Balanced refinement at a budget price. by Bob Markovich
Listen to the commercials, and they'll tell you the 1997 Ford Escort is an all-new car. Listen to the auto writers, and at least a few will say this latest version of the popular compact -- a perennial on the list of America's top 10 best-selling cars -- is merely a re-skin of last year's model. Like much of the Escort's character, the truth rests squarely in the middle.
Indeed, the Escort and its Mercury Tracer twin aren't so much new cars as they are carefully balanced refinements. While the sheetmetal is all new, both cars still share the same basic floorpan, chassis and drivetrain with the previous model. Yet the sub-structure is 25 percent stiffer, the suspension more controlled and the engine far more powerful.
Both cars also share much of their design with Mazda's last-generation Protege, and are still built with Mazda as a joint venture. But here, too, Ford balanced improvement with economy by improving the existing platform instead of spending heavily for the extra tooling that would have been required to adapt to Mazda's newer one. That allowed Ford to deliver cars that are better in nearly every respect at about the same price.
Are the new Escort and Tracer also better than their competitors? In an arena populated with a number of competent offerings, the answer hinges on whether you prefer cars with a few outstanding characteristics or a balanced blend of good ones.
Ford cars are known for their family resemblance, and the new Escort and Tracer are true to form. Like the new Taurus and Sable, both lose all vestiges of angularity for 1997. Hard lines have given way to soft, ovoid sweeps that cut wind resistance and make both cars look longer, lower and wider. While both really are in fact longer -- by four inches -- they're actually a bit taller and narrower.
The Escort and Tracer also lose most of their divisional distinctions. Different taillights and front air intakes are nearly all that set them apart. Ford also eliminated hatchbacks -- including the racy Escort GT -- from the lineup this year. Like the Tracer, the Escort now comes only as a four-door sedan and wagon. It also comes in just two trim levels: base, and the LX, which is the model that most buyers order and the one we tested.
Gone as well are the optional Mazda twin-camshaft 127-hp engine and sporty GT suspension. Again, Ford compromised by giving all models firmer springs and shocks and a larger 110-hp version of last year's 88-hp single-cam standard engine.
While 1997 prices weren't out in time for this issue, Ford vowed to keep them virtually the same as last year's. That would put the Base Escort under $12,000 and an LX with air conditioning, automatic transmission and power options at roughly $14,500.
The Inside Story
Escort's size and price also put it up against such revamped competitors as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Saturn. You can also buy a loaded Neon or a larger, less-equipped Chevrolet Cavalier for about the same price.
Those who buy by the yard will find the new Escort less competitive than its predecessor. While front passengers get slightly more head and leg room, those in back get less. New side-impact beams also trim hip and shoulder room and overall space. The Escort now has three cubic feet less than a Neon, four less than a Saturn and eight less than a Cavalier.
Then again, those who put a premium on the seats, switches and controls inside that space will find this newest Escort very competitive indeed.
We'll start with the oval Integrated Control Panel that houses the radio and climate controls. A virtual knockoff of the innovative panel in the Taurus and Sable, it puts large, easy-to-find knobs and tuning tabs above three climate dials sized like big poker chips. It's also a first on a car in this price range. Another first on the LX is a budget-priced keyless remote entry system that works the driver's door only. Our LX test car had it, along with door-mounted power window tabs you can find by feel -- no hunting around in the dark.
Other refinements include angled turn-signal and windshield wiper stalks that literally fall to hand and -- finally -- adjustable-height harnesses instead of motorized mice, an irritating holdover from the pre-airbag days. Ford also took the play out of the gas and brake pedals so that both feel smooth and progressive.
You'll also find Escort's front buckets more comfortable on long hauls and more supportive on short, twisty ones. While fidgety kids and inlaws get a bit more rear seat shoulder room in a Corolla, Neon or Saturn -- and lots more in a Cavalier -- they'll welcome the new car's less-upright seating position. A one-piece folding seatback on base Escorts and a 60/40 version on the LX are also included, to expand cargo volume for longer stuff like skis and snowboards.
All of these refinements are small by themselves. Together, they're a major part of the balance Ford sought. Aside from a smidge less room, our only interior gripes are a horn that works only in the center of the airbag and a jumbo-sized speedometer that robs space from the ancillary gauges and optional tach.
Ride & Drive
A fast run through the narrow roads that snake around Arizona's Goldfield Mountains also revealed Escort's careful balance between comfort for older buyers and performance for the Generation Xers Ford also hopes to capture. Both should be pleased.
By stiffening the Escort's structure, Ford was able to increase wheel travel for a softer ride. Our silver LX soaked up everything from mild washboard to mini-boulders without the pitch and jounce typical in this class. It also handled hairpin curves without the usual leaning and squealing, thanks to stiffer stabilizer bars, larger 185/65SR-14 tires and revised locating links that balance the car by allowing the rear wheels to steer into turns.
Stiffer front caliper mounts and larger rear drum brakes bring the new Escort to a faster, more controlled halt. Added power assist and firmer on-center feel also make steering both easier and more precise. Unlike nearly all their competitors, even base Escorts and Tracers get power steering. They also get a precise five-speed transmission and a smoother optional automatic with four speeds instead of the three on Neons and Corollas.
Ford also balanced the new Escort's higher horsepower with another 17 lb-ft of torque. The secret is a split intake manifold that includes four small separate ports that route fuel and air into the cylinders faster at lower revs. Crankshaft counterweights help balance out vibration as well.
While enthusiasts may prefer the faster-revving 16-valve engines offered in Escort's competitors, the eight-valve Ford pulls powerfully and smoothly. This, too, is a big improvement over the previous standard engine, which had to work hard to keep up with traffic, especially in automatic editions.
Fuel economy estimates hadn't been finalized at press time, but we expct them to be at least as good as the previous Escort, which was rated at 26 mpg city, 31 highway by the EPA.
Stiffer structure augmented by one-piece body-side stampings and layers of sound deadening also mean you'll hear less engine noise and less of everything else from inside.
Complaints: despite new grade logic programming for the automatic transmission, it still hunts a bit in hilly country. On some surfaces, a little tire whir also sneaks through to the cabin. But we think the Escort's responsive shifts and friendly road manners are worth it.
We also tested the Escort against the Civic, Neon and an uplevel Saturn through a grueling slalom at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in nearby Phoenix. While the Saturn and Neon snaked through the cones a little faster, neither felt as tied-together as the Escort. What's more, even base Escorts handle as well as the uppermost model.
Ford will unveil a racier, twin-camshaft Escort/Tracer Coupe next year. Also rumored is an Escort-based subcompact sport-utility vehicle before Ford switches these cars to a European-based design around the year 2000. For now, the Escort combines contemporary good looks, competent handling, slick ergonomics and a smooth ride at a fair price. And that's one terrific balancing act.
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