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.