Although a big step down in size for me, (from a Chevy G20 van, and a Mercury Colony Park wagon which I really miss), the Escort has been a good little car, so far. OK (but not outstanding) economy, good reliability, and acceptable performance. From the reviews, I hear the '97 is significantly more responsive than the '96. I would hate to drive the '96 model, as I find the '97 performance acceptable, but far from impressive. As a fairly big guy (6', 240lb), I was surprised how much room there is up front. It holds quite a bit of cargo, too. The lack of cruise, power locks and windows is quaint, but at least it has A/C! The one truly BAD feature is the USELESS front cupholder. (See below).
For such a small car, it does hold a lot of cargo. (It *is* a wagon!) Good handling, good braking, and acceptable power (for a 4-banger econobox). Very *very* easy car to drive; backing into parking spaces and/or parallel parking is a piece of cake! Good visibility, and seems to do OK in snow, too.
FIX THE CUPHOLDERS! The front cupholder design is horrible beyond belief! They're far too small, far too shallow, and tucked in front of the shift lever. Reverse gear actually knocks the drinks on the floor. The range is also limited, at about 320 miles. But with no cruise, you need the break anyway.