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NEW, IMPROVED ESCORT RANKS NEAR TOP OF CLASS.

Byline: Richard Truett The Orlando Sentinel

Car buyers today have high expectations - even in the economy class. If a car is afflicted with poorly functioning features or stodgy design, it won't stand a chance against the two best-selling cars in the entry-level market: Honda Civic and Saturn SL.

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.

For 1997, 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.

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.

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 and 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. But on coarse roads, the noise from the tires is far too loud.

Still, the Escort is a fun-to-drive small car that offers sporty handling - and 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

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

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, air conditioner 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 6-foot person sitting in the rear will have plenty of headroom and enough legroom. 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.

All in all, the new Escort is one of the best cars in its class. Dollar for dollar, it offers tremendous value.

TEST DRIVE

1997 Ford Escort LX 4-door

Base price: $11,515

Safety: Dual air bags, side-impact protection and anti-lock brakes

Price as tested: $13,570

EPA rating: 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Box

Photo: The revamped 1997 Ford Escort offers dual air b ags, 110 horsepower and a stylish new design. One flaw is a mushy manual transmission.

Box: TEST DRIVE (See text)
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review; BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 15, 1996
Words:693
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