Ford Escort 1998 review

The Funeral Mountains loom high in the distance, and the landmarks are lonely spots such as Devil's Hole and Desolation Canyon. At a glance, this seems to be the most unlikely place to test-drive two lively new offerings from Ford Motor Co. - the 1998 Escort ZX2 coupe and the 1998 SVT Contour sedan.

But as locals will tell you, Death Valley can fool you. Far from a desert devoid of life, it has nearly 1,000 species of plants and more than 400 kinds of animals that thrive even in the dark Ubehebe cinder fields here. And the SVT Contour and ZX2 can fool you, too, unless you take the time to study them closely. Like Death Valley, it's easy to miss the finer points.

But before we even get into them, let's give you the big picture: SVT for guys, ZX2 for girls.

Let's talk first about the SVT Contour. It's an affordable compact sport sedan for would-be BMW owners, but at first blush it doesn't look all that different from the plain old Contour. If this is a high-performance car, where's the spoiler?

"It was very controversial," says Tim Boyd, Ford marketing manager for the SVT Contour, of the decision to skip the spoiler. "But every car going down the road has a spoiler. We wanted something more understated."

So you can't get a spoiler with the 195-horsepower SVT Contour (the SVT is short for Ford's Special Vehicle Team). But you do get a $22,900 performance-oriented sedan that costs $5,000 to $10,000 less than competitive European sports sedans such as the BMW 328i and the Audi A4 2.8.

With the Escort ZX2 (Z is for Ford's Zetec engine, X is because the car is supposed to appeal to Generation X buyers and 2 is for its two doors), younger buyers get a zippier engine that has 130 horsepower - 20 more than the Escort sedan - and a more fun look on the outside.

There are also un-Escort-like options like a power sliding moonroof and fatter 15-inch wheels and tires. Oh, and unlike the SVT Contour, understated is not the operative word with the Escort ZX2. You can get a rear spoiler with the $595 sport package.

A base ZX2, called the "cool series," starts at $12,995, but most buyers likely will want the "hot series" that starts at $13,560. The ZX2's sticker can escalate to $14,490 once you add extras such as air conditioning, a rear-window defroster and a cassette player.

The SVT Contour and Escort ZX2 are the latest niche vehicles from Ford that are intended for somewhat limited audiences. These are critical vehicles for the company, especially with news of the impending death of the Ford Probe and Thunderbird.

Ford will build about 5,000 SVT Contours in 1998. While it didn't provide estimates on the ZX2, the Escort coupe is clearly intended for a much smaller market than the mainstream Escort sedan and wagon.

Since the Escort's debut in the 1981 model year, budget-minded consumers have bought more than 5 million of the Ford subcompacts. But officials say they know the trad itional Escort can be a turn-off to younger buyers who see it as too sensible and staid. That's why they spun a coupe off the Escort sedan.

Here are some first impressions after driving both vehicles in the Southwest desert in mid-March.

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