the wheel arches.
It'sa similar story on the inside. Mazda has created a sense of occasion with its meagre but effective use of cowhide, brand names (Nardi), chrome on the door sills and genuine sports bucket seats that provide good ribcage and thigh support -not to mention a constant reminder that this is an exclusive SP20 experience.
Ford, on the other hand, has cut corners and looked to the Mazda spare parts department for its 'exclusivity'. The manual gearknob is a much more stylish bit of gear - ripped straight from a standard 323. The four-spoke steering wheel lacks sex and sensory appeal. The front pews have the same level of comfort and support as other Lasers - and that's not a compliment.
As found on the SP20, the SR2 has white-faced instrument dials that turn amber at night and become rather difficult to read at a glance. It has a nice, neat, fake metallic finish to the dash fascia that it must share with the Laser SR and GLXi. And, like all other Lasers, it has a single-disc CD stereo. The Mazda SP20 - using the same user-friendly head unit - adds a six-CD stacker to the mix.
There is, naturally, a plethora of mechanical and interior features that the Ford and Mazda clones share, not least of which is uprated engine performance that arrives courtesy of a 626-related 2.0-litre DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine.
Delivering 98kW of power at 6000rpm and 178Nm of torque at 4500rpm - and requiring premium unleaded petrol to deliver its best - the 2.0-litre engine revs smoothly, strongly (and noisily) to its 6500rpm redline and has excellent mid-range response.
It is discernibly quicker and gutsier than the 1.8, only starting to struggle when revs are low, gears are high and the road begins to steepen. A tighter cluster of gear ratios would be welcomed, though as it stands the five-speed manual gearshift has no great vice and works in fine concert with the engine.
Standard fitment of the uprated anti-lock brakes finally occurs at this level, the ABS/EBD system working well in emergency applications and the all-wheel disc brakes themselves providing good resistance to fade.
Though refinement (engine noise at high revs, gravel ping in the wheel arches, tyre noise on coarse-chip bitumen) remains an issue on the SR2, the standard Laser's bias toward handling over ride comfort can be deemed as more of an advantage in such a sporting variant.
If anything, body strengthening measures with the latest upgrade and a suspension overhaul that includes bigger-diameter front and rear stabiliser bars on the SR2 have improved vehicle dynamics further.
Always firm and only occasionally harsh, the SR2 ride is nonetheless extremely well controlled. Push the car liberally into corners and it shows poise and good adhesion from the 16-inch tyres (clearly more than the SR's 15-inch rubber) before descending into easily managed understeer - although the abundance of torque being fed through the front wheels usually prompts a few tugs at the steering wheel as the tyres scrabble for grip.
The steering is direct, and though not a great provider of feedback it does a manful job suppressing kickback through lumpy corners.
The rest of the five-door package is one we've described before: simplistic, functional and aesthetically pleasing. It offers loads of storage facilities, good seating versatility and a full-size alloy spare wheel.
But in the same breath let us add that it persists with a fiddly central fan control, mediocre luggage space, basic provision of rear legroom and shoulder room, poor positioning of child anchorage points and the omission of a centre-rear head restraint and three-point seatbelt.
How far we have come since TX3? Clearly a long way, despite some unfortunate similarities.
SR2 isn't a driver's car in the vein of the AWD turbo warrior, but Ford is at least carving out some character again from the clone.
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