The Humble Zoom: Ford Escort ZX2 Data File

By Staff Writer
Jul 18, 2018 | Ford | Posted in Buyer's Guides , Features | From the May 2013 issue | Never miss an article

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Story by Alan Cesar • Photos as Credited

The United States never really got the world’s best Ford Escorts. Cars like the RS200 rally homologation bundle of insanity, the Escort RS Cosworth rally homologation bundle of insanity, and the rear-drive RS1800 rally champion bundles of insanity gave the nameplate a truly incredible pedigree that has no relation to the street cars we saw stateside.

Instead, America’s first Escorts coincided with what the rest of the world knew as the model’s third generation. Introduced in 1981, these were front-wheel-drive economy cars with lackluster performance, poor build quality, bad suspension geometry and milquetoast styling. Ford somehow sold zillions of these things; together with the Taurus, the Escort is responsible for the company’s success through the 1980s.

Fast-forward to 1997. The new-in-1991, Mazda-based Escort has just received a major refresh and been totally divorced from its also-updated Protegé cousin. The CVH engine—the letters denote its Compound Valve angle and Hemispherical combustion chamber, not the more apt “considerable vibration and harshness”—increased from 1.9 to 2.0 liters.

The Mazda BP-powered Escort GT—essentially a hatchback version of the Mazda Protegé LX—disappeared in 1996, and performance Escorts took a brief hiatus. For 1998, Ford introduced the Escort ZX2, a coupe version with unique sheet metal and a 2-liter twin-cam engine. We had previously seen that Zeta-family engine in the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique cousins.

Its variable cam timing on the exhaust side is tuned mostly to eliminate the need for an EGR system, but the cam profile is more aggressive than that of the Focus that eventually replaced the Escort. Output is 130 horses and 127 ft.-lbs.—similar horsepower but a 10-percent torque bump over the Mazda-powered GT.

Front suspension remained relatively unchanged, though a bit more bracing was added to the K-member. The rear strut arrangement saw more substantial revisions. The longitudinal links became longer, decreasing the camber change through its travel, and toe adjustment was added to both sides. For braking, the ZX2 used the same disc/drum arrangement as lesser Escorts.

Remember the Underglow

This was right around the time the import tuner scene was starting to grow. Honda guys mocked the Zetec as an imitation of their VTEC—which had just kicked in. Yo.

To tap into that market and perhaps build some street cred for their long-running workhorse, Ford introduced a limited run of a hot-spec model: the S/R. The first 110 copies, made in 1999, came only in yellow and with a manual transmission. The car showcased a few aftermarket parts makers by sporting popular bolt-on upgrades: Eibach springs and revised Tokico struts, a Roush intake tube, a Borla muffler, a B&M short shifter, a more aggressive engine tune and a 150-mph speedometer with a gray gauge surround.

The power tweaks added up to 143 ponies. A blue valve cover and red “S/R” stickers looked great, but they didn’t affect output.

Goodyear Eagle F1 tires in a 205/55R15 size were fitted to seven-spoke wheels, same as on the last of the Escort GTs. Those wheels help identify the 1999 cars. To complete the package, the S/R received rear disc brakes and a Centerforce dual-friction clutch.

Some of the equipment changed for 2000, and production of the S/R package expanded to 2000 units: 1000 in yellow, and 500 each in red and black. The wheels and shift knob changed, and an Iceman intake tube replaced the Roush piece.

If that wasn’t hardcore enough, Ford also offered a Dynamic Suspension coil-over kit with 300 lb./in. springs in front and 500 lb./in. at the rear. There weren’t many takers for the coil-overs, so if you can find one of these kits on today’s used market, it’ll still cost you four figures.

Back to Basics

The S/R was rare and short-lived, but it developed a cult following among Escort enthusiasts. In 2001, concurrent with the second model year of the Ford Focus in the U.S., non-coupe Escorts were limited to fleet sales, and the Escort name was quietly dropped from the ZX2.

The ZX2 remained unchanged through 2002, but it got a facelift and some minor mechanical changes for 2003. With the Focus achieving big sales success, Ford sold few of the last-year ZX2 and ceased production.

Today, these cars are still everywhere. Regular models sell for anywhere between a few hundred bucks and around $4000, while the S/R version tends to command a small premium.

ZX2s have proved reliable and economical—they even have a decent hypermiler following, too, thanks to a low .33 drag coefficient. A user by the name of Old Reliable on claimed to have broken the 100-mpg mark with his—of course, plenty of modifications and some light-footed driving helped.

The ZX2 was never a notable race car—there was just the occasional autocrosser and some club racers back in the day—but the handful of teams who have gone LeMons racing with one have demonstrated the ability of high-mileage Zetec engines to handle hours upon hours of high-rev abuse. No one except the occasional Escort fanatic will notice an S/R version, but those in the know will give an appreciative nod.

The Escort name is gone—probably forever. The United States never received a properly insane one, but the ZX2 is the finest of the breed. It’s underappreciated by other car guys and didn’t get much love in the aftermarket, but with a little research and a willingness to cross ponds—talk to the Mazda maniacs for suspension help, the Focus fans for engine work—and you’ll find speed and satisfaction in Escort ownership.

Things to Know:

Engine and Drivetrain

The Zetec engine can make lots of power, either naturally or under boost. Expect the stock connecting rods to tend to fail a little north of 230 horsepower. The 170-horsepower SVT Focus engine will swap in provided you use the ZX2 windage tray, but you’ll either have to adapt the Focus wiring harness or use a standalone computer to manage the intake-side variable cam timing and variable-runner intake manifold. It’s often easier just to boost what you have.

The Keman intake modification, named for the guy who did it first, primarily involves replacing the intake resonator with a piece of PVC pipe. In dyno tests, the Keman mod performed about as well as most aftermarket intake tubes.

Inexpensive headers are available, but many enthusiasts favor the Kamikaze and Gude units. These eliminate the stock catalytic converter, so check your local emissions laws.

Hard launches at the autocross—especially on slicks—will hurt the stock differential, so consider an aftermarket limited-slip. A very good helical unit is now available from MFactory Competition Products. The stock open unit does just fine for road racing and track days.

Avoid shifting with a lead fist. The shift fork for third and fourth gears is a known weak point. Ford revised the forks for the first four gears for the 2003 model year. Take it easy if it’s not broken, but be sure to get the revised version if you ever open the transmission.

Crapcan hopefuls, take note: Despite documentation to the contrary, the engine is not an interference design. You can sometimes pick up a car with a broken timing belt for a few hundred bucks, replace the belt and pulleys, and be on your way.

A midyear revision in 1999 changed the crankshaft timing belt pulley from a two-piece to a single-piece. If your timing belt is showing signs of walking or shredding, replace the pulley with the later one—available only through Ford. Whenever you service the belt on a ZX2 of any year, change all the idlers, too. Their bearings don’t last much longer than the belt.

The fifth gear set is accessible without removing the transmission, and swapping it out to a taller one nets better highway gas mileage. Get one from a 1997-and-up sedan or a 1999.5-and-up ZX2 (identifiable by the six-wire MAF sensor). Better still is the fifth gear set from the four-cylinder Mazda MX-6.

The fuel and ignition maps were modified over the years. Without a custom tune, the ECU marked “LXQ1” gives the best performance short of the ultra-rare NGP0 from some S/Rs. If an S/R has been serviced at a dealership, it’s likely the ECU was reflashed to a less potent map anyway. You can also disconnect the overly sensitive knock sensor—a green connector below the intake manifold—for better performance.


The easiest suspension upgrade is just a junkyard away. Find a 1991-’96 Escort and yank the rear anti-roll bar and its mounts. The 19mm unit on standard cars neutralizes the understeer that the ZX2 exhibits with its puny 13mm bar. If you want something more aggressive, look a little harder for the 21mm anti-roll bar found on station wagons and Escort GTs.

Those same Escort GTs also have rear disc brakes that will fit easily onto your ZX2. The long bolt that attaches the two lateral links to the hub often seizes in place, so you may have to cut off the suspension links at the junkyard or lower the rear subframe and unbolt them from there. Other options for rear discs are the second-generation Escort LX-E, Mercury Tracer LTS, and BG-chassis Mazda Protegé LX. Escort sedans and wagons from 1997 that were equipped with ABS will also have rear discs, but they’re very rare.

Ford Racing made a small batch of inverted coil-over struts, but not many were sold. If you can find one on the used market—they’re rebuildable—expect to pay around $1500. Aftermarket coil-over kits are available from BC Racing as well as from Ksport via Pierce Motorsport. Ground Control sells sleeves that fit the stock struts; look for Koni inserts for an MX-3 for better damping with the stock strut bodies. Also seek out adjustable anti-roll bars from Suspension Techniques; they’re listed under BG-chassis Mazda Protegés.


In the Rust Belt, the rocker panels are the first things to go. They’ll disintegrate from the inside, so bubbling paint there could be a sign of rusty horrors. Check the pinch weld along the bottom of each side; those rot out the fastest.


Ford Escort Owners Association:

Mazdas 24/7:

parts and service

CorkSport Performance LLC:
(888) 340-9636


Pierce Motorsport:
(310) 542-2977

(951) 784-9603

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Miles Wilson
Miles Wilson Marketing Assistant
7/18/18 11:10 a.m.

I know one of our readers called about this exact article a while back, now it's online for you! Hope the racing has been going well.

iceracer UltimaDork
7/18/18 11:34 a.m.

I bought a red ZX2SR in 2000.  I beat on it for 8 yrs.  It was a DD, track car, ice racer and occ.   auto crosser.  Ford camber kit for the front. Never touched the back except for 19 and 22 mm bars.  Shorty header and adjustable intake cam gear. For track I ran A Hoosiers on 7" rims.  Best thing I did was increase caster through offset control arm bushings. After tying in and out toe found zero to work best.   Along with 2.5 degrees neg camber the car was a joy to drive on the track and throttle steer.  

 Fo ice racing, stock alignment, no sway bars.  The adjustable cam gear allowed me to have a quasi traction control.  By retarding if fully it cut low speed power allowing for less wheel spin.  

This may have been a little lengthy but my experience with the car may give some hints.

Oh, the car was capable of 40 mpg when driven properly.


alfadriver MegaDork
7/18/18 12:03 p.m.

Back in the late 90's, I considered getting one as a new car.  Went to test drive it an all.

Wound up getting a used '95 Miata instead.  And replaced it with a brand new '99, when we got S-plan.

Not that the ZX2 is a bad car- we got to do some autocross lapping at our test track once.  But it wasn't a car that I really wanted.

stylngle2003 GRM+ Memberand Reader
7/18/18 3:42 p.m.

my wife had a blue ZX2 that got totaled.  she was ok, but has sworn off small cars because the exploder that hit her ended up in her back seat.  

i have a saved/recurring search for a zx2 sr.  they're like hen's teeth.  she doesn't even drive manual

crankwalk GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
7/18/18 3:47 p.m.
alfadriver said:


But it wasn't a car that I really wanted.





 But it wasn't a car that I really wanted.




Fixed that for you.

Antihero GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
7/18/18 5:21 p.m.

I just bought one for a fun high mpg car, it delivers on all fronts. Ive got 42mpg out of it before but i average 37mpg

iceracer UltimaDork
7/18/18 6:14 p.m.

I forgot to mention that there never was a problem with coolant overheating or brake fade with proper pads during track days.

Oil was changed once a year.   Amsoil 5w -30

Knurled. GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/18/18 6:56 p.m.

'98 models had ESCORT ZX2 embossed in the rear bumper cover.


'99 models only had ZX2.  ESCORT was stickers under the left taillight.


You can remove the letters and re-apply them to say SCROTE.

CyberEric HalfDork
7/19/18 9:16 p.m.

Test drove a 2002 (I think) Zx2 with the updated bumper (looked good!). 

I was shocked at how well it handled. Interior was total crap, of course, but I liked it quite a bit. But I too bought a Miata instead. 

MazdaFace Dork
7/19/18 9:24 p.m.

Neat article, neat car. I enjoy watching gasoline and gears (or is it gears and gasoline?) Drive their boosted one on the track. Neat build and great looking car. 

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