What I'm Driving At: Escort & Mirage Duke It Out

Ugh ... I just hate hearing that question: "Which one should I buy?" If the questioners are typical, they've already made up their minds and are looking either for justification or a fight. Most of the rest of 'em are trying to chose between vastly different vehicles -- a car versus a sport/ute, say, or a coupe versus a sedan. That calls for all kinds of temporizing, qualifying, and equivocating that usually result in a fruit-salad sort of recommendation full of apples and oranges.Then there's the full-on, dead-eye, toe-to-toe, bumper-to-bumper comparison that pits near-equal rivals. This is the most excruciating exercise of all. Two cars, both of which are eminently likable for readily identifiable reasons, duke it out till there's only one left standing. That's because the typical car shopper can only buy one at a time, right? So, "Between the Mitsubishi Mirage LS and Ford's Escort ZX2, which one should I buy?" Ugh."Let's be objective about this, shall we?" That's always a good place to start -- the comparison shopper's ice-breaker, if you will. But what a copout. Here's why: Mitsubishi's '98 Mirage LS sells for a base price of $14,750 (with destination charges), compared to $13,560 for the Escort ZX2. Advantage, Escort, for its nearly 9 percent cost savings. The Escort's price advantage, moreover, grows to almost 14 percent when the cars' as-tested totals are compared: But the $17,291 Mirage I drove for a week featured optional ABS brakes, sunroof, and power conveniences that account for over $2,200. The $15,225 Escort, on the other hand, was pretty bare bones. The only significant add-ons were $1,100 for an air-conditioning/remote-unlock package (driver door only) and a $600 "sport package" that combined legitimately sporty 15-inch wheels with a pseudo-sporty collection of bodywork cosmetics. Extract the Mitsu's extras to match the Escort's spec sheet, and note that air-conditioning is standard on Mirage LS. Suddenly, Ford's advantage narrows to near imperceptibility.Both of these cars are considered entry-level sporty coupes, and both are decked out in notably tarty frocks to titillate the teen crowd they're targeting. The Mirage's basket-handle rear spoiler and optional side air dams are a case in point; they're attractive and mildly flashy, but they belie the mere 113 horsepower issuing from a 1.8-liter four-banger underhood. Ford pasted similar gewgaws to the bodywork of the ZX2, but they also stuffed a hale and hearty twin-cam 2.0-liter into the engine bay. This acclaimed "Zetec" motor derives from the larger Ford Contour, and there's absolutely nothing superficial about its romping 130 horsepower. Advantage, again, Ford for its incontestable trump in the form of 15 percent more power.In fact, that combination of horsepower brawn with suspension finesse (in the form of those 15-inch wheels, indy suspension all-'round, and stiffened springing/damping) turns the ZX2 into a legitimate small-car performer. It urges the driver to toss it around in the twisties; it accelerates through the gears with a distinct snappiness; it brakes convincingly, consistently, and hard, even without optional ABS. In short, it dominates the Mirage. Advantage, Ford. Objectively speaking, this is the one. Or it should be ... .Except that the Mirage was more fun for me to drive. And here's where objectivity flies out the sun roof. Subjectively -- or as some might suggest, for no good reason -- Mitsu's Mirage and I had a lot more fun together than the ZX2 and I did. Whereas the Escort was always goading, coaxing, and urging me onward and upward, the Mirage and I just tooled around, going with the flow. Its 113 horsepower, although limp in objective comparison with Ford's 130, is actually quite enough. This motor, although it's just a single-overhead-cammer, spins (i.e., revs) quickly and feeds the Mirage's five-speed manual transmission with a generous, easy-shifting power curve.I make absolutely no apologies for preferring what's known as momentum driving -- that is, I enjoy the challenge of making and maintaining speed in contrast to the thrust-and-parry style of hard acceleration and hard braking. Stout motors in able chassis encourage the latter, and the sensation is athletic. It is also a workout. At its best, the momentum style of driving can be balletic, and the dance becomes a trance of smooth sailing, given the right combination of car and driver. It's an aesthetic consideration, of course, and annoyingly subjective; but for driving feel, it's "Advantage, Mitsubishi." Go figure.There are, of course, practical considerations to factor into this comparison as well. Both are four-seaters, but the ZX2 is a bit larger and heavier. The Mirage, however, offers slightly more trunk space. Both standard cloth interiors are comfy. While I preferred the comfort and adjustability of front seating in the Ford, my kids were much happier in the rear of the Mirage. Not the least reason why, I suspect, is the greater ease of entering and exiting the Mitsu coupe. But from an adult's point of view, that easy access is marred by the lack of a "memory" feature for the driver's seat recline angle. The Escort had one, and the seat back returned where I wanted it, no matter how many times this or that one of my urchins slithered in or out.Both cars have wimpy center consoles with lids that flip backwards as if they might snap off their hinges. Mitsu's dash and instruments were traditional, functional, and uncomplicated. Ford touts its Integrated Control panel, or ICP, which it borrows from Taurus and Contour. It's more unusual in appearance but actually quite handsome and functional. I prefer it. The Mirage's sunroof is an excellent enhancement, of course, but there's one available for the ZX2 as well, and for about $200 less. By a narrow margin, I probably prefer the Ford's interior overall, simply because it feels slightly more substantial and durable -- subjectively speaking, of course."But which one should I buy?" Why won't that plea just go away! Doesn't anyone account for personal taste anymore? Drive the Escort ZX2 and Mirage LS back-to-back, and see what you think -- see which one suits your personality better. Maybe you prefer the Mitsubishi's 28/37 mileage rating over Ford's slightly less frugal 26/33. Or maybe you're insistent on more motor, more punch from the ZX2. Decide for yourself, why dontcha? And if you see me tooling around town in a Mirage someday, yes, it might only be an illusion; but feel free to give me a little wave just in case.

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