Home » Nice And Cheap And Simple: 1998 Ford Escort ZX2 vs 1999 Chevy Cavalier

Nice And Cheap And Simple: 1998 Ford Escort ZX2 vs 1999 Chevy Cavalier

Sbsd 11 8 2023
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Good morning! Today is 11/8, which any musician will tell you is a difficult time signature – unless you’re Les Claypool or someone who lives in weird time signatures. So to counteract that weirdness, we’re getting back to basics, and looking at a couple of cheap simple coupes. And by “cheap,” I mean cheap: Two grand in your bank account could get you either one of these, the title transfer, a tank of gas, a few little repairs, and whatever crap in the accessories aisle at AutoZone caught your fancy. In this day and age, that’s a steal.

Why so cheap? They both have an extra pedal, which may have something to do with it. Manual transmissions can drastically cut the price of ordinary everyday cars these days, as David has discussed before, because ordinary everyday drivers don’t want to (or don’t know how to) deal with them. Knowledge is power, after all, and being willing and able to drive a stick can work out in your financial favor.

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But first, we should finish up with yesterday’s foolish off-roaders. I’m surprised – I really expected that lifted Miata to be a bigger hit. I was not expecting the cries of blasphemy; I mean, Mazda made hundreds of thousands of them. They’ll be around for a long, long time. We can spare a few old beat-up ones for silliness. In the end, though, the brilliant but forlorn little British ex-military truck took a narrow win.

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All right; let’s take a look at today’s contestants. I didn’t mean for this to be the classic Ford versus Chevy battle – it just worked out that way. I could go either way on this one, but let’s see what you think.

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1998 Ford Escort ZX2 – $1,700

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Salem, OR

Odometer reading: 270,000 miles (approximate; odometer is broken)

Runs/drives? Yep

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The second- and third-generation North American Ford Escort is an unsung hero. For more than a decade, it provided cheap, reliable transportation for millions – and then did the same for second, third, and fourth owners, including me. Basically a Mazda BG platform powered by various Ford engines (except a lucky few versions with Mazda BP twincams), these cars handled better than they had a right to, got shockingly good gas mileage, and took hundreds of thousands of miles to kill.

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This ZX2 coupe has already covered a lot of miles – approximately 270,000 of them. The exact mileage is unknown, because half of the gauge cluster doesn’t work. The speedometer/odometer and temperature gauge are both dead. Presumably, since they aren’t mentioned, the tach and the fuel gauge are still functional. The temp gauge issue might be just a bad temperature sensor; the seller also says the check-engine light is on because the car always thinks it’s in cold-start mode. The seller says it “doesn’t effect driving,” but I don’t see how it could not. It probably runs rich all the time, if nothing else, wasting fuel.

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Annoyingly, the ad lists a whole litany of other recent mechanical work, including brakes, suspension, clutch, timing belt, water pump, and much more. Why they wouldn’t replace something as simple as a coolant temperature sensor after all that, I can’t understand. But it’s a cheap enough thing for the next owner to take care of.

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Apart from some paint damage on the rear bumper that is apparently from a tire blowout years ago, it still looks pretty good. These were always fun little cars to drive; I don’t know how much of that fun is worn away after 270,000 miles, but it might be worth finding out.

1999 Chevrolet Cavalier – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.2 liter overhead valve inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Vancouver, WA

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Odometer reading: 140,000 miles

Runs/drives? “Amazing,” the seller says

The General Motors J platform was around for so long that it became a fixture on American roads, and it’s still not an uncommon sight in some places. The Chevy Cavalier was the longest-lived of all the various J models, available for twenty-three years across three generations. Nobody really aspired to own a Cavalier, but when you needed a cheap car, there it was, ready and waiting at your local Chevy dealer. This car, like the Escort, has a quiet nobility to it, an honest working-class dignity that I really appreciate.

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This is a base-model third-generation Cavalier, powered by Chevy’s “122” pushrod inline four-cylinder, a coarse but tough little engine that is often confused with the Pontiac-derived “Iron Duke” four, but is in fact a completely different engine. The word “unkillable” gets thrown around a lot, but I can say from experience that this engine is especially hard to terminate. I had one spin a connecting rod bearing once, and it still wouldn’t die – the car wouldn’t go over 30 miles an hour after a while, but I drove it to the junkyard. We’re talking Black Knight levels of invincible here.

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Turn-of-the-millennium GM interiors are often derided as being masses of cheap gray plastic, but in this case, no one expects much else. It’s honest, functional, and straightforward. Complain about this gray institutional expanse of plastic in a Corvette if you will, but here, it belongs. And apart from a few sun cracks in the dash top, this one appears to have held up well. The exterior paint isn’t in great shape, but the bodywork is straight and rust-free. Who needs clearcoat?

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Yeah, yeah. It’s not as well screwed-together or sophisticated or smooth as its Japanese competitors were. So what? It’s cheap, reliable, simple to fix when something does go wrong, and easy on gas. GM front-wheel-drive manual shifters were never great, but nobody said this was a performance car. It’s fine for what it is.

Personally, I think everyone should spend some time driving cars like these daily. They’re good lessons in what a car does compared to what a car is. You don’t actually need anything more than basic transportation like this. It’s certainly nice to have something nicer, but these will get you by just fine, and maybe make you appreciate “better” cars more. I’ve done my time, and now I do have a much nicer car, but I still have a deep respect for cheap basic little beaters like these. If you just needed cheap wheels, which one would you choose?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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DOHCtor
DOHCtor
7 months ago

The high milleage escort for me. I had friends have some of those and they are tough. On the them died after loosing all coolant for more then an hour before the engine seized (after he stopped the engine mind you) and the other one never died despite all the unspeakable horrors it endured (worldclass beatings by a 18y/o). The guy even plumbed the windshield washers in front of the front tires so he could vaporize bleach on the tires. Called that smoke shows mode… Don’t know where that green ZX2 ended up but it sure did win it’s special place in heaven.

As for the cavalier, it will fail a headgasket merely by loooking at it wrong and the chassis is made of a mixture of ky jelly and papier maché. Not for me..

Stig's American Cousin
Stig's American Cousin
7 months ago

Wow…the official $19.99/day rental cars from 1998 at any airport (if these had four doors). They weren’t good then, and the addition of hundreds of thousands of miles hasn’t improved things. I don’t get the sudden love of these things by groups of people in every automotive comments section. A story or post of a Tempo or Corsica appears and people wax poetic about how good they were and so on. Um, no they weren’t and if they were good, they’d still be sold in the same market as the still for sale Corolla, Accord, Altima, and Camry. I’ve had rental Cavaliers strand me on the side of interstates, including one with under 1,000 miles on it – the transmission blew up. I’ve had Grand Ams with entire plastic panels fall into the door or trim on the floor. GM saddling their junk with 3-speed automatics and ragged I-4s when the Japanese were using 4-speeds and SOHC and DOHC smooth and purring engines.

Nuke both of these from orbit. It’s the only way.

Dinklesmith
Dinklesmith
7 months ago

Chevy Cavaliers will outlive us all

That Guy with the Sunbird
That Guy with the Sunbird
7 months ago

As an avid J-Body enthusiast (there are dozens of us), I have to say Cavalier. Even though the 3rd/final generation model pictured here lacks the “personality” I like of the first and second generation ones.

But, a J-Body is like a fly caught in a storm door or a window screen. It’ll keep going for what seems like forever – with very little power.

Last edited 7 months ago by That Guy with the Sunbird
Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
7 months ago

Either of these are penalty boxes, but the Cavalier is cheaper. I would use it to teach my kids to drive stick and then get rid of it, or use it as a spare when someones car is in the shop (I have 5 drivers in my house, so something is always being repaired or in need of repair).

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