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The compact market is awash with all kinds of good cars, but we think this may be the best looking of the bunch. It also has one of the best looking interiors, excellent road manners, a useable back seat and more power than its family-oriented counterparts from the Escort and Tracer lineups.
Due in Ford showrooms this spring, the Escort ZX2 coupe arrives exactly one year after the major update accorded the Escort and Tracer sedans and wagon.
It shares the same basic front-drive chassis and suspension components as the other Escorts, but no body panels and no powertrain elements. And it's exclusive to Ford dealerships. A Mercury Tracer version was also planned, but it died on the drawing boards.
Style counts for a lot in a small sporty coupe, and if that were the only criteria the ZX2 would be a sell out.
But the ZX2 will be measured by other standards, and against some compelling competitors--the Honda Civic, for example, and the sassy Chrysler Neons.
How does it stack up when all the blanks on the scorecard are filled in?
We strapped on a brand-new ZX2 for a few days to find out.
Although it shares no sheetmetal with the Escort sedan and wagon, it does share the same wheelbase and the same general structure. This structure began life as a Mazda Protege, a car which has since been redesigned. Rather than use the new Protege chassis for its Escort/Tracer update, Ford retained the old chassis, investing instead in extensive stiffening measures.
The result was a vastly improved lineup of sedans and wagons that came to market at highly competitive prices, thanks to the relatively low investment.
Offered in two trim levels--base and LX--Escort sedans and wagons are powered by a 110-horsepower 2.0-liter overhead cam four-cylinder engine, mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. While 110 hp isn't the highest for this class, it's 22 hp more than the previous standard Escort engine, and the engine's torque characteristics lend good driveability, even with an automatic transmission.
The Escort ZX2 is available essentially as a single model, with a so-called Sport model option, and it uses the same engine supplied with standard editions of the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique--Ford's 130-hp 2.0-liter twin cam 16-valve Duratec four-cylinder. It's the ZX2's only engine offering, and it's exclusive to the coupe.
We term the Sport model "so-called" because it's basically an appearance option, adding a handsome set of 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a rear decklid spoiler and various trim items to the standard ZX2. The suspension tuning is identical between the base and Sport editions, and the only functional difference is a slightly more aggressive set of tires--60-series versus 65--on the ZX2. That slight reduction in profile might lend a tiny improvement in cornering capability, but you'd need a test track and on-board telemetry to quantify the distinctions. A similar package is available for the Escort sedan.
However, even though the ZX2 employs the same basic suspension as the sedans and wagons, it's been retuned for a slightly firmer feel and sportier responses.
Although it has only two doors, the ZX2 is almost exactly the same size as the Escort and Tracer sedans. It's a tad longer, wider and lower, but the distinctions are all within one inch. Its 11.8-cubic foot trunk is also one cubic foot smaller than the sedan, but that's still sizeable by compact standards. And like most small cars, the ZX2's split rear seatbacks can be flopped forward to make extra space for all that bulky recreational equipment that younger owners like to haul.
Standard safety features--dual airbags and side impact protection--are average. Consistent with industry trends, antilock brakes cost extra--$570 in this case--on Escorts and Tracers. We think this important active safety feature should be standard on all cars, but carmakers have found that, given the choice, buyers would rather have a nice sound system than ABS.
While it's not really a safety feature, the Escort and Tracer do have 5 mph bumpers, which could lower repair bills from minor fender-benders.
Like its exterior, the ZX2 has very little commonality with the other Escorts. The sporty-looking instrument panel sweeps attractively into the door panels, and interior fabrics and materials are of high quality compared to other cars in this class.
Standard comfort/convenience features are a little sparse. Beyond an AM/FM radio, you have to pay extra. But the quality of the interior appointments keeps even a basic ZX2 from feeling like a stripper, a trait it shares with most of the other Escort/Tracer models.
Other useful interior touches include three cupholders, two forward, one aft, plus a center console and heater ducts for the rear seat area.
There's plenty of room up front in all of the Escorts and Tracers, and the ZX2's attractively upholstered front buckets are exceptionally comfortable and supportive. The driver's seat is also height adjustable, a nice extra for shorter drivers.
Rear seat roominess is also a strong suit for this clan. Although rear leg-room isn't quite as plentiful as it is in a Neon, the Escort and Tracer are above average in comparison to other compacts. And, remarkably, the ZX2 is within a half-inch of the sedan in terms of rear legroom, though its swoopy rear roofline compromises headroom a bit.
With an extra 20 horsepower, the ZX2 is certainly livelier than its sedan and wagon cousins. The Zetec is pleasant and willing in all driving situations, with plenty of extra punch for tight passing situations on two-lane highways.
Overall handling response is a cut above the Escort sedan and wagon, which are competent in their own right. We were also impressed by the precision and feel of the steering, as well as the firm-but-smooth ride quality.
While its power-to-weight ratio is close to that of a Neon sedan, the ZX2 doesn't provide quite as much dash as the Chrysler product. On the other hand, its performance seems to measure up very well versus other leading compacts, including the best-in-class Civics. And it has a distinct edge in refinement versus the Neons, which continue to be a trifle raucous, despite ongoing refinements to their hot rod hearts.
Already a best selling line, the Escort family is sure to benefit by the addition of this charming new coupe.
Its performance doesn't quite measure up to its tigerish appearance, but it does measure up favorably versus most competitors, and it offers better-than-average driving fun with top-notch comfort and quality. That's a winning blend by any standard.
Due to hit Ford showrooms in April, the ZX2's pricing had not been finalized at press time. However, we know it will be at the top of the Escort family tree, with a base price of about $13,000, including Ford's $415 destination charge. Judging by Escort sedan options, we estimate the price of our test car at about $14,500.
Sedan prices start at $11,430, wagons, which are LX only, at $12,480. Prices for the Tracer sedan and wagon run a touch higher.
Whichever version you choose, we think you'll be pleased with these pleasant, competent small cars.