road test; Ford Escort RS2000

Whatever happened to the Ford Escort XR3i? Huge success as this automative expression of Essex laddism was, Ford's marketing people are happier without it now that we're in the responsible Nineties. But its demise did not mean the end of souped-up, but sub-Cosworth, Escorts. Those to whom pace matters more than pose have long gravitated towards fast Fords with RS (it's meant to stand for Rally Sport) badges, and they'll still find an Escort RS2000 in today's price lists. Or, to be more precise, two of them, one with normal front-wheel drive, one with - uniquely in the class - power to all four wheels.

There has, in fact, been an RS2000 among current generation Escorts since 1992 - it was the one with the pair of power bulges, only one of which actually needed to be there, but like all Escorts it was thoroughly remodelled earlier this year. So it now has a smooth, rounded, un-bulged front with a big oval grille and a vastly more appealing interior with added softness, smoothness and solidity. There are added ovals, too: Ford's themed shape is echoed on buttons, switches, the shape of the door trims, even the instrument needles and air-vent symbols.

That much applies to all new Escorts but the RS2000 is sported up with racy Recaro seats, a leather rim steering wheel, shapely sill covers and fat alloy wheels. Otherwise it resembles the Escort Si, a kind of tepid XR3i substitute, and shares that car's white instrument faces and mesh- filled front grille.

Cosmetics apart, there are two other important aspects to the Escort range's make-over. These are revised suspension, designed to soak up bumps with less fuss while also making the car respond more precisely to the driver's commands, and reduced noise levels, achieved with a new exhaust system and improved sealing between the engine compartment and cabin.

Do they work? They do. Never a particularly sweet engine, the RS's 2.0 litre is now decently smooth and rather less aurally intrusive under duress. It always pulled quite lustily, but now you feel more inclined to open it up a bit. However, though the Recaro seats clamp you well when you're exploring the strong grip and newly fluid cornering style, the steering remains aloof from the action in a way unbecoming of a sporty hatchback.

Things feel a bit more positive in the 4x4, which can whisk round wet bends with great confidence, but you pay the penalty in pace because the four-wheel-drive transmission soaks up a fair chunk of pulling power.

These latest RS2000s are competent enough, but they don't really excite. Trouble is, that applies to many of today's sporty hatchbacks, which partly explains why insurance companies no longer hate them. For a hot hatchback that's really fun to drive, try a Golf GTi 16V or a Peugeot 306 S16 instead: these are cars the design engineers became passionate about. All the RS2000 seems to do is show that Ford still offers a credibly sporty Escort, post-XR3i. It needs a bit more spark than that.

John Simister

rivals

Honda Civic VTi, pounds 15,485 A bumpy ride and an interior filled with plastic are not enough to spoil the fun from the most manic engine of any hot hatchback.

Citroen ZX 16v, pounds 15,810 Splendid as most Citroens are, they tend not to translate well into hot hatchbacks. This ZX is no exception, with a noisy engine, nervous handling and little sign of Citroen's usual suppleness.

Peugeot 306 S16, pounds 16,075 Mechanically related to the ZX, the 306 comes together much better, with fluid handling, ample pace and the best looks in the class.

Vauxhall Astra 1.8 Sport, pounds 13,115 Vauxhall has replaced the Astra GSi with this visually half-hearted Sport. The surprise is that it is actually a nicer car, with tidier handling and a better ride.

Volkswagen Golf GTi 16v, pounds 15,345 Remains the ultimate rational buy in this class; equally adept at the roles of fun car or family friend. You could go for the not-so-fiery eight-valve version, still quick enough for most, and save pounds 2,000.

specifications

Ford Escort RS2000, pounds 13,995; RS2000 4x4, pounds 15,295

Engine: 1998 cc, four cylinders, 150bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front- or four-wheel drive. Top speed 129mph, 0-60 in 8.2 seconds (RS2000), 8.6 seconds (RS2000 4x4). Fuel consumption 25-30mpg.

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