Ford revamps model names and options to stay with customer desires

Since it was put on the road more than a year ago, Ford's front-drive Escort has repeatedly outrun the competition, both domestic and import. In five of the first 11 months of 1981, for example, the Escort was No. 1 on the sales chart.

To a company waste deep in bad news, this fact has to give cheer.

Now, determined to keep the Escort on a fast track, Ford will introduce a performance option for its 1.6-liter engine in January for the automatic and in March for the manual.

When the 2-door and wagon Escorts were unveiled more than a year ago, one of the chief criticisms at the time was a poky engine under the hood. The carmaker opted to beef up the engine by changing the gear ratio, among other things.

''It keeps you from falling into a hole from second to third gear or from fourth to third,'' says Stuart M. Frey, vice-president of car engineering for Ford. ''We also changed the shift points in the automatic which then gave much better performance.''

The changes were significant, increasing the 0-to-60-m.p.h. time by about 3 seconds (2 seconds with the manual). This made a big difference to the car buyer.

To date Ford has sold 284,600 Escorts, including 50,700 between Oct. 1 and Dec. 10 this year - and this in an auto market that can only be dubbed a disaster.

Improving the suspension and adding a 4-door for 1982, plus the performance option due next month, have upped the car's long-range prospects significantly.

The base-model Escort has a higher Environmental Protection Agency mileage rating today than last year's model - 31 m.p.g. in the city and 47 on the highway, up from 30 and 44 for the '81 - and the figures are well inside the ballpark. In 400 to 500 miles of a week-long commute in the 4-door, I consistently got in the high 30s. The estimated city rating for base Escorts equipped with the automatic transaxle is 29.

It's always refreshing to find cars that give somewhere in the area of what the manufacturers pledge.

Indeed, the 4-door Escort is a very comfortable car to drive as well as sit in - even in the back - and is the only US-built front-drive automobile with fully independent suspension on all four wheels. The instrument panel is well laid out and visibility is not a problem. Handling rates a high grade.

Standard transmission is a 4-speed manual overdrive.

Upkeep is simplified with easy-to-reach components, and the bulbs can be replaced without a mechanic on the job. Scheduled maintenance for the first 50, 000 miles is pinpointed at around $160, although, as with any car, things can go wrong from time to time.

Barring an undiscovered problem in the future, the only glitch on the screen is the price, especially for a fully loaded 4-door Escort GL - nearly $9,500 for the car I drove. However, base price for a 2-door Escort is $5,808, including transportation and handling charges; for the 4-door, $6,553; and for the wagon,

Ford plans a small-diesel option for the Escort down the road, to be supplied by Toyo Kogyo, Ford's Japanese affiliate and maker of the Mazda GLC, 626, and RX-7.

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