In the car business, Z's seldom have much to do with sleeping. I don't remember ever nodding off at the wheel of a 300-horsepower Nissan 300ZX Turbo. Nor do I recall feeling drowsy while tooling around in the 405-horsepower Corvette ZR-1.

And I didn't find myself slumped over the wheel in the brand-new Ford Escort ZX2, either.

Granted, this small, sporty coupe is not in a league with those Nissan and Chevy carnivores. But it is a cute little funster that's lively enough to keep you from thinking you just swallowed a fuel tank full of Nytol.

Adventurously styled, motivated by a willing, 130-horsepower engine, and fitted with a performance-oriented suspension, the ZX2 is aimed at young singles and couples who want a car that looks and acts sporty, but doesn't share a window sticker with the Ferrari 550 Maranello. And indeed, a starting price of $13,145 isn't real high in Italian protein.

The ZX2 hits the market about a year after the arrival of the Escort sedan and wagon. While it is based on the sedan/wagon platform, it shares a lot less with those cars than you may think.

And that's what I find particularly interesting about this car: At a moment in automotive history when cutting costs through component "commonality" is the industry rage, Ford didn't make a coupe by recycling an Escort sedan. It developed a coupe model with a different body, a different engine, and a higher-performing suspension.

The new coupe body is fresh sheet metal, and markedly sportier than its sedan sibling. The front-end treatment is pleasantly predatory, and the carving on the sides is reminiscent of the flanks of big brother Taurus.

There's also a whiff of the Taurus inside the ZX2, particularly in the insular control panel for the radio, heater and air conditioner. While we're accusing the ZX2's interior of a little fraternal plagiarism, we might also charge it with being comfortable, quiet and easy to use.

The driver's seat is positioned well, and furnishes adequate lateral support. Visibility is good, as is control and instrument accessibility. There's decent legroom in the back seat, but you'll hit your head if you've reached the big 6-0.

The ZX2's interior is unblemished from an aesthetic standpoint. The dash and door panels are a series of graceful curves. Small cloth inserts in the door panels subtly relieve the plastic expanse without running up costs too much.

The attention to detail inside and outside the ZX2 typify the quantum leap in refinement Ford made when it redesigned the Escort. Like its siblings, the ZX2 is more fun to drive than its predecessor because it's slicker and more athletic. It rides and handles better, it's faster, it's quieter, and more sophisticated. I might add that the body margins and paint work on the test car were first-rate.

Under the hood, you find the kind of engine technology used in the top-ticket Honda Civic. The ZX2 is powered by a 130-horsepower version of the 125-horse, 2-liter Zetec engine used in the larger Ford Contour. This engine features dual overhead cams, 16 valves, and variable valve timing.

This engine makes the car as lively as it is agile -- and it is quite nimble. Ford fine-tuned the Escort steering and suspension used in the ZX2 to maximize road feel and agility. The steering gear is very responsive, and the modifications to the fully independent Escort suspension keep the car flat and composed in the corners. The suspension is a tad firmer than the sedan's, but still provides a nice ride.

The ZX2 is fairly roomy by subcompact standards, with an interior volume of 92.4 cubic feet. Trunk volume is a decent 11.8 cubic feet, and can be extended with the 60/40 split-fold rear seat.

The vehicle has easy-to-digest EPA mileage ratings of 26 city and 33 highway.