1998 Escort ZX2

When we took the Detroit News Blue Ribbon Panel through the North American International Auto Show in January, the twentysomethings in the group had a lot of gripes about the Escort ZX2 coupe - which they could only look at, of course , and not drive.

Chief among their complaints was that compact sport-utility vehicles made more sense to them because they could haul more friends and gear. We mulled that over a bit and then checked the stats - a Jeep Grand Cherokee, in fact, has only two inches more legroom than the ZX2. And then we tried loading gear. With the split-fold rear seat down, you can get a satisfying amount of stuff in the ZX2, including Rollerblades, hockey sticks, a basketball and several bags of groceries. Four adults can fit comfortably in the new Escort. And there are three standard cupholders.

The ZX2 looks different enough from Mom's Escort sedan to keep the younger buyers happy. Ford has come up with four metallic exterior colors that are unique to the coupe, including ash gold and denim blue.

The Escort ZX2 includes a standard AM/FM stereo with four premium speakers that sounded very respectable. A cassette tape player or six-disc CD player is optional.

Our only gripe with the ZX2 is that its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine felt slightly underpowered, especially when passing other vehicles. Still, the only competitive vehicle that surpasses the Escort in horsepower is Chrysler's Neon coupe, which has 132 horsepower compared to the Escort's 130 horsepower. The Hyundai Tiburon also has 130 horsepower, but the Saturn sport coupe has a paltry 100 horsepower.

We were able to drive several versions of the ZX2 coupe from Las Vegas to Death Valley and back.

It's well worth it to spend the extra $595 on the optional sport package because you get bigger 15-inch aluminum wheels and tires, which improve the car's ride quality, in addition to a rear spoiler, fog lamps and oval-tipped exhaust pipes, all of which enhance the ZX2's sporty image for a relatively reasonable price.

Ford says it's expecting 60 percent of the ZX2 buyers to be women. Those buyers will find several positive qualities about the vehicle, including a battery-saver feature that automatically turns off the interior dome lamp after 10 minutes if a door is left ajar.

And like the Escort sedan and wagon, the ZX2 offers two different remote keyless entry systems, including a driver's-door-only remote that makes sense for single women who can't afford a two-door remote system. However, antilock brakes cost extra.

The ZX2 should hold up pretty well in the coupe segment. It looks very fresh next to the conservative styling of the Civic and the somewhat dated appearance of the Neon. The ZX2's interior is a lot more friendly and comfy than the Saturn SC coupe.

The key question remains: Can a coupe replace a sport-ute as the image vehicle of choice with the Internet-and-coffee-shop generation?

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