Not so long ago, we made the point that the endless unfavourable comparisons of the Peugeot 208 GTI to its legendary ancestor - the 205 GTI - is really quite stupid. However, when the opportunity arose to drive our favourite hot hatch - the Ford Fiesta ST - against its grandad, the Fiesta XR2, I jumped at the chance. After all, it would be intriguing to see just how far hot hatchbacks have come in 25 years. After pulling up to the unassuming, slightly worn-looking brick building that houses the Ford Heritage Collection, I opened the heavy steel door to see a mint red 1989 XR2 clad in a dust sheet. Heritage specialist Colin popped his head up from the engine bay of an equally mint Escort Cosworth in mid-service to hand me the XR2 keys and gave me a quick warning about the enormously long travel on the brake pedal. Getting in the car, the XR2's doors seemed like they were made from paper, compared to the comparatively hefty items found on the ST. The interior, too, felt incredibly spartan. The XR2 fired up immediately, settling into the trademark lumpy idle of Ford's CVH four-pot, here in 1.6-litre form. Soon after setting off, that long brake pedal travel I was warned about made itself known and terrified me for a second when nothing was happening. Burying my foot firmly into the carpet, they finally started to bite. Taking the shortest route out of town, that glorious black and white national speed limit sign was ahead. Dropping down to second in the meaty five-speed manual 'box, I gave it the beans for the first time. It felt swift rather than quick - at 839kg vs the ST's 1163kg, the XR2 has far less bulk to shift around, but it only has round half the power: 96bhp, give or take a few horses with the years. But the way it delivers that power is something else. The needle of the unsophisticated tacho swung around, desperately trying - and failing - to keep up with the engine revs. As I approached the red line, the whole dashboard buzzed and rattled, as if with excitement. Shifting into third with the quickest gearchange I could muster, the front wheels gave a frenzied chirp as they briefly lost traction under power. It was raw - crude, even - but I loved every second of it. Approaching the first of many bends, I was expecting direct steering, but that wasn't the reality. The XR2's steering feels particularly slow, with a little vagueness on the initial turn in. After the very quick steering rack of the ST, I found myself putting in far greater inputs, while the lean of the soft suspension and lack of side bolsters on the seats saw my backside sliding off to the side. After getting used to that, though, I was in love. It's a proper little hooligan; it feels borderline anti-social and mischievous to drive, which makes it a hugely enjoyable experience. I knew my time was running out as I had to get back to photograph the rest of the Heritage Collection (full feature coming soon), but after heading back in the right direction, I couldn't help but turn around for another blast. It's addictive, it really is. After an hour's drive, I felt physically tired. All those big steering inputs to the non-power-assisted steering takes its toll; driving the XR2 proved to be a proper workout. Despite the huge differences between this lovably crude 80s tearaway and its sophisticated offspring, the ST, you can see a clear link. The ST also has that delinquent feel. The exhaust has a loud and deep boom to it, the suspension is uncompromisingly hard, and the steering is razor sharp. Just like the XR2, it encourages you to drive hard. The lineage between these two is crystal clear. The difference with the ST is that you get incredible capability along with that fun factor. It's very composed in the corners, and rewards your commitment with remarkable grip. It's a better all-rounder than it's predecessor, too. Despite that relatively hard suspension it makes for a comfortable runabout or long-distance cruiser, and it's even economical if you have enough will power to stay away from the throttle for a bit. If money were taken out of the equation, which would I go home with? Despite logic telling us that an older, simpler and lighter car will always be better to drive, the reverse is true here. The XR2 is entertaining, but the ST is even more so. It's also easier to live with and is destined to become a classic. I'd implore anyone looking for a future classic to look into the Mk2 XR2. With prices starting at around £2500, you're getting a whole lot of fun for very little money. At the very least, take one for a drive. You'll fall in love in an instant.
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