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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.

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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.

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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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