Ford Escort still one of the best bargains among domestic cars

A GT sports car it's not, yet the Ford Escort diesel has one element that no true sports car can boast: It goes a long way on a gallon of fuel. The Escort 2-liter diesel - built by Ford's Japanese affiliate, Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) - is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 68 miles a gallon on the highway and 46 in city-type traffic.

You may never be able to match those figures yourself, but you can still count on a smile all the way to the fuel pump.

But there's another side to the story - the cost, not only of the diesel engine itself but also of the fuel. Regular-grade unleaded fuel in the Boston area can be found for around $1.05 to $1.10 a gallon at the self-service pump. Regular leaded fuel can be found for less than a dollar. Diesel fuel, in contrast, is closer to $1.30 - up 12 to 15 cents in the past few months alone.

Does all this make the diesel a viable option for the car buyer? It all depends on the buyer. Diesel engines today get a lot better performance than a few years, ago even without a turbocharger, but they're still noisier than a smooth-running gasoline engine. And then there's that diesel-engine exhaust! Yet a diesel engine should last a long time, given reasonable care over the miles.

While you don't have to tune up a diesel, you do have to change the filters and engine oil more often - and burn clean fuel.

Diesel-auto sales now are on the way back up after the disastrous market collapse a few years ago.

What the dieselized Escort does for Ford Motor Company is to help boost its fuel-economy average, badly hurt by the demand for larger higher-performance cars.

Neither Ford nor General Motors can meet the government-set corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirement for 1984 of 27 m.p.g. They are having to tap the reserve which has built up as the companies exceeded the CAFE figures over the last few years.

GM has offered a diesel-engine option in its subcompact Chevette for several years, an engine also built by GM's Japanese affiliate, Isuzu. This Japanese diesel starts fast, provides spirited performance, is reasonably quiet, and above all is dependable.

Ford's diesel-engine Escort GL is base-priced at under $7,500, including a standard 5-speed manual overdrive transmission.

Mazda has just put the same 2-liter diesel in its own 626 midsize car as a $ 550 option, thus boosting the window sticker to a hefty $10,245 base. The new, high-tech, lightweight engine has a cast-iron block and aluminum head and is designed for either straight-ahead or crosswise installation in cars.

Escort has been a continuing success for Ford and in February was the best-selling car line in the US, a title it had lost to the Oldsmobile Cutlass, briefly regained, then lost to the Chevrolet Cavalier in March. It continues to be the best-selling car in the world, however. Indeed, the Ford Escort, with or without a diesel engine, is highly competitive in today's marketplace.

I did find, however, that the windows had a tendency to fog up, and it was sometimes hard to keep them clear. I also prefer a push-pull headlight switch instead of the rocker switch, which was hard to find on the lower left-hand dash. With the center armrest down, the parking brake is difficult to manage as well. Further, the equal-length windshield-wiper and turn-signal stalks on the left side of the steering wheel cause confusion. It's too easy to hit the wrong lever.

Despite any lapses, in the view of this motorist, the Ford Escort is still one of the best bargains among domestic cars on the road today. The Escort GL is sufficiently equipped inside for its price and includes a simple, well-defined dash and dual reading lights set just above the windshield. The light module also houses the clock and gives the date and elapsed time.

The Ford Escort continues to roll. The Mazda-built diesel engine provides still one more dimension for Ford's highly successful small car.

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