Note: 1991-and-newer Mercury Tracers are basically twins of the Ford Escort, save for slight differences in grille and taillight design. Therefore, comments for Escorts of those years apply to the Tracer, as well, unless otherwise indicated.
The World Car. That's what Ford called the Escort when it debuted as a 1981 model, in reference to Ford's international presence with this nameplate. Although there had already been an Escort running around Europe, this version was different, all-new and geared toward the U.S. market. On paper, the car looked like a winner: front-wheel drive, overhead cam,1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and a choice of a two-door hatchback or a four-door wagon.
There were five trim levels offered: base, L, GL, GLX and SS. Base models were devoid of frills and fancy trim and looked rather plain as a result. The L added pinstripes and some chrome around the grille. The GL's upgrades included body-side moldings, wheel trim rings and more chrome accents. GLX versions added more feature content like low-back bucket seats, center console, wood-tone dash trim and interval wipers. A sporty Escort SS received blackout trim instead of chrome, tape graphics, full instruments and a sport suspension.
Though Ford used hemispherical combustion chambers and an aluminum head and intake manifold, the engine managed only 65 horsepower and early production engines were not known for their longevity. In spite of huge development costs, the early Escorts had a number of recalls and build-quality problems that made constant refinements mandatory. A four-speed manual transmission was standard, and a power-sapping three-speed automatic was optional. Acceleration was not the Escort's forte, but the handling of the small (94.2-inch wheelbase) econobox was fine for its day. Mercury fielded a clone of the Escort called the Lynx.
1982 saw the debut of an Escort four-door hatchback, and the station wagon lineup lost the base and SS trim levels. In an effort to improve performance, gear ratios on the manual transmission were revised and larger tires (165/80R13s) replaced the 155s fitted previously to the lower trim lines. Power was up by 5 horsepower for a total of 70. Later in the year, a high-output version debuted with 80 horsepower. As with its other cars, Ford's new grille-mounted blue oval badge marked the car as an '82 model. The Escort earned the honor of America's top-selling car for that year.
For 1983, the base model was dropped, and the SS was replaced by the more substantial GT. The GT boasted multi-point fuel injection, a five-speed manual gearbox and a sport suspension with Michelin TRX rubber. Dark-tint taillights, front and rear spoilers, foglights and alloy wheels made sure that nobody mistook this for a run-of-the-mill Escort. With 88 horsepower (a respectable figure for a 1.6-liter engine back then), the GT could run from 0 to 60 mph in under 11 seconds. For the other Escorts, a four-speed manual was still standard fare. If the high-output engine option was selected, a five-speed gearbox could also be ordered.
Two new optional engines debuted for the Escort line in 1984, a 2.0-liter diesel (produced by Mazda) and a turbocharged version of the Escort's 1.6-liter four-cylinder. The diesel was not available on the GT, but the turbo was. With 120 horsepower, an Escort GT Turbo had more power than other so-called "pocket rockets," such as the VW Rabbit GTI and Dodge Omni GLH. A new LX trim replaced the GLX, and it came with the GT's fuel-injected engine. A softer, more rounded dash panel updated the cabin. And in a brilliant display of ergonomic science, Ford moved the horn button from the end of the turn signal stalk back to the steering wheel.
1985 Escorts were similar to the '84s, with the exception of a finer cross-hatch grille.
Halfway through the year, the 1985 1/2 models rolled out and continued unchanged for the 1986 model year. Ford replaced the 1.6-liter engines with two 1.9-liter engines: a carbureted version with 86 horsepower and a fuel-injected version (standard on GT and optional on other models) with 108 horsepower. The Mazda-built diesel was still available, though its days were numbered, as few buyers opted for the fuel-stingy but slow oil burner.
A cleaner front end with flush-mounted headlights, a lower hood line and a simpler grille with horizontal openings identified the latest version of Ford's hot-selling subcompact. Taillights were revised slightly, now having three horizontal segments. A new trim level dubbed "Pony" was introduced, aimed at those who wanted basic transportation and nothing more. For driving enthusiasts, the Escort GT now offered an improved sport suspension with 15-inch eight-spoke alloy wheels, an asymmetrical grille and a color-keyed body kit consisting of a front airdam (with integral foglights), side sills and rear spoiler.
Ford simplified the Escort lineup for 1987, which now consisted of Pony, GL and GT models. Carburetors were history, as all Escorts now had fuel injection. Horsepower numbers were up slightly: The Pony and GL had 90 horsepower, and the GT had 110 eager horses. The diesel engine option was dropped partway through this year, due to sales activity as sluggish as its acceleration. Automatic front seat shoulder belts debuted, as did two new options: a front center fold-down armrest and a split-folding rear seat.
For the first half of 1988, the Escort line was unchanged.
For 1988 1/2, the Escort received updated styling, as both the nose and the tail of the car were redesigned. Front fenders, rear quarter-panels, taillights and bumpers all gained a smoother, more modern look. Newly standard were 14-inch tires on all Escorts (except for the GT, which retained its 15-inchers), replacing the 13-inch donuts used before. In addition to these updates, the GT got a few more changes of its own: a new grille, a rear spoiler and black molding that encircled the car. The LX trim level reappeared, once again offering a few more frills and chrome accents than the lower base and GL models.
Nothing new happened for the 1989 Escort, and yet it was still the best-selling car in its class.
Rear three-point belts were made standard for 1990, and the Escort lineup was again trimmed back to three models, consisting of the Pony, LX and GT. The Pony and GT were two-door hatchbacks while the LX could be had as a two- or four-door hatchback as well as a station wagon.
To hold on to its best-selling status and better equip its popular small car for battle against the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, Ford completely redesigned the Escort for 1991. New sheetmetal with semi-flush glass presented a sleeker appearance, and GT models once again had an asymmetrical grille along with a more aggressive front airdam and rocker panel styling treatment. A lower beltline and increased glass area afforded a more airy cabin with better visibility. The new interior featured a restyled dash, full console, rear-seat heater ducts and a passenger-side visor mirror. Trim levels remained the same as before, with the Pony, LX and GT models offering everything from basic transportation to a snappy sport hatchback.
Things were new under the skin, as well. The 1.9-liter inline four was refined for smoother operation, though its output dropped 2 horsepower, for a total of 88 horses. The GT got a substantial boost underhood, as it now had a double overhead cam 16-valve 1.8-liter mill courtesy of Mazda that kicked out 127 horsepower. Helping to slow down the new GT were standard four-wheel disc brakes. A five-speed manual gearbox was standard across the board and an optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic replaced the primitive three-speed unit. Suspensions on all Escorts were improved for better handling and ride characteristics.
The Escort's Mercury twin — which brought back the Tracer nameplate — debuted this year and was identical to the Escort except for a handful of distinctions: body style offerings (the Tracer came as either a notchback sedan or wagon) and differences in front end and taillight design. Trim levels consisted of base sedan, base wagon and an LTS sedan, which was essentially a four-door version of the Escort GT. This marked the second time that Mercury used the Tracer name; it was previously used on a small car (1988 and 1989) that used Mazda 323 underpinnings.
Going a bit uptown for 1992, the Escort family was expanded with the debut of a couple of four-door sedans, which shared the Mercury Tracer's sedan bodyshell. This meant that buyers now had a choice of four body styles: two-door hatchback, four-door hatchback, four-door wagon and the new sedan. Available in either LX or LX-E trim, the sedans featured a split-fold rear seat to allow greater cargo capacity. The LX-E was the same as Mercury's Tracer LTS, a mini-sport sedan that shared many components with the Escort GT, such as the potent 127 horsepower engine, four-wheel disc brakes and sport suspension. The bare-bones Pony was dropped this year.
A larger oval for the Escort's grille opening and revised taillights freshened the Escort's look for 1993. A Sport appearance group bowed for the LX two-door, spiffing up this hatchback with alloy wheels, rear spoiler and a tachometer in the instrument panel. The GT received a wing-style rear spoiler, five-spoke alloy wheels and sculpted rocker panels.
The Tracer also got a slight nose job, as the base model replaced the front light-bar treatment with a more traditional LTS-style grille. Taillights and interior trim were also updated. Base models benefited from a larger front stabilizer bar that improved handling. And the LTS received a sportier look via a rear spoiler.
Safety was kicked up a few notches for 1994 when a driver airbag debuted for all Escorts, as did optional antilock brakes (ABS) for the GT model. To the chagrin of enthusiasts, the feisty LX-E was dropped from the lineup. A "One Price" marketing scheme was instituted, offering buyers the choice of any LX model, equipped with air conditioning, power steering and a rear window defroster, for the same price.
Those bummed out by the death of the Escort LX-E could simply go to their Mercury dealer and buy its surviving twin, the Tracer LTS, which could now be equipped with ABS.
A passenger airbag was incorporated into the 1995 Escort's redesigned dashboard, yet the motorized shoulder belts remained, even though the dual front bags satisfied the government's requirements for safety. A more powerful air conditioning system kept occupants cooler, and an integrated child seat option for sedans and wagons made life easier for parents. This was the 14th year in a row that the Escort earned the distinction of being the best-selling small car in America.
The Tracer was spruced up with a new "Trio" option group that fitted the base sedan with a rear spoiler, alloy wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Sport versions of the Escort became available for the four-door models (both hatchback and notchback) in 1996, and these featured alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and a tachometer. Mechanical refinements included platinum-tipped sparkplugs (that allowed 100,000 miles to pass before the Escort's first tune-up) and revised gearing for the automatic transmission that improved acceleration.
A well-rounded Escort debuted for 1997, sporting a more aerodynamic body and improvements in the powertrain and ride quality. Body styles and trim levels were both pared down, leaving a choice of two sedans (base and LX versions) and an LX wagon. The two-door hatchback body style was gone, resulting in the demise of the GT. Though the wheelbase remained at 98.4 inches, overall length increased by nearly 4 inches (to 174.7 for the sedan and 172.7 for the wagon). Inside the cabin, a Taurus-inspired oval center panel grouped climate and stereo controls.
A single engine was offered, a 2.0-liter inline four, whose output of 110 horsepower was 22-horsepower more than the old engine. The increase in power was nearly offset by the Escort's 120-pound weight gain. The new engine was, however, noticeably smoother and quieter.
The Mercury Tracer was likewise redesigned and had a different nose and tail treatment so one could tell it apart from its supposedly less prestigious Ford cousin. The Tracer came in a base GS or upgraded LS sedan as well as an LS wagon.
A sporty version of the Escort returned in 1998, a coupe called the ZX2. Ford made it worth the wait by giving the ZX2 a flashy body style all its own and a 2.0-liter 16-valve engine dubbed "Zetec" that pumped out 130 horsepower and hustled the ZX2 from 0 to 60 mph in around 8 seconds. The base version of the ZX2 was called "Cool," and a "Hot" version added power mirrors, keyless entry, a rear window defroster and air conditioning (considering the last feature, maybe Ford should've called this one "Cool"). A Sport package added 15-inch alloys wrapped in 185/60R15 rubber, sport seats, a shiny exhaust tip and the obligatory rear spoiler.
For the Escort sedan and wagon, trim levels were revised and now consisted of LX and SE sedans and an SE wagon. In essence, the base models were now called LX and the former LX was renamed the SE. The automatic gearbox had revised electronic control to affect smoother gear changes and more responsive downshifts. Safety was increased with the adoption of "Second Generation" airbags that had a lower deployment speed to minimize potential injury caused by the airbag. A series of option packages for the SE allowed buyers to tailor the car to their needs, be they luxury or appearance.
The Tracer had neither new coupe nor renamed trim levels.
Minor upgrades, such as a remote trunk release, keyless entry system and stereo with cassette deck for SE and ZX2 Hot models highlighted the changes for 1999. Parents no longer had the convenience of an integrated child seat, as that desirable feature was nixed from the option list.
The Trio package was resurrected for the Tracer and this time included not alloy wheels but chrome wheel covers, a rear spoiler and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. LS sedans got the same upgrades given to the Escort SE. And a new LS Sport wagon answered a question nobody asked with its leather seating and alloy wheels. This would be the Tracer's last year.
When Ford phased in the Escort's replacement (the Focus) for 2000, the Escort family was thinned out by dropping the wagon and leaving the sedan and the ZX2 coupe. The ZX2 was offered simply as the ZX2, doing away with the Cool and Hot versions. The coupe was given more standard features, such as a stereo with a cassette deck, power mirrors, a rear window defroster and the tires formerly fitted to the Sport package (which now had larger 205/55R15 rubber). Expanding the performance envelope for the ZX2 was an optional high-performance package, named S/R, which added rear disc brakes, an upgraded clutch and exhaust system, unique wheels and seats embroidered with the ZX2 logo.
As the Focus has essentially replaced the Escort, the sole remaining car in Ford's 2002 fleet with an Escort badge is the ZX2 coupe.