Curbside Classic: 1994 Ford Escort – Success And Shame

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(first posted 4/2/2014)   When is a world car not a world car?  When it’s Japanese. I can hear our readers’ responses already: Ford didn’t call the 1991 Escort a world car because it wasn’t engineered by its European subsidiary, making it the product of a different company.  But this only makes limited sense.  Dearborn exerted a very great deal of control over Mazda, strong arming it into using Ford powertrain components, while shaping its US lineup and installing executive personnel, effectively treating it as a Japanese subsidiary.  And whether or not this assessment of the relationship between the two companies is one you agree with, there’s little denying that the products it created had far more global appeal than the distinctly American 1981 Escort.

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In keeping with the spirit of my last post about the Mercury Mystique, the product of Ford’s second proudly advertised world car project, I decided to photograph this late production second-generation Escort down the street from me.  With so much said about Ford’s excellent new Fusion and Focus, all the fanfare which surrounded the first Focus and our own discussions at CC about the 1981 Escort, I got to wondering why Ford’s collaborations with Mazda didn’t benefit from nearly as much press touting their origins.  And while I understand the need to present the 1991 Escort as the Ford it wasn’t, passing off the Contour and Focus as American was no more honest.

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The way Ford likely saw things, Mazda’s Familia was due to be re-engineered anyway, with American safety and emissions regulations in mind, so why not just put some pressure on Hiroshima to make a slightly larger car designed to accommodate the CVH engine?  Certainly cheaper than having the Europeans redesign their car with North America in mind and, since the atrocious first generation car positioned the Escort as disposable transportation, this was the biggest concern.

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With such cynical motivations, it’s almost unfair that the new car ended up so good, especially considering how widely panned the Mk5 European Escort was.  The main reasons for the European car’s critical failure, aside from its engine, were its underwhelming dynamic qualities, which ironically enough, formed the basis of the new US Escort’s strengths.  Based off Mazda’s BG platform, which underpinned the entire Familia/323 family, the Ford’s chassis was now at the top of its class, with surprising tail-happiness, excellent road feel and in sporty versions, with fat anti-roll bars and fifteen-inch wheels (which the Protege did not have), ample grip.

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While the car was a continuation of the old car’s shape, its national origins were apparent.  For one thing, being a Mazda clone meant that body hardware and more functional elements of its outward appearance (think window frames) had a well defined, distinctly Japanese, appearance.  But even more importantly, the car itself was styled in one of Ford’s Japanese studios and there was little to visually tie the car to its North American siblings.  Styling borrowed from the best and smart North American customers would recognize the Taurus-aping front fascia, and the interior design which copied the ’86 Accord’s themes, but the look was otherwise generic, if fully up-to-date, and aged well.

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As in Europe, one of the worst aspects of the 1981 design carried over to the new car: the CVH engine, now labeled SEFI, in 1.9 liter form.  It received some refinements in the new car, but remained largely the same, with ample torque and a breathless top-end delivery, perfect for suburban slogging when tied to the (JATCO) four-speed automatic.  Luckily, the 1.8 Mazda BP twin-cam was also available in the Escort GT, LX-E sedan and Mercury Tracer LTS and so-equipped, these cars were truly world-class, though there was little outside of their styling for which Ford could claim credit.

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Not that it mattered, as the Escort continued its streak as a best-seller, while the Protege was only a modest success.  While they were very careful in planning this car, testing the Ford-badged Mazda small-car formula first with the original Mercury Tracer, the Festiva, and the Probe before finally applying it to one of their biggest sellers, one can’t help but see the whole arrangement as incredibly unfair.  It’s reminiscent of the classic scenario in which a star athlete collaborates with a bookish classmate to complete a group project, pushing all the hard work on the socially marginalized peer while taking most of the credit.  From the way the Escort was marketed, it would seem Dearborn certainly felt shame in its inability to create a competitive small car on its own, even if compunction over the exploitation of its Japanese associate wasn’t forthcoming.

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Mazda didn’t necessarily have the last laugh, as their perpetual precarity remains, but they may have felt a certain bitter smugness while watching from the sidelines as Ford proved its continued incompetence in small and midsized car design.  The suave but shoddy Contour–whose automatic Ford forced onto the 626, damaging its reputation–was replaced with the 2006 Fusion, which followed the ’91 Escort’s Mazda-based formula (look who’s come crawlin’ back), while the zaftig 1996 Taurus wound up replaced by the even bigger, lackluster Volvo-based 500.  While Ford has managed to bring us some superlative small and midsized cars over the years, other than the original Taurus, none have been homegrown.  Perhaps that’s just as well, as relying on foreign partners for the lion’s share of your mainstream cars’ engineering is a very successful formula, now copied by GM and Chrysler.  Now, if only I could find someone to do my work for me…

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Related reading: Mercury Tracer LTS, 1981-1990 Ford Escort and Mazda MX3 GS