1997 Ford Escort
PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — Take the continent's most popular small
car. Make it look better, ride better, handle better, go better.
Keep the price the same.
Hey, that should work.
Ford hopes so, because that's the recipe for the 1997 Escort,
which is getting a head start on next year in dealer showrooms
as you read this.
The previous Escort was a decent car. Boring to look at,
maybe. Leisurely in performance, no doubt. But decent value.
So Ford stayed with the former Mazda joint venture platform,
which also spawned the previous-generation Mazda 323 and
Protege. This strategy reduced development cost and time.
The body on sedan models is all-new. One-piece bodyside
stampings for better rigidity and door fit are draped in Ford's
corporate egg-theme sheet metal. Personally, I think this
execution of that theme looks better than either of Escort's
bigger siblings, Contour or Taurus.
The wagon is a blend of new (front bumper to roughly the rear
doors) and old (roof, tailgate and rear quarter windows are
carry-over). The wagon does not get the one-piece body sides.
Both two and four-door hatchbacks are dropped; North
Americans generally don't like the hatchback configuration,
despite its practicality and popularity in the rest of the
world. The customer is always right, even when he's wrong.
Tom Bosworth, powertrain program manager for the new car, said
increased performance was the primary demand of current Escort
owners. His team responded with a thoroughly reworked
development of the former four-cylinder single overhead cam-shaft
two-valve-per-cylinder unit. A stunning 25 per cent increase,
from 88 to 110 horses, should make those current Escort owners
The old engine was tuned for torque, but even that is up 15
per cent in the new model, from a peak of 108 poundfeet at 3800
r.p.m. to 125 poundfeet at 3750 r.p.m.
Obviously, the minute displacement increase from 1.9 to 2.0
litres cannot account for output gains of this magnitude. The
major factor is a splitport induction system, which provides
two separate channels for intake air to get to the cylinders.
A smaller-diameter port, which includes the fuel injector
outlet, increases intake charge velocity and swirl in the
combustion chamber, leading to improved combustion, better
bottom-end torque, plus reduced emissions and fuel consumption.
Above 3000 r.p.m., a butterfly valve opens a second,
larger-diameter intake port, admitting more air to the engine. The
engine management computer calls up a corresponding increase in
fuel, resulting in more topend power.
Bosworth says they were aiming for the output of a multivalve
engine, with the fuel economy, torque and low cost of a
two-valve. They've come pretty close.
Two-stage intake systems are fairly common on multivalve
engines, to hide that layout's inherent low-speed torque
deficiency. No one at the press preview for the new Escort could
recall such a device being used on a two-valve engine before.
Porsche uses a three-stage system on its two-valve 911 Carrera,
but that's hardly Escort territory.
If you're wondering about the Mazda-built 1.8 litre twin-cam
formerly available on Escort GT, stop now. Butter it — it's
toast. See accompanying story for more on sporty Escorts.
The base five-speed manual transmission has a revised shifter
design for more positive, more tactile feel. Synchromesh has
been added to reverse, to improve shift quality, especially when
the gearbox is cold. Backing out of your parking spot is often
the first thing you do in your car in the morning; if Ford can
eliminate that initial irritating graunch, surely you'll feel
better about your car for the rest of the day.
The optional four-speed electronic automatic has been
recalibrated to better handle the engine's increased urge. A new
torque converter is said to provide better idle quality and
smoother shifting — a claim I'll return to shortly.
The suspension is similar in concept to before: MacPherson
struts up front, coilsprung struts located by twin lateral arms
and a trailing arm at the rear. The rear lateral arms are longer
and located farther apart, which keeps the wheels more nearly
perpendicular to the pavement.
The stiffer body shell has allowed softer springs and a
thinner sway bar at the rear, to the benefit of ride quality.
New jounce bumpers in the struts provide progressive operation
at the upper extreme of wheel travel, improving poor road ride.
The front springs and all suspension mounts are stiffer, and the
(standard) power steering gear has been reworked, all in the
name of crisper handling.
Anti-lock brakes remain an option, but are now offered on all
models. The rear drums are increased in diameter from 8 to 9
inches, and larger 185/65 R14 tires encircle 5 1/2 inch rims, up
from 5. These are about the last automotive components still
using Imperial measure.
There's nothing revolutionary in the new Escort's chassis,
just diligent engineering, with clear, customer-focused goals
and a strict budget. Nice job.
The new body has marginal, tens-of-millimetres upticks in
certain interior dimensions. That's overshadowed by a curvaceous
new look, modelled after Taurus, although you may recognize the
way the front doors intersect with the ends of the dash from the
old Escort, and the carry-over door handles.
The centrepiece is a Taurus-like but unique-to-Escort
integrated control panel containing buttons and knobs for
heater, ventilation, (optional) air conditioning (HVAC) and
radio. Consistent with ergonomic research that shows more
frequent access to sound system than climate control system, the
radio buttons are located above those for HVAC.
Softer materials in the so-called "touch zones" places where
your hand touches the car are designed to give Escort a richer
feel. In fact, the entire game plan is to offer features
unexpected in this price range, like a premium sound system,
six-CD changer, and remote central locking.
Escort also offers a lower-cost remote locking option that
works only the driver's door. Ford thinks customers moving up
from cheaper cars will like this feature, and a typical Escort
owner is often the only person in the cars. But anyone familiar
with full central locking will surely be lulled into a false
sense of security believing that all doors are locked. How much
can three extra door-lock solenoids cost?
An extensive route through central Georgia, followed by a
through-the-cones slalom course against some competitive cars
offered a good opportunity to evaluate the new Escort's
capabilities. The impressions are largely favorable.
While noise and vibration levels of the new engine at high
revs won't cause any sleepless nights chez Honda, it's not as
nasty as the old Escort mill. And, it showed a clean pair of
taillights to a brace of Civics on the slalom course, since it
whips its Japanese/Canadian/American cousins soundly on power
On the other hand, both Saturn's SL2 and Chrysler's Neon
turned in quicker slalom times than Escort — again, more power,
but less refinement.
(Sufferers of Canadian inferiority complex should know that
the fastest slalom times were set by Canadian journalists.
Modesty prevents me from identifying the first-place finisher,
but three of the four prizes given out over two days of testing
came north of the border. And Wheels contributor Marc
Lachapelle, who normally walks off with all these things, wasn't
On the road, the Escort engine makes a good compromise — good
bottom-end torque, and little need to explore the more raucous
reaches of the rev range. Ford has learned a few tricks from the
Japanese and gone to a lighter throttle return spring and a
faster-responding throttle linkage. These combine to give
excellent launch from rest, which is really the most important
performance criterion: zero-to-across-the-intersection.
The manual transmission works fine: low in effort, high in
precision, good clutch takeup. No concerns.
The automatic, however, seems to have a mind of its own
literally, because of its microprocessor controller. It shifts
in and out of overdrive-fourth gear, and locks and unlocks the
torque converter, in apparently random fashion. Bosworth said
Escort owners wanted more mid-range passing power so they
programmed the transmission to downshift from fourth to third at
fairly light throttle pressure. They needn't have bothered
because the engine already has enough torque to do the job and
the constant gear hunting on moderately hilly roads was
This shifting uncertainty was also present in a pre-production
prototype I drove on home ground. Powertrain chief Bosworth said
a variety of mechanical and electronic measures were employed to
ensure smoothness, including something that sounds very much
like Honda's Grade Logic system to reduce hunting between third
and fourth gears on grades. He also said "attention to detail
was everything" in their development work, but one detail still
Escort's chief program engineer, Bob Kiessel, warned before
our test drive that Escort was not designed to be a sports
sedan; he didn't want to raise expectation levels for its
handling too high, I guess.
Nonetheless, the Escort is a very roadable little car. It
corners in a confident manner, given that it neither invites,
nor would you expect to indulge in, aggressive driving.
The mark of good steering is no comment in my note book — no
news is good news. It's light, direct, positive; no problems at
Ride quality is very good, supple enough on the occasional bad
bit of pavement I encountered, yet smooth and stable on better
As long as engine revs are kept below 4000 r.p.m., interior
noise is well suppressed. One wagon I drove had considerable
wind rush around the front doors. That may have been an early
production anomaly, as the other cars, notably all the sedans,
were impressively quiet.
Canadian prices for the new Escort won't be released until May
14. But in the U.S., the LX sedan is priced identically to last
year's, at US$11,930, while a decontented base car is $500 less.
The U.S. has abandoned the one price for sedan or wagon
approach that's been successful with Escort and Taurus in the
past. The extra US$550 Ford U.S. now charges for the wagon
allows it to recapture some of the model's added cost, and lets
it price the sedan more competitively.
Canada will stay with the one-price plan, which may mean a
slight price increase. Given that the last list price for a '96
Escort LX sedan or wagon was CDN$14,345, I'm guessing the '97
will come in around $14,700. The base sedan, with one-piece
folding rear seatback (as opposed to a splitfold),
vinyl-backed seats and cheaper wheel trims, should be close to the
Ford lists competition for Escort as Neon, Saturn, Toyota
Tercel and Honda Civic. They don't want to even think about the
fact that the nicely redone Escort makes the base Ford Contour
similar look, similar interior room, similar 2.0 litre
four-cylinder engine, $3,000 more expensive an even tougher
Ford also whistles bravely past the graveyard when Chevrolet
Cavalier is mentioned, saying the Cav is really one size larger.
But Canada's perennial best-selling car is priced bang-on with
Escort, and few shoppers complain about more car for the money.
Cavalier also has standard anti-lock brakes.
Ford plans to offer special discount certificates to owners of
certain old Escorts, Tempos and Topazes, to keep them in the
family. With merchandising tricks like these, Ford has been
successful flogging the old Escort at this price level.
The new one is so much better, the task should be much easier.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers
invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions
arranged and paid for by the automaker.