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Ford Joins Fast Crowd With Its Escort ZX2 S/R

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ford Motor Co., aiming to break the Japanese Big Three’s stranglehold on the increasingly important compact performance car market in the U.S., has started a small-car performance group that will release its first product this summer.

The performance-tuned and specially painted edition of Ford’s Escort ZX2 will be sold only in Southern California, the heart of the compact performance scene, company officials said Friday at its unveiling. The zinc-yellow coupe, called the ZX2 S/R, is aimedsquarely at the Honda, Toyota and Nissan compacts that young buyers are turning into contemporary versions of the hot rod.

Ford knows it is No. 4 in the compact performance market in the U.S., “and Ford doesn’t like that,” said Al Kammerer, director of Ford’s small-vehicle line.

The compact performance arena--called the import performance market until domestic makers jumped into the fray--is vital for all auto makers. Like the muscle-car market of the 1960s and early ‘70s, the segment is the breeding ground for enthusiasts who keep buying bigger, better and more expensive cars as they age.

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Key vehicles include the Honda Civic, Toyota Celica and Nissan 200SX, as well as U.S. counterparts such as the Escort and Mercury Cougar from Ford and the Dodge and Plymouth Neons from DaimlerChrysler.

The ZX2 S/R was unveiled at the annual Import Performance Salon in Pomona. Ford worked with some of the country’s top import performance parts makers to create the new model.

The 143-horsepower S/R will sell for just $1,495 more than the basic ZX2, or about $15,300. Ford is phasing out the Escort, replacing it with a U.S. version of the Focus line it sells in Europe. But the ZX2 will remain in Ford’s U.S. lineup for several years, and most of the performance parts developed for it can easily be adapted to the Focus.

Ford says only 100 of the new S/R models will be released initially, but the company has the capacity “to turn out several thousand very quickly” if demand is there, said Terry Crossett, head of the new small-car performance unit.

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The company shouldn’t have to work hard to find a market. The West Coast is home to about a third of the nation’s compact-car enthusiasts, according to the trade group that represents performance parts makers.

Enthusiasts spent more than $100 million on performance improvement parts and accessories for compact cars in 1997, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., and the market has been growing rapidly since then.

SEMA research director Jim Spoonhower said the average compact performance enthusiast in the Los Angeles area spends more than $1,000 a year on his or her car. And the number of female enthusiasts is growing rapidly.

In a new market study to be released next month, SEMA said women--mostly between ages 16 and 20--now make up about 14% of the compact enthusiast market, up from 3% just two years ago.

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