Cars of a Lifetime: 1997 Ford Escort wagon – The Dull Commuter


After several years living in the big city, where the combination of an old car and public transit worked just fine, my family and I moved to an outlying suburb. An extended commute at higher speeds now meant a more reliable ride was called for. The Neon we’d recently sold would have fit the bill nicely, but in its absence I needed to look for something else. My mother had just treated herself to a lightly used Acura TSX (a six-speed manual, no less), so she kindly offered me her old Escort wagon.

1997 Ford Escort ad

My mother’s Escort had been a bit of an oddball with higher LX trim, its wagon body style and a manual gearbox and my father had ordered it for her brand new. In Canada at the time, Ford sold the wagon at the same price as the sedan, making the larger body-style the obvious way to go. I can’t recall why he went for the rather dull light brown color but my mother never liked it. In fact, it was likely the most forgettable car she ever drove. Perhaps its only memorable moment occurred when my younger brother got into fender bender with it while my mother was out of country on vacation. When he chose to drive it home with a crinkled hood at 80km/h, the hood latch failed, causing it swing up and smash into the windshield.


For a commuter car, it seemed to be a solid bet. This generation of Escort is more or less a revamped 1990-1994 Mazda Protegé under the skin. They both share a common chassis, the same front and rear strut suspension as well as identical brakes. This seemed to promise, at least in theory, a semi-sporty runabout. I’ll admit I haven’t driven a same vintage Protegé, but I suspect the Escort received a softer suspension tune as my mother’s car was anything but sporty.


While the chassis was shared with the Mazda Protegé, the engines were not. The sedans and wagons were fitted with the 2.0L SPI fuel injected four cylinder engine which was a refinement of the old CVH motor. It promised modest fuel consumption and delivered even more modest power than its 110hp rating would indicate. The five-speed manual gearbox should have boosted the fun factor up at least slightly but somehow didn’t manage to do so. The shifter had long throws and the clutch pedal had such a short travel it was almost binary. The engine just sort of softly moaned a bit more as you depressed the accelerator pedal (along with the driver). Being no stranger to small and cheap cars, I found the Escort’s engine rather lifeless and dull. The 2.3L four cylinder engine from the Ford Tempo my parents had previously owned felt more willing and you certainly wouldn’t see that motor on any buff book’s top ten list. Perhaps it was the added insulation and refinement over the Tempo, but I felt the gutless engine let the rest of the car down in a big way.

Not my car but imagine this with a manual gearbox

On the plus side, as a higher trimmed LX model, the interior was a reasonably nice place to be. The dashboard had hints of the oval styling that was thrust on the contemporary Taurus but it was toned down quite a bit for the Escort. The colors inside matched the boring brown on the outside. The small wagon body is style one of my favorites from a practicality standpoint, but it was rather wasted on us since with a larger minivan sitting next to it in the driveway.

1997 Ford Escort

I tried to like the Escort. I really did, but in the end I failed. In an attempt to spice it up, I even added a set of a first-generation Miata alloy wheels. They were not perfect cosmetically, so the previous owner had sprayed them black before the current trend of black wheels came along. While the Escort got me back and forth to work reliably, without any hint of mechanical trouble, I did encounter a major irritant. I could not see a darned thing at night. I suspect this issue originated in an inadequate repair after my brother’s accident, but it seemed like the headlights were too dim and improperly aimed into the pavement. I replaced the bulbs with a more expensive aftermarket set that promised a massive increase in brightness, but it didn’t really improve matters.  I tried in vain to correctly align the headlamps, but it seemed to me the body man who had fixed the accident damage had already used up any alignment slack.

Photo credit –

The lighting issue was very important to me at the time, as I was commuting via highway as well as on secondary routes. In Canada, for a good portion of the winter one leaves the house in the morning in the dark and by quitting time, it is dark (or at least dim) yet again. If you don’t get out for a big walk at lunch time, it is not unusual to miss sunlight altogether and the further north you get, the worse it is. So I swapped the stock wheels back on and sold the Escort wagon which proved to be a bit of a challenge given its brown paint, wagon body style and lack of an automatic gearbox. After all this bellyaching about misaligned headlights, you might expect that I finally went out and bought a perfectly practical commuter appliance. But you’d be wrong…