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FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — The route less traveled into Death Valley, California's bleak desert etched below sea level in a trough just west of the Nevada border, zigzags over Jubilee Pass in the Amargosa Range of the Black Mountains. It descends on a sand-swept ribbon of worn pavement into a fiery wilderness of salt flats stretched between towering peaks with sobering names like Funeral and Coffin.
We take grave note as we steer Ford's too-cute subcompact ZX2 coupe. Equipped with a lively drivetrain, capable suspension, and light five-speed manual gearbox, we’d scoured a map in search of the roughest and wiggliest course possible to take us from the neon gulch of Las Vegas to rusty red and yellow Death Valley boulders at Furnace Creek.
What we sought was a severe road challenge — tightly wound curves and abrupt desert bumps to push suspension to the hilt, vast pancake flats for running at high speed, and long mountain grades to sample the car's inherent strength.
What we encountered in a run along Route 178, strung from Shoshone to Badwater over Jubilee Mountain, was a course that exceeded every expectation — but so did the sporty little ZX2 coupe. For an itsy-bitsy car, ZX2 puts a surprising kick in the accelerator, due to tweaks of Ford's twin-cam 2.0-liter Zetec four engine lifted from the compact Contour sedan. It’s got 130 hp, with healthy torque spread across the range of speeds. Hit the throttle and this two-door Escort leaps off the line and snaps through lower gears, then holds its own at higher speeds and doesn't fade when taxed on extended uphill grades.
Quick rack-and-pinion steering enables driver to execute exacting left-right-left maneuvers through chicanes of the snaky Jubilee course, while solid stabilizer bars fore and aft in the independent suspension system check excess body sway and help stabilize the car in motion.