The Ford Escort is a Titan among family hatchbacks. Its production ran from 1968 – 2000, through six redesigns and generated massive sales for Ford. It emerged from stellar beginnings as the UK's bestselling car of the sixties as well as a successful rally competitor and pre-empted the hot hatch market as a desirable but affordable performance road car. The used Ford Escort has continued to straddle the line between small family runabout and boy racer-mobile ever since.
Initially a two-door saloon, later editions included an estate and a van, while Ford carefully managed to cover various market sectors with the same car merely with different specifications – entry level small family vehicle, luxury small car, affordable sports car and commercial vehicle. The XR3 became an Eighties classic similarly to the Golf Gti, while the Cabriolet made, previously rare in England, convertibles an everyday sight. The RS Cosworth 4x4 achieved similar cult status to the XR3 and remains a collector's item today.
In 2000 the Ford Escort was replaced by the Focus, which became Britain's best-selling vehicle within a year of its launch. Over 4,000,000 Escorts were sold during the 32 year production run, making it Britain's bestselling car of all time and a regular sight on forecourts and online used car websites. There are plenty of reasonable 1990-2000 models still available.
Bang for your buck
Used Ford Escort specifications have always been competitive with market rivals, but rarely exciting. The 1990 facelift fell rather flat, with criticism for dull handling, flimsy bodywork, dated engines and corrosion issues. Ford quickly got on the case, introducing new engines in the form of an excellent RS2000 16v and Zetecs improving the lower spec models.
As the decade went on, airbags became standard along with a much needed stronger bodyshell and better safety features. There are so many different models available that you will have to do your research carefully to be sure what you'll be getting, but as a general rule the 1995-2000 cars were much better than the preceding five years, both cosmetically with more attractive styling and higher quality interiors, but also with superior ride and handling.
While lower spec models are a practical and sensible used buy, they are a rather dull choice, whereas the Cabriolet, XR3i and RS versions hold a sort of retro charm and are a fun drive. If you're going for a diesel, stick to the turbos to avoid sluggishness and a noisy engine. Make a point of looking for a 16v as prices are reasonable and the 1.3 and 1.4 litre versions are too much like hard work. Petrol versions have better anti-theft features than the diesels.
What you'll pay
Entry level 1.3 litre three door Ford Escort Populars are an absolute steal, with newer and better models still representing a good bargain. £1,800 will buy you a 1999 1.6 T-reg Flight or maybe a 1.8. The production line's very last Finesse models are still available for about £2,500.
Performance variants such as the RS or XR3i are much more desirable and so hold their value differently, but may have been abused so tread carefully. In addition the brighter colours were much more popular – dull greens and mustard tones do not hold their value.
What to check
Rust problems can be expected so check that bodywork and carpets are dry, plus the battery tray and wheel arches. Other reported faults involve the starter motor and alternator, plus uneven tyre wear, water leaks and camshaft belt wear. Many will have been company cars but if you have a full service history this shouldn't cause problems.
In Ford's usual style, parts are accessibly priced and easy to come by. Clutch assemblies can be had for £90, front or rear dampers £30 each, front brakes about £30, alternator £170, starter motor £90-ish, radiator £160. Cosmetic problems are easily solvable, with a new front wing for £50, wing mirror £45, headlamp £60 and tail light £30.
How it drives
A few good test drives will convince you that it's worth going for a 16v. The Zetec engines are much smoother and quieter than the previous examples, as well as more powerful and more efficient. The second hand Ford Escort is well known as a good value but unexciting car, but the performance variants can offer a genuinely entertaining driving experience.