``The Escort had grown a bit long in the tooth,`` said Errol Jackson, chief development engineer for Ford Motor Co. whose task the last three years has been to find a fountain of youth for the aging machine.

To say Escort had grown old in the last decade is to be kind to the subcompact. If Ford didn`t do something quick, Escort was in danger of needing a respirator to keep up with the new competition that`s entered the market.

To hear Jackson tell it in a preview of the `91 Escort last week, you wonder not only how the vehicle survived, but also how it was Ford`s top selling car in the `80s.

And Escort was the industry`s top selling car for three years, the No. 2 seller for four years and the third best seller for one year in the `80s.

But the car had its faults.

``The power train was noisy, and it didn`t have much get-up-and-go, especially in terms of low-end, off-the-line performance,`` Jackson said.

Then, too, Escort was hardly a styling gem. It was a bit cramped inside and had garnered a reputation for going through engine timing belts rapidly.

We test drove the 1991 Escort that goes on sale April 26 and found just about all the flaws have been corrected; only time will tell whether the timing belt troubles are over. Ford promises, however, that a beefed-up belt will solve that.

For the `91 model year, Escort is offered in two- and four-door hatchback versions, station wagon and two-door GT sports coupe.

Escort was designed and developed in cooperation with Ford`s Japanese partner, Mazda. The Escort is built off the same platform as Mazda`s subcompact Protege.

The four-door LX was available for test drives at the preview.

The four-door looks like a miniature of the midsize Ford Taurus. The wagon is even more strikingly Taurus-like in appearance. The sheet metal on the two-door that we`ve seen in Dearborn, however, resemblance the old Escort. Like the Taurus, Escort sports a clean front end with a Ford oval logo floating in the nose where the grille`s usually housed.

Rather than squared-off body lines, the new Escort features rounded body panels, hood and deck lid akin to Taurus.

The styling heritage was by design, Jackson said.

``We wanted the personality appeal of the Taurus to spread to the Escort,`` he said.

Based on the fresh new styling alone, Escort should appeal to small-car buyers. But Ford went a step further and added the performance the old version was lacking.

Make no mistake, this is not a fire breather. The primary intent of Ford`s entry-level lineup is high mileage to help boost its corporate fuel economy rating.

The noticeable difference between the old and new cars, however, is that though the 1.9-liter 4-cylinder engine used in both is designed for economy, a redesign of the 1.9 for `91 provides the low-end pep that had been lacking.

The redesigned 1. 9 delivers only 88 horsepower, about the same as the former version. But you get a greater rush of power off the light or when pulling from the driveway.

Attention was paid to zero-to-45-mile-per-hour acceleration to stay with the flow and not zero-to-60-m.p.h. clockings to time how fast you can pull away from the crowd.

A 5-speed manual transmission is standard in every Escort. We drove the LX with manual and the 4-speed automatic that`s a $732 option. The EPA rating is 29 miles per gallon city/36 m.p.g. highway with manual, 25/33 with automatic.

The 5-speed is a smooth-shifting unit and not only makes for a bit livelier performance but quieter acceleration as well.

For those who demand more than the 1.9 delivers, the two-door GT coupe has a 1.8-liter, 127-h.p., 16-valve, 4-cylinder. That engine isn`t available in any other Escort model.

Tired styling and sluggish performance solved, Ford turned to the interior. The wheelbase was len thened to 98.4 inches from 94.2 inches and overall length grew to 170.9 inches from 169.4 inches.

Also, the new Escort gained a half inch in width from the rounded sheet metal. The added length and width, combined with placing power mirror and rear window defroster controls on the instrument panel rather than the door armrests, means you have far more room in the new Escort.

The extended wheelbase also smooths the ride by moving occupants a bit farther from the wheels.

Escort isn`t blessed with sports suspension and in tight turns and corners, you`ll experience some sway and lean. To counter that the bucket seats are wide and deep and feature a small side wing to hold you in place in sharp maneuvering.

Escort comes with 13-inch all-season radial tires. You can get 14-inch tires only on the GT coupe.

In back, the rear seat will handle two adults with respectable head and leg room.

The cargo hold will handle luggage or groceries and comes with a cover to hide the contents. And a grab handle is built into the hatch lid to make it easy to close.

The rear seats fold down individually to increase cargo capacity.

To increase rear seat leg room, however, the back seat bottom tilts slightly, just enough so the seat backs don`t fold flat.

Other features worth noting are a clean dash with controls all within easy sight and reach, an arrow by the fuel gauge to remind you the filler door is on the left side of the vehicle, dual cupholders built into the center console, power operated shoulder belts that fasten around your torso when the key is turned on, ignition interlock that prevents shifting from park unless you apply the brake and yellow markings under the hood to quickly point out fluids that need attention.

There are two items the Escort lacks that it should and will have-but not for a few years.

Escort doesn`t offer a driver`s side air bag. Jackson said in `94 Escort will get driver- and passenger-side air bags.

Escort also doesn`t offer antilock brakes. Most small cars don`t; the industry has chosen to put the high-cost system in its bigger cars first.

Jackson said that Escort will add antilock brakes for 1993.

Base prices on Escort range from $7,565 for the Pony to $11,063 for the GT. The four-door LX we drove starts at $8,674, the two-door LX at $8,247 and the four-door wagon at $9,259.

Among the popular options, automatic will run $732 and air conditioning $744.

Wagon (10/15/90)
There was a time not too long ago that station wagons came in small, medium and large.

Your choice was dictated by the number of kids: Small if you had one baby, medium for one baby and one toddler, big for a trio of pre-teens and the dog.

But wagons had their drawbacks, the primary one being styling. In fact, styling was so poor it also was problems No. 2 and No. 3. Except for subcompacts, wagons also were notoriously lousy on mileage and hard to park.

The wagon`s worst offense was what it said to the friends of your teenage son or daughter. Its presence in the driveway meant not only that mom and dad weren`t ``with it,`` but that they probably had younger kids in the house, too. The teen would have to admit to having a younger brother or sister, which to many was worse than `fessing up to the onslaught of acne.

Along came the mini-van, a more stylish, roomier, more fuel-efficient form of transportation. Wagons suddenly lost their popularity. The telling blow was the fact that some teens didn`t mind being seen in one, and a few actually could be seen driving one.

Wagons have come this close to dying off, but General Motors Corp. has tried to prevent the inevitable by restyling its full-size Buick, Oldsmobile, and Chevrolet wagons for 1991. In private talks, GM officials make it clear the intent isn`t so much to get the sm ll family back into the station wagon as it is to give Grandpa and Grandma a place to store their luggage for the visit to the kids, or to give the yuppie couple a convenient spot to house the registered mutt on the way to the weekend kennel show.

Then again, officials said they`ve made wagon presentations to mortuaries, a group not overly fascinated with slide-open side doors and seating for seven.

One reason consumers kissed off wagons is that the industry already had. Except for the midsize Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable wagons, try to name a wagon that doesn`t look like it belongs in a mortician`s driveway.

The subcompact, front-wheel-drive Ford Escort station wagon could help change all that.

For starters, it sports all-new sheet metal, larger dimensions, and a peppier engine for 1991. If the subcompact sedan is a bit too small and the compact minivan a shade too large, the Escort wagon is a niche to be checked out.

The wheelbase has been extended to 98.4 inches from 94.2 inches in 1990, and length has grown to 171.3 inches from 169.4 inches. Width expanded to 66.7 inches from 65.9 inches. The longer wheelbase provides a smoother ride, the greater length contributes to more leg room and cargo-carrying capacity, and the added width means you can extend your arms without hitting the windows.

The exterior has been rounded and looks just like a Taurus wagon, only in miniature. The rear seatbacks fold to provide even more cargo-carrying space. Power is supplied by a new 1.9-liter, 88-horsepower fuel-injected four- cylinder engine. With 88 horses, you aren`t going to pull a trailer, but you are going to get a 29 city/36 highway mileage rating with standard five- speed manual transmission. The rating is 25/33 with optional automatic.

One reason wagons had little appeal in past years is that little or no attention was paid to ride and handling. As long as a week`s luggage or your groceries fit and you could stack the kids in, nobody cared that a wagon had the same road ability as a school bus on the highway.

The `91 Escort wagon has four-wheel, fully independent suspension, plus front and rear stabilizer bars. You feel as if you`re driving a sedan, not a wagon. Nice touch.

If your family is small, and one child and the crib would be lost in a mini-van; if you run a small business that requires frequent deliveries, and $1.40-a-gallon gasoline makes fuel economy essential; if you need a vehicle to haul tools or equipment with more safety than an open-top pickup truck cargo bed can offer, then the Escort wagon will satisfy your needs.

We test-drove the LX wagon with a base price of $9,259. Standard equipment included power brakes, 13-inch steel-belted radials (we`d prefer 14- inch), power mirrors, AM/FM stereo with digital clock, tinted glass, trip odometer, bodyside moldings, motorized shoulder belts, cargo cover shade, cupholders in t he center console, child locks and an inside hood release.

Automatic transmission adds $732 to the price; air conditioning $744; and an upgraded AM/FM stereo with cassette $155. There`s also a $685 ``special value`` package that includes power steering and rear-window defroster, and a $344 ``power convenience group`` that includes tilt wheel, cruise control, tachometer and power door locks.

The power door locks present a problem. When you push the door lock on the driver`s side, all doors lock except the tailgate. That means you could walk away from the wagon believing those packages in back were safe because you had locked the doors, only to find the parcels gone when you return because you hadn`t walked around back and locked the tailgate separately. That feature needs a quick revision.

If we could make two other changes, we`d adjust the brakes so that there`s more pedal pressure and less play, and we`d call on Ford`s partner Mazda to obtain the f ur-wheel-drive system offered in the Mazda Protege for the Escort wagon.

1991 Ford Escort GT (04/16/90)
The 1991 Ford Escort GT has it all-almost.

The subcompact GT sports new sheet metal, bigger dimensions, higher performance and the quiet usually associated with larger cars.

The exterior design has a sporty flair to camouflage the fact that the GT is basically a high-mileage Escort.

The larger interior dimensions, brought about by the larger exterior dimensions, eliminate the cramped feeling so common with subcompact cars.

You get more leg, arm and head room. The stretched wheelbase also moves occupants farther from the point of contact and harshness over the wheels for smoother ride.

Under the hood there`s a Mazda-built 1.8-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine that develops 127 horsepower to provide some punch for what started out as an economy car.

And thanks to a greater focus on noise reduction to give the perception of quality, the GT purrs rather than growls and roars.

But the Escort GT comes up short in panache, or the intangible verve and vitality you`ve come to expect in small cars now that the Mazda Miata and Chevrolet Geo Storm have entered the market.

With Miata and Storm, the industry has a new definition of what a small, fun-to-drive car should be-panache galore from lively, nimble, great looking machines that you want to get in and play with until the gas gauge needle touches ``E.``

With the GT, rather than come up with a new sporty car when its Escort line came up for revamping, Ford simply came up with a sporty version of its high-mileage Escort hatchback. You have to settle for plastic rocker panels, wheel lip flairs and deck lid spoiler added to the Escort hatchback.

The 1991 Escort GT is a much improved version of what the car had been, but it doesn`t have that same draw as a Miata or Storm.

One disappointmentis the new styling. The GT sheet metal has been freshened up as it has for the Escort line for a midyear `91 debut. The GT has plastic rocker panel cladding and wheel lip flairs are just fashion accessories.

The front end also left us cold. A series of louvers are right of center in the nose and a Ford logo is to the left. Ford calls it asymetrical. The result is a slightly off keel look.

A 5-speed manual is standard but for the first time the GT is offered with automatic, a $732 option. The test car had 4-speed automatic.

``We added automatic,`` said Errol Jackson, chief development engineer for the Escort project, ``because we found people like the GT look and want more of a sense of performance but live in places like Chicago and don`t road rallye a lot. They don`t want to have to shift all the time. They find that zero to 60 in 8.2 seconds with automatic is enough to have fun and enjoy the car.``

With automatic the GT is a sporty looking car that doesn`t intimidate the driver. The speedometer reads 120 m.p.h. but that`s more for show than go. The engine is peppier than the 88-h.p., 1.9-liter 4 in the Escort LX two- or four- door hatchbacks, but the focus is on zero- to 45-mile-per-hour performance while keeping the fuel economy rating at 23 miles per gallon city/30 m.p.g. highway with the automatic and 26/31 with the 5-speed manual.

The wheelbase has been extended to 98.4 inches from 94.2 inches on the prior model. Length grew to 170.9 inches from 169.4 inches. The longer wheelbase helps provide smoother ride and more stability on the road. You`ll also find the dimensions mean above average rear seat room for two adults.

The GT is missing two items. Air bags aren`t offered and won`t be until 1994, when driver- and passenger-side restraints are added, and antilock brakes aren`t even an option. They will be offered in 1993.

The new Escort was a joint development with Ford`s Japanese partner Mazda, which provided its Protege platform, engines and transmissions and allowed Ford to create its external design.

Ford learned some valuable lessons from its partner, Jackson said.

``They build a car then take it a part and put it back together again. They tweak the parts a little and then take it apart and put it together again and again and keep tweaking those parts to reach perfection.

``In 1965, we had maybe three critical dimensions to a single part that went into a car. With Mazda there were 200 critical dimensions to a part and if all 200 aren`t met, the part is unacceptable,`` he added.

A quiet car is perceived as a quality car, and the new Escort ranks above average in that. Attention was paid to such little details as using aluminum oil pans and seven hangers rather than three for the exhaust system to reduce underbody noise that could be heard in the passenger compartment.

As with any joint development, disputes are sure to arise, and Mazda and Ford had them with the Escort. Jackson avoided detailing any rifts but did say the two didn`t agree on Ford`s decision to use a plastic rather than metal fuel tank.

``Mazda didn`t want plastic but we did,`` he said. ``Not only did plastic allow us greater tank capacity and lower weight to help mileage, but we knew we might have to go to alternative fuels sometime in the future with this car line and we figured we`d rather prepare for it now than later,`` he said.

Under government clean-air proposals, it appears ethanol or methanol fuels will be used in cars soon. Jackson said they have some corrosive properties that plastics can handle but metal won`t.

The Escort is front-wheel drive, though the Mazda Protege also is offered in four-wheel drive. Ford passed on all-wheel drive for now, Jackson said.

GT standard equipment includes power brakes and steering, 15-inch, all- season, steel-belted radial tires and cast-aluminum wheels, dual power mirrors, AM-FM stereo with cassette, tinted glass, trip odometer, flip-out rear quarter windows, body colored plastic bumpers front and rear, fog lamps, decklid spoiler, console with storage bin/dual cup holders, split/folding rear seats, variable speed wipers, motorized front shoulder belts, remote liftgate and fuel door openers, four-wheel independent suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars. Among options air conditioning runs $744.

Base price is $11,063.