The cars we loved.
The late 90’s were sad times for fans of the Escort. Once, America’s favorite small car, it had grown in scope and by 1997 had become a sedan and station wagon sans its original two door hatch configuration. As a concession
to fans of the Escort GT (and recently departed Ford Probe), Ford released a short-lived two door coupe version of the Escort called the Escort ZX2 on the Mazda B platform.
It was smaller than the Probe, but slightly larger than the Escort GT it replaced. It had a version of the 2.0 4 cylinder DOHC Zetec that was a slight bump up in power from the Mazda sourced 1.8 in the old GT. The biggest change from the GT to the ZX2 was in the body configuration. The new coupe no longer had a hatchback. The “two door Escort” became a proper coupe that resembled a small-scale Taurus. The rear lights, interior and greenhouse continued the Taurus oval themes but to less successful effect than the sedan version of the Escort. The front end was fish like with ovals that reminded one of tadpoles or catfish.
The ZX2’s purpose in life was to fish for sport minded entry-level buyers who might have bought four-cylinder versions of the Probe or the old Escort GT. The 2.0L 16 valve DOHC engine was shared with base versions of the larger Contour/Mistique/Mondeo. In the smaller lighter ZX2, 130hp went a long way in providing zippy performance. A 0 to 60 time in the low 7 second range was better than the base model of the Probe and on par with the 1996 automatic equipped Escort GT. Like the GT, the front wheel drive ZX2 rode on a fully independent suspension with a front MacPherson strut setup. In a cost cutting step backwards, most ZX2 had rear drum brakes as opposed to the discs on the Escort GT and Probe.
Ford responded to the growing wave of compact car upgrades and customizations, by introducing a specially tuned performance oriented ZX2. Normally Ford’s Special Vehicles Team (SVT) would prepare special performance editions, but in the case of the ZX2, the job has handled jointly by Ford’s Small Vehicle Center Product Development and Ford Racing teams. In 1999 they created the S/R option package. In addition to all the basic options of the standard ZX2, the S/R package added a lower ride height with stiffer Eibach springs, more efficient intake, stronger clutch and rear disc brakes. An upgraded interior featured special seats, shift knob with a revised instrument cluster with a 150 mph speedometer. The transmission in the S/R, a short-throw five speed only came as a manual, increasing the S/R racer street cred. All the engine changes amounted to a 10% increase in horsepower (143) with a recommendation of premium fuel.
The S/R was further distinguished from run of the mill ZX2 by the addition of special seven spoke 15’ alloy wheels wearing 205/55ZR Goodyear tires. A dynamic suspension kit would elevate the S/R to race ready status with an aggressive suspension with ride adjustable height. S/R models came in a choice of black, red or yellow paint all with S/R badges. The S/R package was partly installed at the factory with some items installed at dealerships. As a $1,500 option, the S/R package offered Ford dealers the opportunity to increase their profit margins on a low profit car like the Escort. Unfortunately, many Ford dealers were too obsessed with higher profit items like Mustangs and trucks to even bother installing some of the final S/R package items. Due to these inconsistencies “loaded” S/R models could differ from dealership to dealership, even at the same price.
The S/R was slighted by the automotive press also. Despite being quite a performance bargain, it got little attention from the press compared to the Civic Si or Neon ACR. Although the S/R cost less than these cars, its performance was comparable. Unfortunately, the S/R and the ZX2 in general could never get over this hump and never matched the visibility of much of its competition. Although the low production numbers of 2,110 units and single year availability made the S/R a hot item amongst those in the know, many were unaware of its existence.
Many of the enhancements of the S/R would find their way to the Ford Puma, which went on to become a popular performance hit in Europe. 2003 was a busy and fateful year for the Escort. The sedan received few changes, but the ZX2 got a welcomed update with a revised front end that resembled the Puma and European Focus RS. Sales dwindled as Ford prepared to roll out the Focus as a ZX2 replacement. The whole Escort line would give way to the Focus in 2003. The ZX moniker would continue with ZX3 becoming a sporty trim line of the Focus. In many ways the Focus has become what the old hatchback Escort once was. Hopefully the Escort’s notchback like hatch will make a return with some future version of the Focus – they could even call it Escort for good measure.