In the summer of 1996, I bought the cheapest “performance” car offered by Ford: a white 1995 Escort GT. Drove it 77,000 miles before upgrading to a kid hauler. Exactly twenty years after that purchase, in a painfully transparent attempt to relive my youth, I again bought the cheapest performance car offered by Ford: a white 2015 Fiesta ST. These two vehicles occupy the same low-end slot in the manufacturer’s portfolio, separated by two decades. Only they’re not the same. Not at all.
The Escort GT came equipped a 1.8 liter Mazda-sourced 4-banger with 120-ish horsepower. Descriptive words like, “adequate,” come to mind. It could accelerate uphill, so that was something. The 5-speed manual transmission met the definition of a 5-speed manual transmission. Clutch and everything. While I was sure the car could hang with my mom’s 1988 VW Scirocco 16V, it didn’t have anywhere near the refinement or discipline of the German competition. The Escort GT was a crappy econobox with a slightly upgraded engine, a slightly stiffer suspension, and a sweet leather-wrapped steering wheel. Oh, I loved that steering wheel. While cruising down the road, I’d often daydream that it was 1960 and my 1995 Escort was the most high-tech automobile on the planet. If I focused on that wheel, and how it kind-of sort-of felt like a real sports car, and if I drove in a perfectly straight line at a constant speed, I could just about convince myself that the Escort was cool.
The Fiesta ST, on the other hand, does not require conscious effort to love. The steering wheel is well balanced, the shifter precise, the clutch light. The turbo whines when you push the engine. The grip is outstanding. I find simple joy in cruising the suburbs at 30MPH and making tight corners without slowing down. Yes, I drive 30MPH in a 25MPH zone. That’s how I roll. If I attempted those same corners in the Escort, at that speed, the driving experience would elicit feelings of fear, dread, helplessness, and pain.
The Fiesta ST has power: 197 horses according to the manual. That’s enough for a 2,790 pound car. Except, perhaps, in two circumstances: when you’re too lazy to downshift (admit it — it happens), and when that affluent teenager in a new Mustang GT pulls alongside to play. Otherwise, why the hell would you need more? (Note: I do not play with others.)
Both vehicles are upgraded, low-end econoboxes and neither escapes its roots. The Escort, in full GT trim, would have been a perfectly competitive car at the time if it were sold as the base model. But it wasn’t; it was the premium Escort. Such were the middling 1990s for Detroit. But the car had merits. My wife and I took several 1,600 mile road-trips between Kansas and Florida without incident. The Mazda engine reached highway speeds on request, even with a full load, and the suspension was wholly adequate to maintain control. The seats were standard Escort grade, which sucked. Today’s Fiesta ST seats are actually pretty good, except for the back seats, which, unsurprisingly, suck. The Escort, despite having only 2 doors, claims victory in the back seat contest. Oh, and the brakes. The Escort had a mean case of brake fade, which ended the fun way, way too early. Not so in the Fiesta — push the brake pedal, and you stop. Hard. Again and again. All that being said, when I look back at my time with the Escort, I think to myself, “Not terrible.”
The Fiesta ST still feels cheap, but on a different plane of existence. For example, the Escort came with a cassette player; the Fiesta has an infotainment screen. Self-evident dials and levers from the 1990s have been replaced with spaceship controls that require me to think. Someday I’ll learn how they all work. No, probably not. I just want to drive. And drive it does. The Fiesta kicks you in the shins and taunts you for more. It is cramped and bumpy and beats your kidneys to hell. Holy crap is it fun. The Escort GT was a mediocre compact with a few minor upgrades. It got the job done — and very little else — at a price I could afford. Twenty years later, the Fiesta ST is proper damn sports car. So much has changed since 1995. The low-end is not such a sacrifice. We live in a golden age of automobiles, of affordable and accessible fun, where even cheap cars can kick ass.