Motoring: Gaining, not overtaking: Despite 792 changes, the Escort still has problems, says Roger Bell

THE Ford Escort hardly deserves to be Britain's best-selling car, or Europe's second-best. In struggling to achieve mediocrity, its fourth embodiment, launched two years ago, was a pounds 1bn duffer with a showroom success rooted in Ford's marketing muscle rather than design and engineering flair.

Behind the Escort's recent facelift lies not so much a fresh look as a new identity for a car that is said to embrace 792 swiftly executed changes. According to Ford, they were made 'in response to a continuing analysis of owner surveys and increasing competition', for which you may read: 'We got it wrong'.

Much was needed and much has been done. Improvements centre on the car's strength, safety, steering, security, refinement and comfort. Performance is not on the bonus list, however, even though the 1.6LX on test has a modern new engine that is 'cleaner' and more economical than the coarse one it supplants. Equipped with a sapping exhaust catalyst, it is also less powerful.

In addressing the Escort's weaknesses, Ford has made it heavier (by the equivalent of two hefty men), and its performance has suffered. Acceleration lacks overtaking sparkle, although the engine pulls willingly even when laboured. And just as well, too, as the tacky gearchange does not encourage frequent use (for the time being, only the 2.0 and some 1.8-litre models benefit from Ford's new crisp-changing gearbox). The gruff and tingly engine is still no paragon of refinement, but the 1.6 is pleasantly quiet and fuss-less when cruising. It also offers excellent economy: the main reason for preferring the 1.6 to the peppier 1.8 that costs only pounds 240 more.

Slow it may be, stodgy it is not. Steering as responsive as it is light (power assistance is standard on all 1.6s) makes the LX easy and agile to drive. The way it zips through bends, poised and secure, suggests that lessons learnt from the sporty XR3i have not been lost on the mainstream hatch. Strong brakes that feel good also inspire confidence. The car rides smoothly, too, its suspension soaking up bumps without the shuddery turbulence that afflicted some earlier Mark 4 Escorts. First-class comfort does not extend to the hard front seats, however. They support well enough on corners, but have insufficient lumbar padding to prevent slouching at the (non-adjustable) wheel.

There was never much wrong with the packaging or practicality of the Escort, one of the roomier cars in its class. Back-seat adults are given adequate legroom, and the boot, extendable by folding the split rear backrests, is generous. Free from rattles and zizzes (but not, on test, of a juddery clutch and whining transmission), the latest Escort feels even more solid and well-made. It should. The base structure is stronger and better able to cushion a crash. Bar-reinforced doors also improve side-impact protection.

At pounds 11,550 before discount, the 1.6LX - one model down from the swanky Ghia - is competitively priced with its mainstream rivals, although it costs pounds 2,000 more than Proton's top five-door model. The LX's price includes a tailgate spoiler (more cosmetic than functional); high-security locks (combined with an alarm and engine immobiliser); a tilting driver's seat; and powered windows. Anti-lock brakes cost extra. Although the cabin is smartly cloth-upholstered, the facia and instruments remain a bit drab.

Class leadership still eludes the Escort and its Orion sibling. If not great cars, they are now at least up to the standard they should have been in the first place. Ford has no reason yet to feel complacent about its best-selling range.

SPECIFICATIONS

Ford Escort 1.6LX, Pounds 11,088. Engine: 1,597cc, 16-valve, fuel-injected four-cylinder, 90bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. 0-60mph in 12 seconds, top speed 110mph. Fuel, 30-38mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

Citroen ZX 1.6i Aura, pounds 11,203 Strong contender for best in class. Nicer to drive than Escort, although there is little in it on performance. Pleasant, well-planned five-door hatchback with no serious flaws apart from flatness of front seats.

Fiat Tipo 1.6LX, pounds 10,286 More car for less money. Styling and interior not to everyone's taste, but Tipo leads for practicality. Galvanised body well protected against rust. Performance, economy, handling average.

Vauxhall Astra 1.6GLS five-door, pounds 11,130 Smart, well-made, nippy, economical. The mainstream Astra is also dull, if no longer stodgy; power steering is standard. Excellent dash and controls, indifferent ride.

Rover 216 SLi, pounds 11,587 More performance, less economy from Rover's nippy Honda-powered five-door. Comfortable, well-appointed cabin is best feature. Nicely made and pleasant to drive, but power steering (standard on Escort 1.6) costs extra.

Proton Aeroback 1.5SE, pounds 9,119 Mitsubishi underpinnings give cheap Malaysian-made five-door hatch street-cred and reliability. Value for money despite dated design and modest pep. Comfortable and well equipped.

(Photograph omitted)

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