Car buyers today have high expectations. Even inexpensive economy cars can't be cheaply made, lack features or have dull styling. If a car is afflicted with any of those deficiencies, it won't stand a chance against the two best-selling cars in the class: Honda Civic and Saturn SL. These two small cars have come to define and dominate the entry-level market.

In a recent survey by San Diego-based Strategic Vision, the Saturn SL and Honda Civic finished first and second in the consulting firm's Total Quality Experience survey. Entry-level buyers love these cars.

Even though Ford's Escort has been among the nation's most popular small cars for almost 15 years, Ford often has had to rely on rebates and incentives to move them. In other words, Ford stressed the Escort's price instead of its features.

With the new Escort, Ford can tout the car's high level of standard equipment, dual air bags and classy styling, and let the Subarus, Kias and Hyundais of the world battle for the budget-constrained buyers who look more for low price than features.

The Civic and Saturn sell for their sticker prices because they are in such high demand. I expect the new Escort also will sell for its sticker price.


Ford has overhauled the Escort from one end to the other. Last year's 1.9-liter 88-horsepower four-cylinder engine has been supplanted by a new 2.0-liter unit that makes 110 horsepower. The Escort's performance is much crisper than it used to be, but it still lacks the sparkle of a Saturn SL or a Dodge Neon Sport. The Escort's engine runs smoothly and delivers power strongly, but it growls noisily as the engine revs.

Our test car came with a five-speed manual transmission. This is the Escort's weak point. The shifter is loose and sloppy, though it does go into gear quickly and fairly smoothly. The clutch pedal feels spongy and vague. Ford engineers could take a few hints from the Saturn and Civic and improve the feel of the Escort's clutch and shifter.

To me, the clutch and shifter help convey high-quality engineering. Drive a Mazda Miata or a Honda Civic with a stick shift, and you'll see what I mean.

A four-speed automatic transmission is optional, and most Escorts probably will be sold that way.

All Escorts are outfitted with a four-wheel independent suspension system, power front disc/rear drum brakes and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. The suspension system does an excellent job of ironing out the kinks in the road. The stiff body does not flex over large bumps, and the Escort's ride always is solid and stable.

But there's still room for improvement. On coarse roads, the noise from the tires is far too loud. Once again, a minor shortcoming adds serious demerits to an otherwise excellent automobile. Either a better set of tires or more padding would keep the din from interior.

Still, the Escort is a fun to drive small car that offers sporty handling.

Our bright-red test car delivered an even 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving.


The new Escort's styling melds design elements from the Escort's Contour and Taurus cousins and offers a look that is better than both.

To some buyers, the new Taurus is strange-looking. The Contour also has left some buyers cold with its avante garde styling. But the new Escort uses the best design cues of both cars. I especially like the Escort's Taurus-influenced rear taillight treatment. From the side, the new Escort has the rounded look of a slightly smaller Contour.

Our test car was assembled well; everything worked perfectly. This is one car where the beauty of the design is not just skin deep.

Inside, Ford has created another version of the ICP - integrated control panel - first offered on the new Taurus and Mercury Sable. The ICP in the Escort is much easier to use. All of the controls for the tape player, radio, airc nditioner and rear defroster are housed in an oval panel in the center of the dash. The radio buttons are large and easy to use - unlike the ones in the Taurus.

I especially like the stylish dash, which looks like a smaller version of the one used in the Contour. It curves wildly from the driver's side to the passenger's, and gives the car a classy, expensive look.

Interior room is excellent for a small car. A six-foot person sitting in the rear will have plenty of headroom and enough legroom to be comfortable. And there is plenty of room for cargo. The rear seats split and fold forward, and the trunk is big and easy to load.

Ford got the dimensions and the size of the windows just right. You never feel claustrophobic, and visibility is excellent in all directions.

Our test car came equipped with electric door locks and an automatic trunk opener on the key fob. It also had an alarm system that makes the horn beep when you press a button.

The air conditioner also is excellent. It took very little time to cool the car on a 90-degree day.

Even though the new Escort has a few minor shortcomings, I think it is one of the best cars in its class. Dollar for dollar, the new Escort offers tremendous value.