The 1991 Mercury Capri XR2 is a pleasant surprise.

Its low-slung body and sporty styling hint at a jolting, sporty ride. But the Capri XR2's all-strut suspension isdamped somewhat, giving passengers a softer ride that doesn't rattle the bones.

The Capri XR2's convertible top could make for a loud, tiring trip. The cute, appealing look of this "funabout," as Ford Motor Co. likes to call the Capri, also could tempt the company to set high prices. But the Capri ranges from $12,990 to $15,920 - attractive enough to invite comparisons with its two main competitors, the Mazda Miata (with a base price of $13,800) and Volkswagen Cabriolet (base price, $15,500).

"The Capri is designed to be a fun-to-drive car . . . but we didn't forget value and versatility," said Ross H. Roberts, a Ford vice president and Lincoln-Mercury general manager.

It took seven years for the Capri to evolve out of a concept car called the Barchetta (Italian for little boat) that appeared at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany. In the end, the Capri's outside design came from the Ghia Studios of Turin, Italy; its powertrain and chassis were built with the help of Mazda of Japan, and assembly is done in Australia.

The blended heritage works well. The test car, an upscale XR2 turbo, seemed at ease in many sport maneuvers as well as on leisurely Sunday drives.

The Capri handled easily, fitting into tight parking spaces and dodging between cars in passing maneuvers without a lot of effort.

Fuel economy was commendable - about 24 miles per gallon in demanding city-highway driving.

The 1.6-liter, four-cylinder turbo, teamed with a five-speed manual transmission, provided up to 132 horsepower in the XR2 and was peppy. That's compared with the 116 horsepower produced by the Miata's 1.6-liter engine. Turbo lag in the Capri wasn't troublesome in most instances. The transmission shifter felt a bit notchy, however.

The cloth driver seat had adjustable lumbar support and was quite comfortable. There was an air bag in the leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the interior design of gauges, including turbo boost, was commendably functional.

The cloth back seat was another matter. It was benchlike and was a stiff resting spot with a straight seatback. I hit my head on a bar on the convertible roof while sitting there. I could not hold my head up straight, yet I couldn't scrunch down more in the seat because my knees were already hitting the front seatback.

The convertible top fit tightly and there were no whistles, rattles or wind noise, though it wasn't as easy to put down as the Miata ragtop. The Capri involved a couple more steps than the Miata. Both cars have cloth tops that must be put up and down manually. But a plastic boot covered the Capri convertible roof neatly, while the Miata canvas cover does not provide such a smooth appearance. Both vehicles offer optional hard tops for cold weather travel.

The Capri trunk was nicely carpeted and offered space for two golf bags or a half dozen grocery bags. The rear seat also folds down to allow more cargo space.

Ford expects to produce 30,000 Capris annually once production reaches full speed in the next year. Since introduction in mid-July, more than 4,600 Capris have been sold.

Because the Capri is a new vehicle, Consumer Reports magazine does not list owner complaints.



1991 Mercury Capri XR2

BASE PRICE: $15,920

AS TESTED: $16,555.

TYPE: Front-engine, front-drive, 2+2,

minicompact convertible

ENGINE: 1.6-liter, electronic fuel-injected,

16-valve, turbo four cylinder

MILEAGE: 23 mpg city

28 mpg highway

LENGTH: 166.1 inches

WHEELBASE: 94.7 inches

CURB WT.: 2,385 lbs

BUILT AT: Broadmeadows, Australia

OPTIONS: AM-FM premium cassette radio



CHARGE: $355