Our '97 Escort, 2.0 SPI engine recently succumbed at 121k miles to the well known, dreaded 'Dropped #4 Valve Seat' fatal engine defect particular to this poorly designed powerplant.
ALL '97-'04 Ford vehicles using this engine are at risk of this happening as they approach 100k miles. Most consumer reviews of this problem claim it happened abruptly between 100k and 130k. It even afflicts vehicles that have been meticulously maintained by their owners!
The steel valve seats pressed into the aluminum head of these engines expand and contract at different rates, eventually loosening. WHEN (not if) this happens, it's like dropping a grenade into your engine!
Bought my Escort Wagon used and best money I've ever spent on a vehicle so far. Plenty of cargo space but small enough you can park anywhere. Put winter tires on it and is amazing around town; have passed half-tons stuck on the side of the road. Can even do some light off-roading. Easily put 2 kayaks on top and has enough clearance that you can get where you need to go. Little slow off the start but once its going has lots of pep. With regular maintenance its been very reliable and is still zooming along at 300K. And fuel mileage is awesome! Had a hatchback Escort before and wasn't too thrilled but the Wagon has really been impressive.
Fuel mileage. Cargo space for non SUV. Capability in winter.
Better factory sound system; hard to put in after-market if you want to improve it.
Rubber/plastic mats and a liner for the back.
My '97 just got a new clutch, just before that a new serpentine belt. Other than those recent jobs only brakes, tires and oil changes and it's still getting me to work every day at 32 mpg. For a cheap little car the quality has been surprisingly good, even great.
Fun to drive, great gas mileage, easy to park and very small turn radius.
OK, so it's a little cramped inside if you are close to 6 feet but it is after all a small car. I wish they'd make those clear polycarbonate headlight covers last longer without getting so foggy looking.
My mom bought this car for me in January, when I turned 17. She paid $1,500 it only had 123,000 miles on it. It was from an older couple. The interior is in perfect condition. I can't say much about how it runs because I finally went take my driving test yesterday, and I passed. I drove it all day long. The only problem I have is there is no AC. I am getting that fixed very soon, though. The only set backs are I have read about shaking when it idles low or something, and there is no tape or cd player. It's good for me though because I don't need it. I am having a problem with it shaking when I am parked, but other than that it runs like a champ.
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.