Still a best seller, still a great value.

In the 1994 model year, the Ford Escort was the third best-selling car in the United States, settling right behind the Ford Taurus and Honda Accord, and sitting ahead of other small-car favorites such as the Saturn and Honda Civic.

What made the Escort so attractive to 336,967 buyers last year? First of all, it's a smart, modern, well-priced compact car. And second, it's easy to purchase thanks to Ford's popular one-price selling plan, which offers any LX coupe, sedan or wagon for the same manufacturer's suggested retail price.

The vast majority of Escorts are sold under the one-price plan. This is a comprehensive package that offers amenities such as power steering, 14-inch bright aluminum wheels, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo, clock, rear-window defroster, cupholder with a removable liner, and power mirrors. In addition, the wagons also have a luggage rack and rear windshield wiper/washer.

With a manual transmission, the price is $11,995; that number jumps to $12,810 with an automatic. There are no deletions, but upgrades are available. Most Escorts are sold with some upgrades, particularly in the audio system. This is a high-value package, so it's no wonder it has been popular.

The GT -- our test car -- is not part of the one-price plan. Available only as a three-door hatchback, our GT featured an optional special decor package with an Ultra Violet exterior that will knock your socks off and appeal to every passerby under the age of 25.

The interior boasted Opal Gray bucket seats, door panels and seatback inserts, all trimmed with Ultra Violet. These aesthetics don't come cheap; our test model rang up at $16,670.

Walkaround

The Escort group resembles a typical family: every member has the same surname but there's lots of different personalities. The average kids are the simply styled three- and five-door hatchbacks and four-door sedan -- perfectly competent but without great presence.

The handsome, popular child is the LX wagon, which looks like a mini-Taurus and has a substance and authority bigger than its size. It's easy to see why the LX is the best-selling wagon in America.

The wild child is the GT, with its aggressive handling and pumped-up 127-hp, 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine from Mazda.

Finally, the well-to-do cousin is the Mercury Tracer, which in the LTS trim level manages to apply the GT engine to a firm, sober package.

All of these cars are airy, roomy vehicles with good visibility in all directions. When this design was introduced to the 1991 platform of vehicles, it represented a significant improvement over the cramped Escorts that existed before. Now, though, the design is beginning to look a little dated: in a world of rounded, aerodynamic vehicles, the Escorts come across as boxy and unimaginative.

On the plus side, there is the addition of a passenger-side airbag for 1995. And the Escort's optional speed control feature has been improved with a new, more efficient cable system.

And, as always, the hatchbacks have a large, nicely balanced liftgate, loads of storage and a convenient liftover height.

The Inside Story

Most of the changes for 1995 on the Escort are on the inside. The instrument panel has been redesigned in a clean, modern wraparound style.

Unfortunately, the irritating motorized seat belts -- the biggest drawback in this car -- have been retained, undoubtedly to keep redesign costs down. (With a new Escort just a year away, we guess Ford didn't want to invest any more than necessary in the current car.)

An interim solution to passive restraints, motorized seat belts are annoying and inconvenient, and most automakers have dropped them as soon as possible. In addition to catching your neck every time you duck out of the car with the engine running, they make it impossible to put a front-facing child seat in front.

Other than this feature, the interior of the Escort is clean, functional and pleasant. The new instrument panel is straightforward, with all the gauges in clear view. A center console holds a cupholder and a change bin, and cruise control buttons are conveniently located on the steering wheel.

Also, the ignition switch has been illuminated this year, making it easier for drivers to insert the key at night.

There is one weak point, though: the radio is one of Ford's old designs with numerous tiny buttons that demand you take your eyes off the road to make changes.

The wagon has an astounding 66.9 cubic feet of cargo space when the second seat is down, which makes it a very handy multi-purpose vehicle -- light and fun to drive but quite handy for your occasional hauling jobs.

The sedan is roomy, with a back seat that has the same leg room as -- and more head room than -- Ford's new mid-size car, the Contour.

One drawback to small cars is noise, and the Escort is no exception, although it's better than in previous years. The sound-deadening package has been improved for '95, and engine vibration has also been lessened, making the interior a civilized place.

Midway through the model year, an optional integrated child seat will become available on the Escort for those toting around the little ones.

Ride & Drive

It is here that the split personality between the base and LX Escorts and the GT version becomes more noticeable. The first two models are powered by an 88-hp, 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine. Obviously, a car with 88 horses isn't overpowering, particularly when compared with its chief competitor, the 132-hp Plymouth Neon.

We had an opportunity to drive a five-door Escort hatchback and were really surprised by how acceptable the power level was.

During a trip with luggage and passengers, the car never felt weak and performed well passing on two-lane country roads. It was quick to accelerate and was zippy with either the standard five-speed manual transmission or the optional four-speed automatic.

About the only real drawback to the engine was its relatively high noise and vibration when we made extra demands, such as hard acceleration.

The ride was light and maneuverable, with a direct steering feel. A well-designed chassis really showed to be an advantage here.

Although the Escort hatchback was a capable performer, the GT was a classic pocket rocket; if performance is important to you, this one's got it.

We went from 0 to 60 mpg in less than eight seconds, and the stiffly tuned suspension on our test car gave us a firm -- not hard -- ride that would probably be best suited to the young of body as well as heart. The GT's responsive, sporty handling compares favorably with the best cars in this class -- the new Neon coupe, the new Nissan 200SX and the Honda Civic coupe, for example.

As a general impression, our GT test car was an absolute blast to drive, and is so far removed from the feel of the other Escorts that you may find it hard to believe it's in the same family.

Final Word

The Ford Escort is a huge seller to both retail customers and rental fleets -- the latter because of the great combination of room and price. It is the value factor, and the Escort's overall competence, that make this car's popularity so widespread.

In choosing an Escort, we would advise you take the one-price LX package, beef up the audio system (an aftermarket system would bypass the tiny-button Ford system) and add anti-lock brakes, and you will be getting a substantial vehicle at a competitive price.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

© 1995 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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