We drove Ford's Escort ZX2 to the depths of Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, to appreciate how high Ford has set the bar for its newest sport coupe.

The entry-level model begins at $12,995, but Ford said it expects the average car to sell for about $14,200. The official sale date is April 17, which happens to be the 33rd anniversary of the introduction of the Mustang. It is built in Hermosillo, Mexico.

Ford recently brought journalists here to sample the ZX2 as well as the 1998 Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique. Based on two 120-mile trips from Las Vegas to Death Valley and back, the ZX2 is a more-than-worthy addition to the Escort line and in many ways outshines its compact sport coupe competitors such as the Saturn, Honda Civic, Neon and Chevrolet Cavalier.

When Ford overhauled the Escort last year with a new body it temporarily shelved the three-door hatchback coupe. The ZX2 takes its place, and it is a decidedly sportier car with a unique body and interior.

This spunky two-door looks like Probe Jr., with a nicely rounded snout and trim flanks. It has a back seat that is actually usable by real adults and its 130-horsepower, twin-cam engine (borrowed from the Contour and Mystique) provides sprightly performance and good fuel economy. The handling is crisp and responsive without being sports-car firm, and the interior is tight and rattle free.

Our first exposure to the ZX2 was on a tight handling track laid out in a empty parking lot next to the airport in Las Vegas. Whipping around the cones to our heart's content gave us a chance to sample its handling and compare it to competitors. In this environment the ZX2 was responsive and agile, despite a fair amount of body lean and squealing tires. Some of the other cars took turns flatter but not any faster, and the Escort generally felt more composed. The Sport version, with a manual transmission and 15-inch tires, was clearly the most adept.

As we began the drive over the mountains into Death Valley in 97 degree heat, we were able to sample the car in a variety of environments, from long, gradual climbs to twisty switchbacks to flat-out straightaways. Even running with the air conditioning on there seemed to be more than adequate power. The Zetec, 2.0-liter engine felt strong at both low and high speed thanks to variable camshaft timing (VCT) that adjusts the engine's output according to the speed it is driven. VCT also contributes to a smooth idle and fewer emissions.

In the course of our trip I drove both automatic and manually equipped models, and while the five-speed was the most fun and offered the best performance, the automatic sapped very little energy from the engine.

The throttle is designed with a quick-opening linkage that makes the car lively from a standing start. At full throttle the engine computer momentarily turns off the air conditioning compressor to preserve power.

Cruising across the desert what seemed like an occasional misfire was only the air conditioning compressor cycling on and off.

On the undulating two-lane highways through Death Valley the ZX2's rigid body structure gave it a tight, secure feel, while the suspension soaked up bumps without being mushy. Ride and handling have a distinctly European feel.

Inside, the dashboard follows Ford's current thinking by having the radio and climate controls integrated into a single, oval unit. Market research shows that drivers adjust the radio five times more than they change temperatures so the radio is located highest in the cluster. All buttons are large and logically placed.

The asymmetrical instrument pod has analog gauges, including a tachometer. The rear seat is a 60//40 split-folding design, and the trunk has a reasonable capacity. The driver's seat has a memory feature so you do not have to reset the seat back each time you access the back seat.

Based on this cursory driving experience, the ZX2's solid road behavior, peppy engine and compe tive price has changed the landscape of the compact sports coupe segment. We await the chance to spend a week with a regular production model for further evaluation.

The ZX2 is targeted at young buyers, many of whom will be women. A keyless remote, with panic button, that opens only the driver's door, and a battery saver turns off lights after 10 minutes to save power. Twenty-four-hour roadside assistance is also standard.

The base price is $12,995. We drove a variety of models and estimate the as-driven price to range from $14,000 to $16,000.

The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

ENGINE: 2.0-liter, 4-cyl.


WHEELBASE: 98.4 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 2,504 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $12,995

PRICE AS DRIVEN: Est. $14,200 to $16,000

MPG RATING: 25 city, 33 hwy.