With small Japanese cars dominating the economy car segment by the late '70s, Ford decided to bring something to the table that was more competitive than the antiquated, outgoing Pinto. The result was the subcompact Ford Escort. The vehicle debuted in 1981 as a two-door hatchback or four-door wagon and featured front-wheel drive, an overhead cam four-cylinder engine, a fully independent suspension and rack and pinion steering. On paper, it looked like Ford had a winner. But in reality there were early problems that made a rash of recalls necessary, and the vehicle's longevity was questionable.
But despite the teething problems, the Ford Escort went on to become the top-selling car in America for many consecutive years. Broader appeal for Ford's small import fighter appeared in the mid-'80s via the introduction of a four-door hatchback and the sporty GT.
By the late '80s, the Ford Escort had become a solid little economy car, with build quality and reliability approaching respectable, if not Japanese manufacturer's, levels. By 1991, Ford's partnership with Mazda started to bear fruit in the form of the Escort GT, which was powered by a spirited dual-overhead-cam, four-cylinder engine borrowed from Mazda. A formal sedan debuted around this time, as did a four-speed automatic (which replaced the old three-speed unit). By the time the year 2000 came around, the Escort was being phased out by Ford's new Focus. With a decidedly edgy, European-flavored personality, the Focus offered much more in terms of personality and driving fun.
Most shoppers interested in a used Ford Escort will find themselves looking at the fourth and last generation. This one debuted in 1997 with a more rounded body style and a more refined 110-horsepower 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. Transmission choices were once again a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic. The next year brought the sporty ZX2 two-door coupe, which was essentially the Escort GT's overdue replacement. With 130 hp, the ZX2 was relatively quick, running zero to 60 mph in around 8 seconds.
When Ford phased in the Escort's replacement, the Focus, for 2000, the Escort family was thinned out by dropping the wagon, leaving just the sedan and ZX2 sport coupe. By 2002, only the ZX2 remained, and would soldier on for one more year.
Consumer commentary posted on Edmunds.com about the Ford Escort is generally upbeat, with strong points being listed as ride comfort, fuel economy and outward visibility. Proper maintenance is key, as most owners report trouble-free driving well into the 100,000-mile range, while some others have indicated troubles with the automatic transmission. Though a well-maintained Escort with lower mileage will sell for quite a bit less than an equivalent Civic or Corolla, the latter pair still has the edge in predicted reliability.
Although it debuted 10 years earlier, the Ford Escort really came into its own with the introduction of the revamped 1991 model. A lower beltline and increased glass area afforded a more airy cabin and the 1.9-liter inline four was refined for smoother operation. Higher overall build quality was evident in the car's quieter, more refined demeanor and more substantial feel throughout. The all-new Escort GT was one of the better affordable sport hatchbacks of its day thanks to its free-revving, Mazda-sourced, DOHC 127-hp engine, four-wheel disc brakes and firm sport suspension. With the exception of the adoption of safety items such as dual airbags and (on some trim levels) antilock brakes, the Escort stood pat until its 1997 redesign.