The 1995 Escort Mk6 was… an improvement.
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.
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.
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.
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.