EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Ford was first with the sassiest when it introduced the Probe in 1988. This lean sport coupe became the bestseller in its class of athletic, affordable cars dedicated to returning ginger and joy to motoring.

Then, in quick and successful succession, came Nissan’s 240SX, Volkswagen’s Corrado, Honda’s Prelude, Toyota’s Celica and that incestuous trio of Eclipse, Laser and Talon from single-parent Mitsubishi.

On Acura. On Mazda. On Saturn and Geo. Everything was coming up high-performance, top-technology sport coupes with room for two and some stowage space behind the seats for coolers, swimsuits and overdeveloped senses of fun.

Checked into the boards by such dog-eat-car competition–also by the 18-month shelf life of just about anything favoring the youth of our land–Probe became blunted, almost faceless.

Now comes the second generation Probe.

And sport coupe ranks must surely part again.

For the 1993 Ford Probe is smoother, quieter, punchier, less irritable under pressure and much better balanced than before. It is longer, lower, wider, 125 pounds lighter and has lost that slightly angular, butt-high look of last year’s model.

The four-cylinder, 2.0-liter engine of the base Probe develops 115 horsepower, or five more ponies than its predecessor. Thanks to a potent, highly refined, 24-valve V-6, the up-market GT version of the Probe is now a 132 m.p.h. motor car just a few shivers superior to the majority of the competition. Both engines are built by Mazda, Ford’s Japanese partner.

The pioneer Probe was the world’s worst front-driver, with an alarming habit of lifting its bow and skewing its front wheels during hard acceleration. Thanks to the careful wizardry of suspension geometry–mainly revisions to shocks and bushings–this demon of torque steer has been rendered extinct.

The car remains flat and precise at all points of hard maneuvering; first-generation engine noises have been insulated out of consciousness and almost earshot, and the styling is very, very muscular.

Also, the $20,000 price barrier of sport couping remains intact–only $13,175 for the base Probe and $15,174 for the heavier-engined Probe GT. Even a GT stuffed with everything from anti-lock brakes to a CD player mounted to Ford’s booming JBL tune box and graphic equalizer costs only $19,000 and change.

Externally, the car is very cool. Ford has lowered the cowl –where the dashboard meets the bottom of the windshield–three inches and advanced the passenger compartment for an attractive “cab forward” look.

The bonus of cab forward, however, is more than simple assumption of the Le Mans look.

Sitting farther forward increases overall sitting room. It also dramatically increases visibility for a driver and brings the road closer. That improves the sense of control, the racy feel that enhances the rush of driving a tight, peppy coupe.

There ‘s also a wonderful sculpture to the exterior, with gentle indentations adding a distinctive waist. And the grille, all deeply curved slots concealing fog lights and turn signals, is much more a commemoration of Henry Moore than any legacy of Henry Ford.

If it weren’t for pop-up headlights, Probe’s face and profile would be perfect. Try this for tacit proof of this particular case of the uglies: Not one publicity picture released by Ford shows the Probe with headlights in the full bug-eye position. The Probe’s interior is anchored by a thick piping of contrasting color, which runs from both doors around the line of the dash. It brings a certain containment to what otherwise would be divided clusters of instruments, radio and climate controls, and the center console.

It is a clean, intelligently arranged interior, with meaty climate switches and foot-pedal placement just perfect for heel-and-toe shifting when kid racers come out to play.

Yet this isn’ a perfect sitting room.

Rear visibility remains squeezed to a slit by the severe rake of a rear window further cluttered by a mid-level brake light and a big wiper.

In their search for simplicity, interior designers have ordered up three analog gauges for engine temperature, oil pressure and oil temperature. Two dials have H and L for operating extremes. All have normal written around their operating bands. At speed, glancing quickly at the symbols, you guess which gauge is reporting what function.

Seats grip firmly for short hauls and zipping about the neighborhood. But on heftier runs–say a long weekend of 400 miles there and back–seating discomforts will have elbows, knees and several vertebrae in desperate need of WD-40.

And because nobody likes to breakfast alone when on the road, one cup holder certainly isn’t enough in a car that carries two grown coffee drinkers. Although the Probe’s shell is by Ford, its chassis and drive train are by Mazda. That explains the superiority of handling, the quick turn-in of the steering and a seat-of-the-pants security similar to that of the Mazda RX-7.

Set the car up for any corner, fast or slow, sweeper or right angle, and it stays where pointed. Adjust power a little in that turn, tighten upor loosen the steering, even create the cardinal unbalancing act of backing hard off the throttle, and the Probe accepts its new instructions with no muss, no wiggles.

Acceleration of the 164-horsepower V-6 is solid from rest and easy throughout the gears. Inattentive drivers, in fact, will often be looking at 80 m.p.h. while still groping for fifth.

First gear on the GT is particularly long-legged. It’s good for 30 m.p.h. to allow smoother starts and a longer takeoff roll before forward progress must be interrupted by a grab for second gear.

The shifter is smooth, relatively short and much fun to flick. Mid-range acceleration is a lunge–although Probes equipped with automatic transmissions are not quite so quick–while GT gas consumption is a respectable 21 city, 26 highway.

Yet the competition is becoming thicker.

Mazda has introduced a flashy MX-6. Volkswagen has gone to V-6 power in its Corrado. The Isuzu Impulse RS offers all-wheel drive and a turbocharger.

However, the 1993 Ford Probe comes with advanced styling, solid value, a good pedigree and an interesting blend of American looks and Japanese technology.

That should be quite enough to keep Probe’s fortunes and future riding high–front and center.

1993 Ford Probe GT

The Good Lusty performance without thirst. Perfect handling. Advanced, cab-forwardstyling. Megabang for the buck.

The Bad Squinty rear vision. Uncomfortable seats for long rides.

The Ugly What else? Pop-up headlights.

Cost Base $15,174 As tested $19,595 (including anti-lock brakes, CD playe r, keyless entry, driver’s side air bag, air conditioning, cruise control, anti-theft system and power driver’s seat).

Engine 2.5 liter, 24-valve V-6 developing 164 horsepower.

Type Front drive, 2+2 sport coupe.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with manual transmission, 8 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 132 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city-highway, 21-26 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,815 pounds.

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