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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Citrus
Citrus
3 months ago

I used to own a ZX2, and mine had problems, but I’m willing to accept that it was a bit of an outlier when it comes to the breed. But, I do think that the problems mine had were mostly related to the previous owner being an idiot, and that ZX2 has all the hallmarks of an idiot previous owner. The mystery mileage isn’t helping its case.

When I look at the Cavalier, all of the problems are obvious – it’s a Cavalier – but it looks rust free – I’m not seeing a ton of lumps and brown on the rear quarter panels, their favorite place to disintegrate – and somehow rust is the only thing that can kill them. So whoever takes it home is going to be able to get to work on time every day, until it inevitably rusts to death.

DDayJ
DDayJ
3 months ago

I spent time behind several J bodies from this era in loaner and rental car form and they deserve the rep they have. But the Cav looks like a better choice here. I do like the base spec, it’s not trying to be something it’s not.

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
3 months ago

Looks like I’m with everyone else: 25 years ago, this was an easy choice for FoMoCo, but the tables have turned rather decisively. The Chevy is unlikely to be even a little fun, but I wouldn’t trust that ZX2 to get me through the end of the year.

MP81
MP81
3 months ago

I gotta go Cav – we bought our ’98 (2200, 3AT) with 214k miles for $800 (in 2012), and by the time it picked a fight with a fire hydrant in 2017 (which it won, albeit sustaining mortal injuries), it had 258k miles and still ran and drove great (well, as good as a Cavalier can).

Forbestheweirdo
Forbestheweirdo
3 months ago

I like the escort better, and have always wanted to buy one just so I can say I paid for an escort, it’s too rough for the same price. Had to go cavalier.

Citrus
Citrus
3 months ago

When I had one, my mechanic took checks, so I always put “Escort service” in the memo section.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
3 months ago

I’ll go with the Cavalier based on the condition. Aside from the paint, this car is in decent shape. It looks like someone took care of it over the years. I’m not sure I would pay $1500 for it, but it looks like it could be a reasonable daily driver.

The zx2 is rough. I don’t see this car being worth $1700 with its issues. For what its worth, KBB lists a value range of $323 to $1202 for a ’98 zx2 in fair condition. I might be willing to risk $1000 on this car, but I think a fair price is closer to $500. I don’t believe it will be a good daily driver, but the interior looks nice so it may have $500 worth of parts to sell when it dies.

RidesBicyclesButLovesCars
RidesBicyclesButLovesCars
3 months ago

Once upon a time in the early 2000’s, I had access to Ford warranty data. The ZX2 was one of the best, most reliable Ford cars from that era. I would drop VINs I found when looking at used ZX2s and rarely find any warranty claims.

Even knowing how bad the Cavalier’s reputation is, I would still take it over the ZX2 based entirely off mileage.

I’ve ridden in and driven many ZX2s and Cavaliers from this era. The Ford was a better car when new. I don’t see it still being better with 130k more miles.

Last edited 3 months ago by RidesBicyclesButLovesCars
Lhn91
Lhn91
3 months ago

The Cavalier is a hateful cockroach of a car, and speaking with tow truck drivers they saw more people die in single-car collisions in them than almost anything else. But they run, and run, and run, and run, even when they barely have a frame or exterior door skins left – and I still see them around even though I’m in Ontario where the salt eats everything. If I’m looking in this price range, that’s what matters.

Chris Hoffpauir
Chris Hoffpauir
3 months ago
Reply to  Lhn91

The Cavalier is a hateful cockroach of a car…

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

In the context of shopping for a POS beater that’s already outlived most of its contemporaries and will still eat the proverbial “40 miles of bad road” with a smile on its face, that’s a compliment.

This car may well be here with the cockroaches and Hostess Twinkies after the nuclear holocaust.

GM dressed up these little cars with all kinds of stickers to try and convince us it was somehow a performance car. However, this example is the Cavalier in its purest form–promising nothing more than it will start when you turn the key and eventually get you from point A to point B.

Lokki
Lokki
3 months ago

Tough call. I watched a friend’s new Cavalier’s interior and paint turn to (insert fecal-related expletive here) in the course of about four years. Okay, okay, it DID keep moving, if poorly, but then so do most Zombies

I would much prefer the mostly-Madza Escort but…. it has *at least* 100K more miles on it, and an undiagnosed check-engine light at best and a diagnosed-so-time-to-sell-this-turd check-engine light at worst.

So, reluctantly, it’s the Cadaverlier. It’s a lot more “not quite dead yet” than the Ford.

Last edited 3 months ago by Lokki
RootWyrm
RootWyrm
3 months ago

If you can get the ZX2 at $1500 or even $1600 it’s a no-brainer. The Cavalier isn’t worth scrap value, but the Escort? Very few dollars will turn it into not only a competent daily but also a shockingly competent autocrosser. The interior on these isn’t bad either. It’s Neon grade (meaning basic but actually good,) because this was Ford’s desperate answer to the Neon. And this happens to be a Sport, which actually means a significantly beefed up suspension.
And it’s not a particularly slow car. This ZX2 will do the 0-60 sprint in under 7.3 seconds. Which yes, means as a point of fact, it is faster than a contemporary Miata. (BP kids have a serious case of brainworms, and always have.)

Not only that, but the 2.0 Zetec is as unkillable as the 1.9 CVH. Go ahead, snap the timing belt. It’s non-interference. Rings? Good fucking luck killing those. No, seriously. Somebody fucked up at Ford in that department, because they just will not wear out. These also have the later Mazda G5M transaxle, as found in the MX3 and Probe 2.5L, so yeah – it can take a pretty decent amount of power.
About the only real problem you’re going to have with this engine is exhaust fouling which can be cleared up with a proper professional top-end cleaning (talking hardcore aerosolized solvents,) and maybe the occasional valve cover leak (30 minutes in your driveway.)

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
3 months ago

Thankfully, I’m no longer at the point where I need to consider these for transportation. If I still were, though, the cheaper, lower-mileage mini-Bowtie would be my choice.

-and I bet there’s still fun to be had in either cheap shitbox if you tried 🙂

Drew
Drew
3 months ago

I had a fairly similar Cavalier and would definitely not want one again, but it still gets my vote. Begrudgingly. Approximate odometer reading almost double the Cavalier’s makes the Escort a hard sell.

Mike F.
Mike F.
3 months ago

Just can’t bring myself to pick a Cavalier over any other car that runs. Escort it is.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
3 months ago

My mom had a Cavalier, so I’m spending my Internet money on this one

Alexk98
Alexk98
3 months ago

These Cavaliers are the definition of garbage but reliable transportation and part of what gave this era GM its reputation for running poorly longer than some cars will run at all. It may be dull, but fewer problems, half the mileage (ish) and $200 less than the escort makes this one an easy call.

Duke of Kent
Duke of Kent
3 months ago

I kind of like them both. They are ideal cars for living out my dream of buying an effectively disposable manual transmission car and learning how to drive stick just by fooling around with it for an afternoon.

I like what’s left of the paint color on the Cav. I’ve never seen one in that shade of blue before, and it looks nice.

D-dub
D-dub
3 months ago

Odometer: 140K
or
Odometer: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but definitely over 270K

Even I can figure out the answer to that math problem.

Last edited 3 months ago by D-dub
Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
3 months ago

$1700 for that high mileage and paint condition? damn inflation lol

I was thinking to sell for $1000 my 1995 Mercury Tracer Wagon since I dont drive it anymore (Some small rust issues, exhaust started to “leak”, new tires, no power steering, Cold AC) in case is someone interested lol

JDE
JDE
3 months ago

the ZX2 is a pretty good example of an Escort, but I also question the legitimacy of the “New” parts. I have a seen many a high mileage vehicle that have had to have repairs over the years and at the time of sale state the parts are new, when in fact they are now also old an crusty as the ones they replaced years ago. I am loathe to want a cavalier, but in this case I would take it over the Ford. I would perhaps switch that if I saw them both in person and could do a real inspection myself.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
3 months ago

I’m a never Cavalier type. That Escort, while a bit beat to the street, was a decent car when new, while the Cavalier was never good to begin with. Sure the Escort seems to have some issues, but I bet that Cavalier also runs like shit, as they always do.

I know some people around here give these J bodies credit for being cheap and tough to kill, but please remember that nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and that these cars were absolutely roasted for being low quality shit heaps when they were on sale.

Something to note, if you value your ass and it’s comfort, those Cavalier seats are not for you.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
3 months ago

I really like that Escort, so it gets my vote. I’m willing to bet there are at least SOME issues with the Cavalier that bring it to parity with the Ford, especially with all the recent work done.

Maymar
Maymar
3 months ago

I had a prior gen Escort and a same generation Cavalier. The Escort was far more playful (even sandbagged with 30 fewer horsepower and an automatic), but the Cavalier was surprisingly pleasant. At the same mileage, I’m taking the Escort, but at twice the mileage we have here, the Heartbeat of America beats a little stronger.

Zelda Bumperthumper
Zelda Bumperthumper
3 months ago

I’ve spent enough time with both to know that the Mazda Ford is a lot more fun and generally more pleasant to drive, but twice the mileage and dash warning lights means that the Crapalier wins by a mile.

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
3 months ago

I’ll take the (un)Heavy Chevy.

Toecutter
Toecutter
3 months ago

That Cavalier needs an LS1 swap.

JDE
JDE
3 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Or a Supercharged 3.8 FWD swap.

Toecutter
Toecutter
3 months ago
Reply to  JDE

A more balanced and easier-to-install choice for sure. The 3.8 is arguably the most reliable American-made engine for a car, ever. The Cavalier also wouldn’t see much of a hit to fuel economy, if any, with it.

Chris Hoffpauir
Chris Hoffpauir
3 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

It sounds like a great idea. The only problem I can see is that it’ll still be the same POS car, just faster.

Toecutter
Toecutter
3 months ago

That’s entirely the point.

Mthew_M
Mthew_M
3 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

*LS4

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