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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Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
3 months ago

I’ll take the Cavalier, even though it was voted the Car Most Likely to be Left Parked on the Railroad Tracks.

Von Baldy
Von Baldy
3 months ago

Having driven, worked on, and demo derbied both of these cars, cavalier all the way

Tough lil bungholes that just keep on going running on pure hatred and rust

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
3 months ago

I trust the Cavalier a little more than I trust an older Ford, especially the Zetec.

Autonerdery
Autonerdery
3 months ago

I don’t know that my mom would say she “aspired” to own her ’84 Cavalier, but she was traumatized enough by her previous car (1980 Renault Le Car), and the Cav was reliable enough, that I’m pretty sure she would say she liked it, and we were a Chevy-only family for a good ten-plus years starting with that Cavalier.

People forget how dark much of the ’80s was. This was when a comparable Honda Civic would have cost nearly $1,000 more, and, in Southern California at least, still often required waiting several months and/or paying over MSRP—at well over 10% interest.

Anyway, if forced to choose between these two, I wouldn’t aspire to either, but I think the Chevy is the safer bet based on mileage and condition, and maybe I’d get a license plate frame or bumper sticker or something made that said “At least it’s not a Renault Le Car.”

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
3 months ago
Reply to  Autonerdery

I remember the days of Dealer VAT when it came to Hondas. If you caught a dealer at the right time, and were lucky you maybe could pay MSRP.

I’ve told the story about my sister and me buying two Accords on a test drive. We did get each of them for MSRP, but only because we “bundled.”

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
3 months ago

the biggest part of owning a cheap beater is that it has to stay cheap as long as it’s your beater. I like the ZX-2, and it would be a more engaging driver, but it’s not for me in this case. There’s going to be issues facing you every day (literally) with those dead gauges, and the running rich thing would need fixing before it passes emissions here in PA. To that end, if it’s been running that way for a while, I’d question how the converters are holding up. Nope, the boring Chevy is better here, and it’s not going to ask for very much in return.

Tiki Bunny
Tiki Bunny
3 months ago

The Cavalier and its cousin the Sunfire are cars I would never be caught dead in. Truly awful from design and build perspectives. Escort wins despite being the shakier buy.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
3 months ago

Man, shouts-out to the PNW for keeping these two preserved.

We’ll take the Escort. I can hear the Cav rattling from here.

Ricki
Ricki
3 months ago

I’m bowing out of this one. They’re both crap that I wouldn’t touch.

If the Escort was in anything approaching good shape, I’d huck a K and a half at it. As it is, no friggin way. And I just can’t go with a Cav. A Cobalt SS maybe, but not a Cav.

Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
3 months ago

For whatever reason, I knew more people back in the day with Cavalier/Sunfires than Ford Escorts. The Cavaliers were hard to kill. They were creaky, the seats weren’t very comfortable, but they kept running with a less than stellar devotion to maintenance. So Cav for me I guess.

Parsko
Parsko
3 months ago

I flipped a coin on this one. Same car, IMHO.

Clark B
Clark B
3 months ago

I rarely see Escorts out and about, but Cavaliers are still common and I usually see one every time or two I drive somewhere. Rust isn’t a huge issue here–we do get some snow and use salt in the winter, but rust doesn’t seem to be a car killer here like it is further north.

Really speaks to the durability of the Cavalier though. It’s not like people were babying theirs en masse–most of them were treated as disposable transportation appliances. And yet they keep soldiering on. I have to respect that.

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
3 months ago

All things equal, I would have leaned a bit more toward the Escort, but… I would trust the Cavalier more to get me home, let alone survive as a winter beater long enough to save up for another.

Zac H
Zac H
3 months ago

I bought a 1998 Escort ZX2 with 120k miles in 2007, for $1900 ($2800 today). It was pretty clean with no body damage. That’s some kind of indictment on car affordability these days! The clear coat on the roof turned white and started flaking off about a year after I bought it. I absolutely beat the shit out of that car and it kept on going with no problems. My brother finally killed it when he stuffed it into the side of a Tribute. But not before driving it home, and later onto the tow truck.

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
3 months ago

I would have gone with the Escort because it looks like it has the Zetec engine but all that’s wrong with it is a no dice for me. As much as I hate the Cavalier and the Cobalt, I’d take the Cavalier in this crapshoot.

Beasy Mist
Beasy Mist
3 months ago

I was ready to vote Escort but yikes that’s a lot of miles. I guess it’s the Cavalier this time.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
3 months ago

I’ve always hated the way these Escorts looked. Plus it has over 100k more miles and has problems. Those Cavaliers are absolute cockroaches. J-body it is!

Zac H
Zac H
3 months ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

I had one, I thought it looked kinda like a 3/4 scale Jaguar XK8 coupe!

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
3 months ago
Reply to  Zac H

Hmmmm … I don’t agree with you, but I can see where you’re coming from.

Slirt
Slirt
3 months ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

despite being a diehard coupe fan, i agree, something about these Escorts never looked right to me… couldn’t put my finger on it, tho! they should work, but don’t [for me].

Last edited 3 months ago by Slirt
Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
3 months ago

That the escort zx2 might be less problematic, even with higher miles.

It has the zetec motor that doesn’t drop valve seats, it’s a non-interference motor as well (regardless of what people say) so you can just beat on it until the belt breaks and only put money in to changing it when that happens.

The only thing that can cause an issue on these specific zetecs is the variable cam timing actuator (just one) can get gummed up.

I also remember those 2.2 pushrod cavalier motors blowing head gaskets, not sure if it was more model year specific though.

Last edited 3 months ago by Bizness Comma Nunya
IanGTCS
IanGTCS
3 months ago

Both cars that have largely disappeared from my area over the past 5-10 years. Even for winter beater duty. Mileage the same I’d likely have gone with the ford. But I’m voting the chev this time. Both are also firmly in the winter beater category for me where if I get 2 winters out of them at that price I’m OK with it.

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
3 months ago

man I came into this thinking I wanted to vote for the zx2, but its in far rough shape with lots of gremlins, the J car will run through the next apocalypse!

I don’t agree with this statement however:
GM front-wheel-drive manual shifters were never great

Having owned a few they weren’t terrible, handled well, fun to drive.
’89 Sunbird SE – not a lick of trouble
’93 Grand AM GT (HO Quad 4) great car till the engine decided it liked to drink coolant for the second time.

Mthew_M
Mthew_M
3 months ago
Reply to  Nycbjr

I believe the comment was intended to mean the transmissions themselves were nothing spectacular. They got the job done, but, even new they were pretty agricultural. No comment intended on the rest of the car, just the transmission.

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
3 months ago
Reply to  Mthew_M

Makes sense, however both of mine were Getrag, so a bit more refined!

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
3 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

well when you put it that way 🙂 yeah makes sense!

Scone Muncher
Scone Muncher
3 months ago

That era of Cavalier was godawful even new. I took one from Toronto to Miami & back and the scars from that hell trip still linger on the participants.

Gimme the Ford.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
3 months ago

Too many miles on that Fordzda. And it might be even higher? Nope nope nope.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
3 months ago

I thought I was going to be in the losing end picking the Cav. Surprise Surprise. I had an 87, and my god I loved that thing.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
3 months ago

The Escort is crazy overpriced even in this market. I could see $1,200 if it had such niceties as a working speedometer, but not in its current state. The Cadaver should win this race in a landslide.

Soso Tsundere
Soso Tsundere
3 months ago

The Escort would be a great project to donate to a high school to teach kids how to fix cars. A litany of problems, but they’re all easy enough to fix and the car is tough enough to function even if something gets missed or goofed up. And if any of them are brave enough to learn to drive stick so they can joyride with it… well, kudos to them.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
3 months ago

Had to go for the Ford despite the mileage. Had a 92 Escort wagon with the 1.9L NVH (pun intended) and 5 speed. Loved that car for the very practical transport it was Only annoyance was it would get stuck in 5th gear if you rolled to a stop with the clutch in. Would have to yank like hell to get it out and thought I’d break the shift linkage someday but never did. Yeah, the timing belt snapped but no biggy. Rust killed it in the end like everything else around here. A rear strut punched right through the tower after hitting a big pothole but I was able to fix it with a steel bracket from a junk riding mower. One of the rear trailing arm mounts eventually broke loose from the frame and I limped it to the junkyard after that.

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