Power and handling

With an extra 20 horsepower, the ZX2 is certainly livelier than its sedan and wagon cousins.

Harnessed to this compact car, the Zetec engine is pleasant and willing in all driving situations, with extra punch for tight passing situations on two-lane highways, even with mountain altitudes stirred into the equation.

More than once I found myself wishing that Ford would make this engine available as an option in the Escort and Tracer sedans and wagons, particularly those equipped with automatic transmissions.

To put the ZX2's power in perspective, you must look to the Neons, still the compact pacesetters.

Though its power-to-weight ratio is close to that of a standard Neon sedan, the ZX2 doesn't provide quite as much dash, and it's distinctly slower than the 150-hp Neon coupes.

On the other hand, its performance seems to measure up very well versus other leading compacts, including the distinctly heavier Cavalier and the best-in-class Civics.

And it has a distinct edge in refinement versus the Neons, which continue to be a trifle raucous, despite ongoing refinements to their hot-rod hearts.

Overall handling is a cut above the Escort sedan and wagon, which are competent.

I was also impressed by the precision and feel of the steering, as well as the firm-but-smooth ride quality and lower-than-average noise levels.

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