Striving for Adequacy

The 1995 Escort Mk6 was… an improvement.

1995 Ford Escort Mk6 Ghia Saloon. Image: auto-abc.eu

The 1990 Ford Escort Mk5 was a terrible car. It was designed to be manufactured as cheaply as possible and was woefully under-engineered, nasty to drive and uninspiring to behold. It was rightly lambasted by the motoring press, to the extent that some of the criticism even spilled over into the mainstream media, damaging Ford’s reputation for competency.

A facelift in 1992 attempted to deal with the most egregious faults but achieved little substantive progress, while making the car ugly rather than merely bland. Such was the strength of Ford’s marketing machinery and wealth of its advertising budget, however, that the Escort and its Orion(1) saloon equivalent remained strong sellers, despite the cars’ blatant inadequacy.

Ford, to its credit, learnt a valuable lesson and its next offering, the 1993 Mondeo, was truly excellent. Underneath its pleasant if rather generic styling was a car of considerable quality. Its handling and ride were good enough immediately to position it alongside the Peugeot 405 as the driver’s choice amongst such cars. This achievement was attributed to engineer Richard Parry-Jones(2), the man who would later be credited with revolutionising Ford’s reputation as a builder of dynamically excellent cars. It was also generously equipped and felt well screwed together.

The contrast between the Mondeo, which won the European Car of the Year award in 1994, and the Escort could not have been more stark. An all-new replacement for the latter was scheduled for 1998, but Ford realised it had to do something to sustain its C-segment sales in the interim. Parry-Jones appointed Gordon Willis, an American who specialised in chassis engineering and oversaw all of Ford Europe’s FWD passenger car development, to lead a re-engineering project.

The result was the 1995 Escort Mk6, another makeover of the Mk5, albeit a much more thorough overhaul than the 1992 facelift. Externally, the changes were achieved at minimal cost, but were highly effective. The Mk6 featured a slimmer, wider and better integrated oval front grille, now sandwiched between the bonnet and bumper, and new one-piece headlights incorporating the outboard indicators. The only bodywork changes required to achieve this was a new bonnet pressing and bumper moulding.

1995 Ford Escort Mk6 five-door hatchback. Image: autoevolution.com

Inside, the Mk6 featured an all-new dashboard with much higher quality mouldings and switchgear. The Mk5’s innovative seat construction, whereby foam was injected into a pre-formed one-piece moulded cover, was discarded(3) and the seats reverted to traditional ‘cut-and-sew’ construction.

Worthwhile though these improvements were, they would have been of little value had the woeful dynamic performance of the Mk5 not also been addressed. Not only were the ride, handling and steering well below class standards, but harsh engines and poor sound insulation made levels of NVH(4) in the cabin simply unacceptable.

Bearing in mind that this was a stop-gap revision, the budget was tightly constrained. Rather than make any major change to the fundamental chassis engineering, the improvements were individually minor and incremental, but collectively they would transform the experience for driver and passengers.

Changes to the engine and transmission comprised cast rather than pressed steel engine mounting brackets, with hydraulic rear mounts for the Zetec engines, a stiffer sump, stronger alternator and exhaust mounting brackets, a bigger rear exhaust silencer and smaller tailpipe, and a rubber/foam insulator for the gear lever housing. The 1.3 and 1.6-litre models were given lower gearing to improve acceleration.

1995 Ford Escort Mk6 dashboard. Image: autoevolution.com

Suspension changes included gas-filled dampers, angled front springs, softer front strut top-mounts and reduced friction lower ball-joints, repositioned front anti-roll bar pick-up points, a one-degree increase in front castor angle and a stiffer torsion beam rear axle(5) with softer bushes. The steering rack was also lowered by 3mm to alter the steering arms’ arc of movement. The thinking behind these changes was to reduce the car’s tendency to understeer and bump-steer, reduce stiction(6), improve steering feel, directional stability and ride comfort, and make the steering effort more consistent(7), the latter a notable failing on the Mk5.

Other improvements to NVH included increased sound-deadening, including a sound-absorbent front undertray, new door seals, more aerodynamic door mirror casings, and the elimination or better sealing of front bulkhead apertures.

Car Magazine drove the new Escort and reported its findings in its April 1995 issue. The introduction to the piece reminded readers of the dismal back-story: “That the Ford Escort is now as competitive as it should have been five years ago merely underlines how bad things were in 1990.”

The new cabin was judged a marked improvement: “The smart, oval-themed trim and décor are as good as any rival’s, and better than most.” The dashboard was “ergonomically sound, attractive and very well finished”, although the oval clock and mock wood on the Ghia trim were not to the reviewer’s taste.

1998 Ford Escort Mk6 Estate. Image: swva.co.uk

The changes to suspension and steering “have injected into the Escort a massive dose of driver appeal” and the revisions “work a treat to give crisper steering and more fluent handling” if “still not quite in the Mondeo class.” The performance of the 1.6-litre, 89bhp (66kW) Zetec version was, however, still “indifferent”, with a claimed 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 10.5 seconds and top speed of 110mph (177km/h). It was now, however, “agreeably sweet and hushed” and the myriad of other changes had cut wind and road noise to “satisfactory levels”.

Unfortunately, other engines were still off the pace. The 1.8-litre 90bhp (67kW) turbodiesel “feels lively but sounds awful”, being “gruff [and] rough” to the extent that “only when you back off to cruise is engine noise tolerable”. The reviewer also warned potential buyers off the 1.3-litre 60bhp (45kW) model with its “ancient, all-iron, pushrod motor” and the entry-level Encore trim that lacked power steering.

The conclusion to the review summed up what had been achieved pretty succinctly: “The car that has withstood critical revulsion to outsell everything else in Britain for the past 13 years has finally made the grade. But let’s not get carried away by our surprise. It’s good, but not that good.”

The Escort Mk6 was still enough of an improvement to give sales (to fleet buyers and undemanding private customers) a fillip and keep the lights on for three years until the debut of the superb Focus Mk1 in 1998. That car would sustain Ford’s new-found reputation for excellent dynamics established by the Mondeo. However, the Focus’s polarising avant-garde styling was not to the taste of many older and more conservative buyers, so the Escort remained in production for two more years in five-door hatchback and estate form, with the choice of two trim levels and the 1.6-litre petrol or 1.8-litre turbodiesel engines.

The Escort Mk6 was no silk purse, but it was certainly as good as it could reasonably have been, given the sow’s ear starting point.

 

(1) The Orion name was dropped in September 1993 and the car was renamed Escort saloon.

(2) Richard Parry-Jones was Ford Europe’s chief engineer and head of product development. He retired in 2007 and passed away in April 2021.

(3) The moulded seats were unsupportive and did not breathe adequately, causing occupants to feel hot and sweaty in high temperatures.

(4) Noise, Vibration and Harshness

(5) Now tubular, rather than an open ‘V’ in cross-section.

(6) An initial resistance to movement, which can cause the suspension to lurch sharply once overcome.

(7) These changes also made the steering heavier, but this was addressed by providing power assistance as standard on all models apart from the entry-level 1.3-litre version.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

34 thoughts on “Striving for Adequacy”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I think Car Magazine got it right by writing the Mk6 was the car the Mk5 should have been all along. I agree with your conclusion also that the Mk6 was a good effort considering how woefully bad the Mk5 was.

    But suppose the Mk5 was good, would we have had the dynamic qualities the Focus had? Or would there have been a more conservative Escort Mk7? I can’t answer that, but it is good that Ford upped their game, even though the Focus Mk1 might not have been to everyones liking, but then again, what is?

    1. Good morning Freerk. That’s an interesting question you raise. Looking at the changes made to create the Mk6, many would have been zero (or low) cost adjustments if they had been engineered into the Mk5 in the first place, which makes Ford’s failure with that model all the more perplexing.

      That said, how would the Mk6 have been regarded had it been launched as the Mk5 in 1990? Probably as a perfectly adequate if entirely unexceptional car in the ‘best’ Ford tradition, which might well have perpetuated the company’s complacent mindset, with negative implications for the Mondeo.

    2. I’m not so sure about that, Daniel. Mondeo development would already have been well underway by the time the Escort was launched in 1990 and the negative feedback received.

    3. The Mondeo development was well underway when the Escort mk5 appeared in 1990, but remember that Nissan claimed, proudly, that the Primera resulted the “re-engineering” of the early Mondeo.

    4. By the way, in my experience, the Mondeo was good, but not that good. My uncle had a 1.8 CLX (that was passed down to my father) in excellent condition. The engine was noisy and harsh, and the gearchange not very cooperative. The chassis was a lot better, but why prefer a Mondeo when you could buy a Primera with better build quality, great chassis and an engine and gearchange sweet as a nut.

  2. An all-round better car it may be, but I don’t consider the mk6 an aesthetic improvement over the mk5, which while bland, was a pretty neat early 90s style design. The mk6 has the typical late 90s melted blobby fascia and rear end clashing with the quite restrained side. Just a very nasty and badly defined looking car to me.

    1. The Mk6 was a tidier interpretation of the facelifted Mk5 and the interior was better presented with nicer looking materials and controls. I recall that Ghia versions had a fascia surround which was moulded with a wood veneer finish which looked utterly unreal naff in a way which was hard to stop staring at, it was that bad.

      It must have cost Ford quite a lot to support the original Mk5 with a couple of facelifts of different degrees and then the conversion to the Mk6. It shows it’s more economical in the long run to get the car right in the first place.

    2. That’s a good point, S.V. and I’m not sure the first facelift was even worth the bother.

      Moreover, thumbing through back editions of Car Magazine from the early 1990s, I’m struck by how frequently double-page advertisements for the Escort and Orion appear. They seem to been very heavily promoted (and, presumably, discounted) to keep sales strong, another hidden cost to Ford of the Mk5 being such a poor car.

    3. I was mainly focusing on the exterior there, though my thoughts are quite similar when it comes to the interior design of mk5 vs mk6 (note I am not talking about materials/fit and finish). To me the late 90s were pretty bumpy years for interior design, with the overall theme being awkward and poorly resolved radii and surfaces, which led to something resembling melting plastic. To my eyes the Mk5 interior, especially IP, is not offensive in that regard compared to the mk6.
      Back to exterior – i think my main problem with the mk6 is the bloated bumpers which do not seem to share any stylistic elements with the rest of the car, including the side trim that just ends at both wheel arches and goes nowhere. The lamps are also rather offensive, especially the taillamps which to me give the rear end a very sad expression. I also always thought the way the taillamps on the mk5 continued the side crease into the rear was a nice touch, completely missing on the mk6 and the way half of it is mounted on the tailgate never quite sold the idea it wasn’t just an aftermarket add-on.

    4. Hi John. Fair point about the new bumpers, which were a bit bulbous and lacked any horizontal element to align with the (smoother) bodysides mouldings. The enlarged tail lights were actually a feature of the 1992 Mk5 facelift (on the hatchback and cabriolet) and were carried over to the Mk6.

    5. Hi Daniel, John. I think the 4-door Mk6 retained the original, creased tail lights of the Mk5, or so it seems from the 1996 brochure shared by Charles. Thus, a Mk6 saloon literally takes you back in time as you walk past it.

  3. Coincidentally, there is a feature on Autocar’s website today on previously unknown (or at least unseen) Ford prototypes, borrowing images from Steve Saxty’s latest book ‘Secret Fords Volume Two’. The image below is of a proposed replacement for the Escort, a five-door version of the Puma, attempting to capitalise on that car’s good reputation. The proposal was rejected in favour of what became the Mk1 Focus:

    Another intriguing image is of a proposal for a Scorpio replacement which was based on an enlarged Mondeo floorpan:

    Ford realised that the market in Europe for non-premium large saloons was disappearing, so didn’t pursue this either.

    (Incidentally Autocar seems to have transposed these two images in the piece.)

    1. The Scorpio proposal reminds me a little of the Mk 1 Superb. Which probably was the last non-premium large saloon, or certainly not premium priced.

    2. Very interesting to see those photos – especially the large Ford. For some reason, it looks a lot less odd than the Scorpio, even though the frontal elements are fairly similar. It also has something of an air of an Opel Omega about it, in the sides an towards the rear.

      Coming back to the Escort, a colleague bought one new in the late ‘90s and I wondered to myself why the heck she had bought it, given the alternatives. I guess she just wanted ‘a car’. I travelled in it, but I can’t recall anything about the experience, so it must have been okay. That said, I thought the Escort aged quickly and was very dated by then.

      Here’s a link to a brochure for those who want to see the walnut (?) fascia and the clock in all their glory. The mk 1 Focus was also available with wooden trim which looked even more incongruous, given the modern design.

      https://www.veikl.com/d/Ford-Escort-Brochure-1996-NL-64598

    3. I remember an issue of Car Magazine in 1995 (November?) showing the next “radical” Escort. The design was almost “frozen” by then, so I suppose the five door Puma was a parallel development.
      It´s neat, but I think Ford made the right call.

    4. Is it me or is the Scorpio replacement proposal really rather nicely done?

    5. Hi Charles. If you try to think of the dashboard trim, not as ‘fake walnut’ but merely as a tortoiseshell patterned high-gloss plastic moulding in colours complementary to the dashboard and upholstery, does this make it more palatable? Here it is:

      I don’t mind it, especially with an interior in ‘warm’ (i.e. non-greyscale) colours.

      Chris, the Scorpio replacement is indeed very neat, if a bit generic. Would it have made a good ‘continuity’ replacement to the Mk1/Mk2 Mondeo, rather than the VW Passat apeing Mk3? Probably not enough of a move forward, I suppose.

    6. Hello Daniel, I know what you mean, but no, I think it’s out of place, there. The brochure is very well done – the lighting must have taken ages.

      b234r – I remember an issue of Car magazine with all the Focus proposals in it. I have it somewhere – I wish I could lay my hands on it quickly.

    7. This is what Car magazine thought the 1998 ‘Escort’ would look like in the February 1995 issue, when they featured the newly launched Mk6:

    8. Hi Daniel, frankly I’m glad they went for the Focus…

      The DLO on the Scorpio replacement looks rather neatly done, a more rounded version of the Pininfarina-led sedan design that could be found on several cars in the ‘nineties, like the 406:

      Although the rest looks less impressive to me, even a bit early Korean:

      Incidentally, was the title “Striving for Adequacy” first reserved for the Aston Martin DBX article? 😁

    9. The resemblence to that Kia is a good spot, Tom.

      Regarding the title of the piece, it’s actually an in-joke between DTW’s esteemed editor and me, although readers with a long memory might remember reading it before…😁

    10. I think the 2000 Mondeo was definitely not a Passat clone. I am not sure where this meme emerged from. The Mondeo was made up of quite sharp edges; the corresponding Passat was quite soft.
      The Mondeo-based Scorpio replacement seems very indecisive. I see bits of BMW 5 series in there. It would have been like the Rekord/Senator approach to selling a large car.

    11. Hi Richard. If I recall correctly, the automotive press at the time of the Mondeo Mk3’s launch made much of the ‘Germanic’ discipline of its design. It was not so much that the Mondeo resembled the contemporary Passat as it would have made a pretty plausible (replacement for the) Passat.

      When I get time, I’ll have a rummage through the back-issues of Car Magazine to check that I’m not just imagining this!

  4. I hadn’t seen that Scorpio proposal before. Ford did a Taurus for China in 2015 based on the Mondeo. I’ve seen one and it looks nice enough but apart from basic styling cues not really distinctive (aka it’s a bit generic).

    1. Hi John. Speaking of China, the Escort name was revived there a couple of years ago for this small saloon, very much a miniaturized China market Taurus:

    2. And here’s the new Mondeo (not for you, sorry):

      and the related Lincoln Motor Company (not Lynk and Co.) Zephyr:

  5. In the early ’90’s I had a brand-new Mk5 hire car for a few days. It was a diesel. I was young. Before I exited the car park I was convinced something was broken, such was the engine vibration, lumpy suspension and odd steering. But no, nothing was broken. A few years later I drove a just-launched Focus across Europe. That car was quite the revelation.

    1. Hi Richard. I had an identical experience with a rented Mk5. My most vivid recollection concerns the weird variable-rate steering, which made it impossible to drive smoothly on twisting country roads.

  6. Tangentially relevant: I have always loathed the Ford Orion in both guises. Particularly the first one looks to me like the sedan end of a much newer, later generation design was plonked onto the rest of Erika in the vein of a South American hack job. The straight lines of the rear of the side DLO and door aperture bear absolutely no relation to the shape of the rear window and the much more rounded back end compared to the rest of the car.

    The Ford Verona, featured here not long ago, did a better job of being an Escort III sedan (granted, it was a later development of the platform):

    The second generation Orion was slightly less incongruous, but here too, the straight edged rears of the side DLO and door aperture have nothing to do with the rear window and the slightly bulbous rear end.

    Or am I just missing something?

    1. Hi Tom. The awkward look of the first Orion was perhaps excusable because a four-door saloon wasn’t originally in the product plan. It was only added as a rearguard action to hold onto conservative Cortina customers who couldn’t take to the radical looking Sierra. There’s no such excuse to explain the 1990 model.

      The Verona always looks to me as though it borrowed the rear side window from the Mk1 Fiesta!

    2. I always forget the Fiesta Mk1 has that lovely arc-shaped DLO. It’s a somewhat Volkswagen-like design otherwise in being quite businesslike.

      On the Verona, it doesn’t quite gel with the straight-edged front door DLO. It seems unlikely that it’s the same window they used, but one wonders why they chose that solution. A straight bottom edge would seem to be more logical, especially as they had more freedom on a two-door design than on a four-door with its fixed apertures.

      Regarding alternative histories should the Mk5 have been more competent: I think the goal posts in the c-segment were shifting anyhow (see the Mk4 Golf for instance) and Ford would have had to step up its efforts regardless. It might have happened a model generation later, though.

    3. Good morning Tom and Happy Christmas! I much prefer your solution for the Verona’s DLO. As you say, the curved rear side window looked rather at odds with the arrow-straight door window line.

      That’s a subtle and interesting two-tone paint job on the Fiesta. It really was a very pretty small car in its original form, with those slim (if largely useless) bumpers.

    4. Happy Christmas to you too! I rather liked that paintjob, yes. It looks very period-appropriate to me. Most Fiestas have carefully-wrought designs, I think.

  7. One can only speculate how Ford would have built upon the mk5 Escort for the mk6, had the former been pretty much the mk6 Escort and if it would have been suitably competitive against the opposition.

    The styling of the Mondeo-based Scorpio replacement looks like what the previous Scorpio as well as a hypothetical DEW underpinned replacement should have received.

    Not sure what to make of the proposed 5-door Puma styled Escort replacement, would it have not been better applied on a Fiesta 4-door saloon or 5-door hatchback coupe B/C-Segment model?

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