The company car wars are best summed up by the Ford Sierra and the Vauxhall Cavalier. But in an era where the Vauxhall outsold the Ford, which was better?

Words: Sam Skelton  Images: Paul Wager

Company cars used to be far more straightforward. Others tried to muscle in, but for decades the primary battle for company car park territory was between Ford and Vauxhall – with the Blue Oval consistently the dominant force. At least it was until the slippery ‘jellymould’ Ford Sierra arrived, leaving the door open for Vauxhall to take full advantage.

An army of reps loved the Ford Cortina, but the more advanced-looking and aerodynamic Sierra came along in 1982 and took the familiar four-door format with it. Vauxhall could offer its Mk2 Cavalier with slightly more reserved styling and the option of a saloon, so it was no surprise to see it become the market leader in 1984 and 1985. The Sierra would recover in fine style, but when the new Mk3 Cavalier arrived at the end of 1988, there was to be no repeat comeback. The Ford was knocked off its perch in 1990, and lost out to its Griffin-badged rival for the remainder of its 10-year life.

Arguably, it was the quality of the Mk3 Cavalier and the mediocre reception for cars like the Mk5 Escort that prompted Ford into bucking its ideas up – the Mondeo was proof that Ford had accepted that it had to offer good cars as well as good marketing, and indirectly the apathy of Ford’s design team in the early 1990s, through sales losses to other marques, led to the resurgence that gave us cars like the excellent Mk1 Focus. The last of the Sierras are often lumped in with the bad crowd as examples of how Ford lost its way – but perhaps it’s unfair to consider them part of the problem when the Mk5 Escort and Mk3 Fiesta showed far lazier design while purporting to be more modern concepts.

So was the Sierra a bad car as the 1990s began, or simply an old one that was due for replacement in a world where all its rivals were into their next generation? And does it make a better buy than arch-rival Cavalier today?

The Ford Cortina had dominated the UK fleet market for two decades by the time it was pensioned off in 1982. And Ford was bullish about the chances of its new model – the swish new Sierra, with its bold aero look, had been foreshadowed the previous year by the aerodynamic Probe III concept car. Development had begun on the new car in 1978, which under the skin shared much of its basic layout and drivetrain with the outgoing Cortina – a move that Ford felt would be popular with fleet managers used to pared-down servicing costs. It was confident about the new car’s chances in the marketplace – up to the minute styling and the sort of common sense for which Ford had earned a well-deserved reputation must surely have been a recipe for success? Especially when given access to the automotive world’s finest marketing machine – the Sierra was advertised as “man and machine in perfect harmony”, honed by wind tunnels and targeted at the sort of aspirational executive who pitied the also-rans in their Alpines and the moth-eaten in their Marinas. Building on the success of the Cortina would be an easy win.

But the lack of a saloon option at launch and the shape like no other scared off one of the most conservative buyer profiles in the business, driving family and fleet men alike into the welcoming seats of the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2. Ford hadn’t considered that it was the relative safety of the Cortina’s three box shape as much as its mechanicals that held appeal for buyers, and for the first few years Sierra looked set to sit alongside Edsel on the tiny list of Ford failures. Ford forgot the lesson that BMC had learned with the Mini – that the punter is scared of radical change – and while the Sierra was conservative underneath, nobody thought that a spaceship was the vehicle of choice for keeping up with the Joneses.

But while Ford sales dipped initially, they took hold again by the mid to late 1980s. Once Ford had introduced the estate, carried out a facelift and added the Sapphire saloon of 1987, the Sierra finally had everyman appeal – something only boosted by the presence of the mighty RS Cosworth derivatives. But by the caring new 1990s, what had once seemed fresh now looked dated against the Renault 21, Peugeot 405 and Volkswagen Passat B3. The Sierra started to lose its market share once again – and it was only with the dawn of the sharp new Mondeo in 1993 that the tide began to be stemmed. The first Ford of its generation to be more than a marketing exercise, the Mondeo upped the game not only beyond the Sierra but beyond rivals too, and the mid-’90s stereotyping of Middle England as “Mondeo men” certainly helped in terms of image.

Our test car is a Diamond White Sierra Sapphire 1.6 Azura dating from 1992. We acquired this car last year from a reader, and it’s currently under the custodianship of Dave Knight via the Classic Car Loan Project. While some Azuras came with the CVH engine, ours has the good old Pinto under the bonnet. Alloy wheels and a boot spoiler marked you out as a cut above the base model, earning points in a company car park sea of Sierras. There are no electric windows or power steering – but there’s still enough for a junior rep to brag about.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as special inside as it looks on the outside. The lack of toys in this example do have an effect, but we’re aware that we’re not comparing like-for-like models here and do acknowledge that a Sierra with electric windows and other toys might feel more on par with the Vauxhall. But the equipment levels couldn’t detract from the fact that the plastics are hard and mismatched even in this very original example, none of them look like they were designed to line up and the dashboard looks low rent. One thing the Sierra has in its favour is its seats though – comfortable, easy to adjust and the right distance from the steering wheel, they make the Sierra a pleasant place to spend time.

To drive, it’s surprisingly good. It’s less powerful than the 1.8 Cav for obvious reasons but is more giving of what it has, it feels more urgent and corners with more vigour. There’s no denying it’s an older design in terms of noise, vibration and harshness, and no Sierra barring the estate ever had the low loading lip it was crying out for, so it’s not as rounded a package – but it’s a better choice for the driver. Is that enough to secure victory for the Sierra, though?

The second-generation Vauxhall Cavalier had done rather well against the Ford Sierra early in its life – ironic, as fleet managers and private buyers shied away from the Sierra’s bold appearance, only to buy conservative Cavaliers hiding more up to date technology. In 1982 – the first full year of the Mk2 Cavalier and the launch year of the Sierra, Cavalier sales rose by almost 70,000 – against a 20,000 drop for Ford as the Cortina became the Sierra. And in 1984 the Mk2 Cavalier outsold the Sierra in the UK by 19,000 units. In 1985 it outsold the Sierra by 35,000 units. And it only began to break even in 1986 as the Cavalier was coming to the end of its life. Vauxhall wanted its winning streak back in the rep sector, and the Mk3 Cavalier of 1988 looked set to be the car to make it happen.

In Germany, it was a big deal – the Opel Ascona was replaced by the Opel Vectra – but in Britain the Cavalier name had cred, and Luton chose to keep it rather than invoke memories of the old FE Victor. The car was launched in October 1988 as a saloon and a hatchback – no estate, as there was no equivalent family of Holdens to use as a basis and the German Opel marque had always done without. From 1990 the Cavalier began to outsell the Sierra again – and would do so until the end of Sierra production and the first full year of Mondeo production in 1994. Vauxhall would fight back with the new Vectra of 1995, but Dagenham’s sales would outstrip Luton’s until the turn of the new millennium.

Dicky Braithwaite brought his Cavalier down from North Yorkshire for our photoshoot. And his 1.8 GLS sparks memories for me – a neighbour had an SRi in the same shade of Lagoon Blue when I was growing up. This is his seventh Mk3 Cavalier, and his second 1.8 GLS. GLS trim got you rear head restraints, rear seat heater vents, a tiltable steering wheel and a courtesy lamp delay – all important signs of rank in the company car park in 1993.

Inside, it’s a world apart from the Sierra. The airiness of the Ford has gone, but that’s primarily as a result of the colour scheme – inside this Vauxhall is as dark as the night sky. You sit behind a cliff face of a dashboard, albeit one moulded from soft touch plastics and one with a large glovebox – just a little too far away from the driver to be of use, but incorporating cupholders into the lid. And it’s here I confess to prior bias. I’ve driven a number of Mk3 Cavaliers and Mk1 Vectras, and every one has had the same problem with its seats. The backrest feels too firm and too wide even for my 14 stone frame, and after more than three or four miles my back begins to hurt. Not ideal in a car targeted at the travelling salesman or stressed family man, but it’s the one element of the Vauxhall interior that lets the car down. It’s just a shame it’s so central to the experience.

To drive, the Cavalier is pretty uninvolving, if we’re honest. The offset steering wheel would jar over time, and it feels like it’s slightly too far from the wheel – with no means of reach adjustment. Despite the extra 15bhp or so over the Sierra, it doesn’t feel any faster. The gear selection feels almost rubbery after the slick shift of the Sierra, and the steering is a shade on the woolly side. But if we forget the seats this is a nice place to be – the dash looks and feels like all the parts were meant to fit together, unlike the Ford where the grey plastics neither butt together well nor even match in shade.

There’s little road or wind noise, and if your back is a good fit for the seats this would be a car in which you could spend a full working day. The low boot loading lip is also a boon for a rep car, and we like the headrests which remain fixed to the parcel shelf rather than the seat back, allowing for a flatter folding rear seat. This is a cleverly considered car.

These are cars that were built for fleet use, and that means that cheap servicing bills were top of the priority list from the word go. And you can tell – wide, spacious engine bays with easy access to just about everything, simple drivetrains that need no more than the most basic of tools, and engine ranges used in so many other models that even now you can almost buy spares with pocket fluff. You’ll buy a brake disc for either Sierra or Cavalier for around £7, for instance.

The Cavalier is no longer a common sight even at classic car shows, but their owners are ardent and a tight-knit group. If you need spares – even trim – someone will have it and be happy to come to a deal with you. Panels can still be found, as there are still Cavaliers in scrap yards if you know where to go, and mechanically most parts continued to be used into the 21st century.

The Sierra is a similar story – engines shared with Escorts, Capris and Granadas, most of the underpinnings similar to the Scorpio, and an interest in saving minor trim items through the popularity of the XR4x4 and the Cosworth models means that most of what you need should be available. In a bittersweet way, the popularity of the upmarket models also means trim can be had for the more prosaic variants, as good cars are still being broken to provide donor shells for Cossies.

Which brings us on to price. For a Cavalier as nice as the one in our pics you needn’t spend over £2000 unless you want a V6, 4X4 or Turbo – and if you look hard, they’re around for half that. There’s no price premium based on body style, but pre-facelift cars are worth around 10 per cent more than post-facelift ones and better trim levels are generally more desirable.

The Ford is a different story – three-door models and saloons attract a premium because of their viability as Cosworth donors – and we wouldn’t consider a three-door as a good value classic as a result given that they were rare to begin with and their desirability makes them more attractive to thieves. A nice Sapphire, five-door or estate will start at around £2000 for a late small-engined variant, rising to £6000 or so for the best and up to £10,000 for something unusual like an early 2.3 Ghia. Sporting models such as the XR4x4, Ghia 4×4 estate and XR4i can fetch more if a buyer is especially keen.

Ford Sierra vs Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3: our verdict

This twin test is the hard to call because both of these cars have relative strengths and weaknesses – and it does depend very much on what you want from the car.

So I’m going to assess this pair primarily on the attributes that would have appealed to the people who bought them new. That means that the more refined car scores highly, as does the one with the most upmarket-looking interior, the most space, the easiest loading ability for those all-important samples and the sharper image when new. And each of those points goes to the Cavalier, not the Sierra. However, it’s worth noting that the Sierra is a more engaging car to drive, and if I personally wanted to do 150 miles per day up and down the motorways of Britain, the seats in the Sierra would be a godsend.

As a rep there’s no doubt that I’d have chosen the Cavalier because its attributes speak of success, but I’d know I was sentencing myself to three years of the less inspiring drive. So I’d understand why in 2023 you might want to choose a Sierra. But rather than begging my fleet manager for one of the last Sierras, I’d be looking to make that one extra big sale to get myself into the leather-lined luxury of a Cavalier Diplomat. Gavin in Accounts would go green with envy.