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1997 Ford Escort

  • Driver

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

happy.

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

and torque.

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

even there.)

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

irritating.

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

needs sorting.

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

all.

Ride quality is very good, supple enough on the occasional bad

bit of pavement I encountered, yet smooth and stable on better

asphalt.

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

$14,000 mark.

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

sell.

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.

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