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BEHIND THE WHEEL

A Subcompact That's Got Room to Improve

June 21, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We'd forgotten how such gentle marketing words as "simple," "practical," "inexpensive" and "sensible" also translate to the harsher realities of zero frills and naked essentials.

Or of basic transportation, which is the major advantage and principal hardship of the 1997 Ford Escort subcompact.

Advantage: For $11,930--the precise price of last year's Escort and $500 less than a Honda Civic--you get a 33-mpg commuter car with four doors for easier car-pooling and a larger trunk than Dodge Neon's. Without turning purple, the new Escort will keep up with today's revisionist freeway speeds and shows enough ovoid styling that observers with challenged depth perception just might confuse it with Contour and Taurus.

Hardship: Anything this stripped usually has been stolen first. Even on an LX with the first of four options packages, windows are windup and mirrors are museum pieces adjusted by hand. Air-conditioning, automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes cost extra. Interior furnishings--an upholstery surface listed as "saddle cloth" might suggest leather, but feels more like a horse blanket--are early Motel 6. The car is noisier and rides harsher than a Honda Civic and doesn't play with others as well as the Neon.

And Escort has the oddest keyless entry system since sardine cans stopped coming with keys. Remote opening and locking is indeed one-touch. But the button only opens and locks the driver's door. So if pooch and passenger traffic has been heavy at the three other doors, even a super-attentive driver will be leaving some doors unlocked.

Still, evaluated as a whole, this Escort is a massive improvement on its predecessor, where harshness of ride and an unamusing performance profile probably left even pitchwoman Lindsay Wagner wondering how such a mousetrap stayed America's best-selling subcompact for more than a dozen years.

(Aside: Escort was knocked off that perch last year when it lost the national subcompact title to Civic.)

Completely remade for 1997, and cloned as the Mercury Tracer, the Escort has been given a robust 2.0-liter engine developing 110 horsepower. That's up from 88 horsepower when acceleration was wimpy enough to invite sprinkling the car with snail bait.

Although construction is still based on the 1991 Mazda Protege platform, the body and underpinnings have been reinforced by much cross bracing to reduce fuselage flexing and to stiffen the ride. Similar attention has been paid to the suspension, with tougher struts and springs and a larger anti-roll bar up front to better prepare the car for more vigorous drivers.

And broader Uniroyal Tiger Paws and wider wheels add more grab and a stickier grip to a vehicle that is no longer the overburdened subcompact of yore.

Yet it would still be unwise to join country road combat with economy sedans wearing alloy wheels. For although Escort does indeed maneuver at a higher level of frolic, it still is not fiercely competitive.

There's much body roll and leaning as the car approaches its limits when cornering. That 25% power increase and slicker suspension have traded last year's oversteer for this year's understeer, not exactly the lesser evil when handling begins slip-sliding away.

And to keep things progressing with verve, to pump up engine revolutions to where they perform best, be prepared to work the gearbox and its very efficient shifter until they start smoldering.

Despite improved smothering, Escort isn't a cocoon when it comes to shutting out road and engine noise. Back seats are still a scrunch. On the other hand, it's certainly not the noisiest or crampiest in class.

To continue all these points and counterpoints, Escort is a relatively attractive package, but one that doesn't leave the impression Ford's styling department worked overtime and sent out for pizza while sculpting the car. The family resemblance to Contour is there, and sharp angles of the old three-box design have been rounded.

But the subcompact market is jammed with dashing rascals. Neon, in particular; also Honda's Civic and Toyota's Corolla and Saturn's Saturn. Knowing Escort would be in the company of such good lookers for the next few years should have motivated Ford stylists into investing a little extra overtime, pizza and heartburn into a more radical shape.

Cars costing $11,000 certainly do not come with Lincoln Mark VIII interiors. Escort's insides are pleasant, built for the broader market with middle-of-the-price-curve vinyls and fabrics. The seats create few discomforts or awkward driving positions.

But it's a little jarring to see Taurus' sound and climate control module--about the shape and size of an ostrich egg--staring unblinking from the dashboard. Visuals aren't the issue; the problem is buttons and knobs that are too similar and not exactly fingertip-friendly.

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