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.
1999 Ford Escort
The ride feels smooth and competent, and it's quiet in the cabin, even at high speed.
Inside, with twin front buckets and a
1999 Ford Escort ZX2 interior
The ZX2’s interior shares some
common themes with its big brother Taurus.
smallish space for two in back, the ZX2 creates a surprising amount of interior space despite constraints of subcompact dimensions.
It’s even more surprising when you check that curvy form: roly-poly round, but slinky with a hint of aggression from the low-slung prow with teardrop headlamps and broad air scoop.
The origins of the ZX2 trace to the Escort redesign of two years ago. At that point, Ford dropped a popular wagon and hatchback and stuck simply with a sedan and the coupe.
This coupe earns its own distinctive exterior styling and carries a larger engine and sport-tinged suspension.
It also earned the funky name. How? Simple. Take the "Z" from Ford's Zetec engine, then apply an "X" to denote twenty-something Generation Xers targeted by the car's marketing plan, plus a "2" for the two-door coupe concept. Sounds better than Escort Coupe, don’t you think?
Ford's designers, working in international conspiracy with teams from the United States, England, Germany and Japan, begat the ZX2 design with a cost-saving platform used by the Mazda-made Protégé (Mazda is owned in part by Ford). That chassis was enlarged and strengthened with a revamped front structure and more rear braces to absorb shocks.
It feels notably stiff, which helps to reduce noise and vibrations and also adds to the car's overall control.
1999 Ford Escort
One-piece stampings for side body panels give an additional boost to the ZX2's rigidity, which in turn creates a solid feel and a stable ride. Improved door hinges and increased seals and insulation further dampen noise and set up a pleasant interior environment.
Wide open spaces
Dimensions inside seem generous — with good legroom and headroom for front seats and an expanded width so riders don't feel so squeezed together in a wee compartment. In our test, the ZX2 stretched beyond the romp over Jubilee Pass with two passengers aboard, plus luggage for the three of us. Extended time cooped inside some subcompacts can be torture, but this journey actually seemed comfortable, even with all our luggage tucked into a cavernous trunk.
The interior is flexible as well as comfy. The driver's low-back bucket seat employs an adjustable seatback recliner with a mechanical memory lever — after tilting forward to allow a passenger to reach the rear seat, the back of the seat returns to its original setting. Rear seatbacks split and fold in unequal portions to create various expansions for cargo and riders.
The instrument panel, with curvaceous lines that hint at Ford’s Taurus, provides crisp analog dials and a compact center oval cluster to control audio and HVAC systems.
The airbags shield front-seat occupants, and the ZX2 uses a number of other covert systems for safety, ranging from the steel superstructure with built-in crash zones in front and back to door side-impact braces, plus the option of a four-channel anti-lock braking system.
Hot or Cool?
Then, the ZX2 has those unique trim choices — it can be Cool or Hot. The base ZX2 Cool edition supplies a tachometer in the instrument cluster, AM/FM stereo, bolt-on wheel covers, and the driver's-seat memory for recliner. Other standards at base level include the manual transmission, power steering, split folding rear seatbacks, variable intermittent windshield wipers, twin exterior mirrors with manual controls, a digital clock, and remote decklid release.
The upgraded ZX2 Hot adds air conditioning, an in-dash cassette deck and enhanced audio speakers, power controls for exterior mirrors, a rear-window defroster, and remote keyless-entry system with panic alarm. An optional package of sporty gear for either ZX2 brings a leather-wrapped steering wheel, upgraded seats, fog lamps, a trunk spoiler and 15-inch aluminum wheels.
Prices for ZX2 Cool begins at $11,660, plus $415 for delivery. You can get it Hot if you’ve got $13,340.
Some do like it hot. But even when it’s merely "cool," the Escort ZX2 is plenty flavorful.