More than just a nose job : ROAD TEST : MOTORING

The Ford Escort has had a complete revamp from the mediocre model of ea rlier years, says Roger Bell

If it's a best seller it must be good, right? Wrong. Ford's fourth-generation Escort, mauled by the motoring press after its launch in 1990, was a paragon of mediocrity. Acknowledging the Escort's deficiencies - sloppy handling, a jerky ride, nois y engines, tacky interiors - Ford rushed improvements into production. In quick succession came new 16-valve engines, a retrogressive facelift, class-leading crash protection, improved security, greater refinement. But worthier rivals continued to trounc e it in comparative tests.

They have a tougher fight on their hands now. Yet another round of improvements have endowed the latest Escort, set for a three-year run until it is replaced by an all-new car in 1998, with a respectability and competence that eluded its predecessors.

Many of the changes were inspired by the Mondeo which, unlike the Escort, garnered universal praise from the day it was launched. The most obvious revision is a smart new nose job; inside are attractive new trim and seats and an improved facia designed by the team responsible for the Mondeo's dash.

Cosmetically, the latest Escorts - to be made as hatchbacks, saloons, estates and convertibles - are streets ahead of the old, but it is the underskin changes that impress most. Revised suspension has made the ride smoother, less choppy. It has also sharpened the handling. Excluding the unchanged four-wheel-drive Cosworth, the Escort still lacks the cornering fluency of the Mondeo, but it hugs the road with new-found assurance and tidiness that will make previous owners realise what they have been missing. Assisted steering, fitted to most models (but not the underpowered base 1.3, now called Encore), is a must.

The Escort's old NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) enemy has been successfully attacked on all fronts. Although the 1.8 turbo-diesel remains rough and gruff (but agreeably nippy), the 1.6 petrol revs sweetly without assailing the ears.

The raucousness that afflicted earlier Escorts has been muted by painstaking attention to many details. Wind whoosh and tyre roar have also been reduced, so there is no need to turn the radio up when on the motorway. In cutting the cackle, Ford has done no more than make the Escort as quiet as it should have been in 1990.

Apart from its indifferent performance and rubbery gear change, the 1.6 impresses as a mature, well made, comfortable - even enjoyable - family car with much to commend it and little to condemn. In choosing the Peugeot 306 as its role model, Ford aimed high and got close to the bull dynamically.

That is fulsome praise for a car that has taken five years to shed its dunce's hat. Prices will be announced when sales start - with the 1.6 - next week.

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