RAV4 or a ZX2?

The Internet-and-coffeehouse generation faces some tough choices these days in the car market. It's not easy to find a fresh, exciting style on a limited budget, especially if you're a first-time buyer.

Even if your initial choice is a sport-ute like Toyota Motor Corp.'s popular RAV4, the all-new 1998 Ford Escort ZX2 merits a hard look. In short, this subcompact coupe is fun, stylish and affordable. Our test vehicle was equipped with a nice selection of options, including a trunk-mounted 6-disc CD changer, and was priced at just over $16,000.

She: You can talk about how the engine feels, and the torque steer and all that guy stuff. My biggest gripe with the ZX2 is that the compact disc player is a $515 option. What were they thinking? A CD player is like a washing machine or a telephone to the kids who would buy this car. It's a necessity, not an option, especially when you're shelling out $13,000 for the base model.

He: Sounds like you've lost all respect for Ford.

She: But I'm still giving the car three stars . . .

He: Typical female.

She: As I was saying, I'm going to forgive Ford for the CD player gaffe because I think the ZX2 stacks up so well against the rather boring competition. The Honda Civic coupe? A car for a junior stockbroker who wants to look hip and can't afford a 3-series BMW. A Saturn SC1? Nice styling can't hide its anemic 100-horsepower engine. The Chrysler Neon? Getting too close to being a car that junior high school kids aspire to.

He: I'm with you on the styling. Ford did a clever job in disguising the Escort. Looking at the ZX2, you'd never guess that beneath that cool skin beats the heart of a fairly sedate subcompact.

She: I wasn't overly impressed with the engine or the performance. It's OK if you're traveling alone. But people who buy a coupe tend to travel in herds with their friends, especially during leisure hours. When you put two or more adults in the car, the ZX2 feels too sluggish.

He: Actually, it's not that bad. Remember, this is supposed to be the successor to the old Escort GT. So Ford dropped the twin-cam Zetec four-cylinder into the coupe. It's a 2.0-liter that makes 130 horsepower. With the standard five-speed manual gearbox, it's not a bad combination - plenty responsive, and you'll still get 30 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the EPA.

She: The optional $595 sport package on our test vehicle is well worth the money. You get bigger 15-inch aluminum wheels and tires, which helps improve the car's ride quality. Other goodies in the package, like the rear spoiler, fog lamps and the chrome exhaust tip, really dress up the car for not a lot of extra money.

Ford has also come up with four metallic exterior colors that are unique to the coupe, including Ash Gold and Denim Blue. In addition, you get three good-size cupholders, and the split folding rear seat allows you to cram lots of gear in the bac k.

He: Hey, it's still an Escort underneath. Which I suppose is not exactly a criticism. The ZX2 does have all-independent suspension, with front and rear stabilizer bars, which will help keep you on track when you're feeling really aggressive. The power rack-and-pinion steering seems responsive enough, too.

Power front disc and rear drum brakes are standard issue, but you have to pay $570 extra for antilock. Our test vehicle, incidentally, wasn't equipped with ABS, which I think is a crime. I wouldn't buy or recommend a car without ABS.

She: I wouldn't recommend passing up the option, but I think you'd better move over. Ford is expecting 60 percent of ZX2 buyers to be women, so I think I'm going to carry a little more weight than you with this review.

He: I thought you said the car was sluggish. Better not carry too much extra weight.

She: Whatever. Women will find several positive qualities about the ZX2, including a battery-saver feature that auto ically turns off the dome lamp if the door's left ajar.

He: What about dim bulbs like you who leave the headlamps on?

She: Who had to call AAA last month from a parking lot in Troy because he left his lights on, Mr. Smartypants? Even though you probably won't admit it, sounds like you might also appreciate the ZX2's two different remote keyless entry systems, including a driver's-door-only remote that seems to make a lot of sense to single women.

He: But it's a real pain for couples and families because it won't open the passenger door. You have to reach over and do it manually, so what's the point?

She: You're nitpicking the small stuff, which is a shame. Younger buyers tend to look at the big picture. They want three things - great sound systems, exciting style and affordability. You get the style and affordability up front. You have to pay a little extra for the CD changer or cassette player.

He: But you can still get a nicely equipped car - even with the additional safety features like ABS - for under $17,000.

She: And it's not going to be Mom's Escort sedan.

1998 Ford Escort ZX2

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe.

Price: Base, $13,145; as tested, $16,105 (inc. $415 destination charge, less $435 package discount).

What's new for '98: All-new model for '98.

Standard equipment: Power steering, power brakes, all-independent suspension, all-season radial tires, tachometer, center console with cupholders, passenger-side visor vanity mirror, tinted glass, AM-FM stereo, intermittent wipers.

Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes (optional).

Options on test vehicle: Preferred equipment package 328A, including air conditioning, rear defroster, power mirrors, power locks, remote entry and power windows ($1,825); sport package, including 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, spoiler, bright-tip exhaust ($595); floor mats ($45); and 6-disc CD changer ($515).

EPA fuel economy: 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway.

Engine: 2.0-liter I-4; 130-hp at 5750 rpm; 127 lb-ft torque at 4250 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors: Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire, Saturn SC, Dodge/Plymouth Neon, Toyota Paseo, Nissan 200SX, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Mirage, Subaru Impreza.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 98.4 inches; overall length, 175.2 inches; curb weight, 2,478 pounds; legroom, 42.5 inches front/33.4 inches rear; headroom, 38.0 inches front/35.1 inches rear; shoulder room, 50.8 inches front/48.7 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost: According to AAA Michigan: $1,135. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets and drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Hermosillo, Mexico