The Ford Orion was based on the Ford Escort, but instead of the Ford Escort's hatchback, the Ford Orion had a separate boot, making it a four-door saloon. Visually, the Ford Orion's notchback rear end and greater rear overhang made it readily distinguishable from the Escort.
In the early-1980s, Ford's model line-up and image was changing, reflecting shifting patterns in the new car market across Western Europe at this time, as front-wheel drive gradually became more popular than rear-wheel drive and hatchbacks began to eclipse traditional saloons and estates. The company's older saloon line-up was replaced mainly by hatchbacks, starting with the Escort MK3 in 1980 and the new Sierra (which replaced the Cortina) in 1982. By 1985, even the top-of-the-range Granada would offer a hatchback bodystyle, with the saloon and estate models not being released until 1990 and 1992 respectively, while a booted version of the Sierra was finally launched in 1987.
The Orion was developed under the codename "Apollo." Launched in September 1983, the Orion was designed to fill the market demand for a traditional four-door saloon, which had been absent from the Escort range since the end of MK2 production in 1980, and also in larger cars by the demise of the hugely popular Cortina in 1982. The Orion looked similar to a contemporary Escort at the front apart from the different grille design, but the rear of the Orion had a long flat boot (making the car a three-box saloon design) rather than a hatchback or estate body like the Escort. Although the Orion's length was similar to that of the contemporary Ford Sierra (then only available as a hatchback) it had more rear legroom and a larger boot. This concept was similar to the Volkswagen Jetta, the saloon version of the Golf hatchback which had been on sale since 1979.
Ford initially offered the Orion in only GL and Ghia trim levels, missing out on the lower specification levels available on the Escort, as well as the basic 1100cc engine. Only 1300 cc and 1600 cc CVH engine options were available from launch (though with both carburettor and fuel injection options on the 1.6 Ghia). A lower specification L model was introduced in 1984, as was the option of a 1.6 diesel engine on L and GL models.
The Orion Ghia 1.6i standard features included: central locking, sunroof, sport front seats, electric windows, rear head restraints, tachometer and an information binnacle informing the driver when the vehicle needed maintenance. All of these features were rare equipment on a small family car in the 1980s, giving the Orion upmarket pretensions.
The Orion 1.6i shared an engine with the Escort XR3i and offered similar performance and handling without the insurance unfriendly tag that the XR badge started to command in the late-1980s due to its popularity with car thieves - and it was also less frequently targeted by thieves than the Escort XR3i or RS Turbo. The 1.6i was topped by a luxury limited edition called the 1600E in the autumn of 1988, the 1600E name harking back to the Mark II Ford Cortina 1600E from twenty years earlier, as both were considered to be well-equipped saloon cars with decent performance for the working man. The Orion 1600E was available in black, white and metallic grey and had RS alloys, wood cappings on the dashboard and doors, and grey leather seats. Only 1,600 were made, of which 1,000 had leather trim.
With the facelift in 1986, Ford brought the styling and engineering of the Orion closer to the Escort's and lower-specification models crept into the range along with equipment levels being brought together between the two cars, and helped Orion sales increase further. The Orion also gained the new 1.4 "lean burn" petrol engine which was added to the Escort at this time.
The success of the Orion across Europe, particularly in the UK (where it was amongst the top 10 best-selling cars every year from 1984-1990), was followed by several other manufacturers launching saloon versions of their popular hatchbacks. By 1986, General Motors had launched a saloon version of its Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra hatchback, which was sold as the Vauxhall Belmont on the British market. Austin Rover, on the other hand, made use of a Honda design for its new Rover 200 Series saloon, which was launched in 1984 and gave buyers a booted alternative to the Maestro hatchback, although with a totally different platform; as the true booted variant of the Maestro was the larger and more upmarket Austin Montego. The Orion was launched around the same time as the Fiat Regata, saloon and estate versions of the Ritmo (sold under name "Strada" in the UK), although the Regata was aimed further upmarket at cars like the Ford Sierra.
The Orion was a strong seller in the UK, peaking as the seventh-best-selling car in 1987 and 1988 with over 70,000 sales each time.
Orion Mark II (1986–1990)
Ford Orion Mark II
Ford Orion Mark II rear
March 1986 saw the Orion getting the same facelift as the rest of the Escort range. The Mark II brought the option of anti-lock-brakes (ABS) and a heated front windscreen to the range. The CVH engines were upgraded and were now "lean burn units" and various models in the range could run on unleaded fuel without modifications to the cylinder head or to the fuel system. Improved locks were fitted across the range, and a number of other improvements were carried out including new suspension and gearbox mounts, updated interior and trim changes, improved soundproofing and revised steering and suspension settings. Trim levels now included the previously deleted L, Biscane (special edition) LX, Equipe (special edition) GL, GLS (special edition), Ghia, Ghia Injection and from 1988 the 1600E (special edition).
Orion Mark III (1990–1993)
Ford Orion 1.4 Ghia Mark III in Radiant Red
Ford Orion Ghia rear
The final version of the Orion was launched in September 1990, but received the same criticism from the motoring media that the fifth generation Escort endured for its lack of design flair as well as the disappointing refinement of some of its engines — particularly the 1.3 and 1.4-litre CVH petrol units. As with the Escort, the arrival of the Zetec 16 Valve engines and suspension changes in 1992 improved the Orion's dynamic qualities. The Mk3 was identified at the front by clear indicator lenses and by a chrome bar that ran through the radiator grill. The range topping Orion Ghia Si (sports injection) had 130 bhp (97 kW) out of its 1.8L DOHC Zetec unit, making this the fastest production model Orion that Ford produced through the car's ten-year production life, with a top speed of 126 mph. A facelift to the Escort and Orion in September 1992 also saw many major improvements.
This version of the Orion was not quite as popular as the pre-1990 versions, just missing out on a place in the top 10 best-selling cars in Britain in 1991 and 1992.
In September 1993, 10 years after its launch, Ford discontinued the Orion nameplate, and the Escort nameplate was used on all bodystyles. This was a move that Vauxhall had previously taken with the Belmont name in 1991. The slow-selling Escort saloon was discontinued in 1998, after the launch of the Focus saloon, although the hatchback and estate versions lasted until 2000.
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