I've driven BMW, MG, Healey, and the German-designed '97 Ford Escort is as much pleasure and fun as all of those. The car is an uber-reliable and sound vehicle if proper care and maintenance is taken and no stupid-loud stereos installed to shake it to bits. Most of the performance issues are readily deal with by installing sportier tires and with very few minor modifications, the sportier handling is that much more. This is an in-city sport-commuter crossover, not a sports car and not a luxury road boat, so don't bash it for not being what it wasn't designed to be or for user failure to maintain.
The Ford Escort at home and abroad has a long rally racing history. They went through a few iffy years until the new designs found on the '97s and later, when the sportier build was returned and a few comfort items thrown in. An excellent car tops of its class; essentially a 4-door Miata sports car.
Don't be dumb and slap a loud stereo or "tune" the thing. It stands on its own. Sportier tires, slightly stiffer suspension pieces, minor upgrades, and a Magnaflow catalytic converter and you'll really see its sports heritage begin to shine. Loud stereos and idiotic mods only tear the car up.