SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide
It can be difficult to be a young car enthusiast. Desire wants something sporty, with power, handling, style, and a degree of exclusivity. Income says otherwise. Especially for those who can afford only one car, a strict two-seater is limited in use, except by the committed fanatic. Affordable sports sedans are few and far between, and, anyway, are sedans. That leaves sports coupes. There are problems there, too. Far too many reasonably-priced sports coupes have either migrated upmarket past affordability or have just plain disappeared.
Ford has a solution for the youthful (or youthfully-budgeted) enthusiast in the 1998 Escort ZX2. True, in the past "Escort" has not particularly been associated with "sports", excepting perhaps for older European rally cars. The current Escort is a major improvement over any previous version in structural rigidity and suspension design. Even the most bread-and-butter sedan models have good handling characteristics, and can be fun to drive if a bit underpowered. The current Escort is a good basis for something sportier.
That something sportier is the ZX2. It solves the power problem handily by using the "Zetec" 4-cylinder engine from the Contour. It improves on its more mundane siblings in the suspension department as well. Although based on the sedan chassis, it was designed from the outset to be a true coupe, not a two-door sedan as is so common in the under-$20,000 sports coupe class. It also has a degree of sophistication often lacking in the budget sports coupe class, as I found during a recent week with a rather fully-optioned example. It was an enjoyable car, and, even fully-optioned, the price was reasonable.
APPEARANCE: The Escort ZX2 is definitely a Ford product. There is hardly a straight line anywhere on the car. It's a real sports coupe with its own rounded semi-fastback shape, not merely a two-door sedan as is more common in its price class. In fact, there is little similarity between the ZX2 and the rest of the Escort family besides the license plate mounting indentation in the front bumper. Slanted oval headlamps and inset driving lights with air intake nostrils over a low, oval egg-crate grille give the ZX2 a feline look at the front. It has the basic Ford concave, heavily-sculpted side panels, with a low beltline. The passenger cabin has plenty of glass, and a Taurus-like oval backlight. The optional rear spoiler looks to be right of the Taurus SHO. Squint hard and the ZX2 bears a certain similarity to its distant cousin, the Jaguar XK8.
COMFORT: The ZX2's young enthusiast target buyer shouldn't have to suffer cramped inconvenience, and won't. The ZX2 has more room inside than a certain other Ford coupe that has a name starting with "M", and can transport four people when necessary -- if the rear passengers aren't too tall. When that's not necessary, the rear seat folds with a 60/40 split for extra cargo space, and a large trunk increases the car's usefulness. But, it is made primarily for the driver and for driving. Like the outside, the interior is stylish and functional. The front bucket seats work well, and are manually multi-adjustable. The modern, flowingly-molded instrument panel places gauges and instruments in useable locations, and features the Ford Integrated Control Panel for the climate and sound system controls. A long list of options allows the ZX2 to be personalized. My test car had amenities including power windows, mirrors, and door locks, air conditioning and a rear window defogger, and an in-trunk 6-disc CD changer. Civilization on a budget.
SAFETY: The 1998 Ford Escort ZX2 has safety cage construction, dual airbags, and optional antilock brakes. ROADABILITY: Sports coupes are supposed to be fun and responsive to the driver's input, and the ZX2 has no problem succeeding at those tasks. It's an energetic and entertaining car, with good front-wheel drive road manners. The fully- independent, sport-tuned suspension makes it nimble and maneuverable, and great fun on a winding road. It has good road feel and a firm, but not harsh, ride. The ZX2 works well around town, too. Its small size makes parking easy, and good visibility helps safety. Noise and vibration levels are low.
PERFORMANCE: The 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine used in the ZX2 is not the same one found in other Escorts. It is the 2.0-liter double overhead cam, 16-valve "Zetec" found in the Contour. It has some important improvements for 1998 that make it quieter and more flexible. A new variable camshaft timing system makes it smoother, quieter, and cleaner. It's not too quiet, though, for its sports application in the ZX2. A quick jab at the accelerator pedal produces the classic 4- cylinder sports car sound and good acceleration. The standard 5-speed manual gearbox shifts very well, adding to the sports car experience. Low maintenance requirements and good gas mileage keep operating costs low.
CONCLUSIONS: Since the new Ford Escort ZX2 has hit the streets, "Escort" and "sporty" are no longer mutually exclusive terms. The ZX2 provides plenty of driving enjoyment for little cost.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 13,145 Price As Tested $ 16,845 Engine Type inline 4-cylinder, dual overhead cam, 16 valves Engine Size 2.0 liters / 121 cu. in. Horsepower 130 @ 5750 Torque (lb-ft) 127 @ 4250 Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 98.4 in. / 175.2 in. Curb Weight 2504 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 19.3 Fuel Capacity 12.8 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P185/60 R15 Goodyear Eagle RS-A Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum Suspension, front/rear independent Mac Pherson strut / independent Quadralink Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 26/33/29 0 to 60 mph 7.4 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 15.7 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.33 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Preferred equipment package 328A $ 1,425 includes: air conditioning, rear window defroster, dual power mirrors, power door locks, power windows, remote keyless entry Sport package $ 595 includes: 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, fog lamps, spoiler, trim and badging CA / NY / MA emissions $ 170 Antilock Brakes $ 570 6-disc CD changer $ 515 Destination Charge $ 415 Option Package savings ($435)