I have owned about 37 cars over 31 years of driving, and 4 have been Ford Escorts. My 1998 SE Wagon is my favourite vehicle of all.
As with any vehicle, the key is to maintain it well, particularly with clean fluids. I would suggest that if you have purchased a used Ford Escort, with reasonable mileage that is problematic and unreliable, it has very likely not been maintained well. I have kept all fluids clean at all times, changed the timing belt, kept the engine optimally tuned, etc., and the Escort runs like a new car. I routinely clean the interior (including carpets and upholstery) and always keep a coat of wax on the metallic blue paint.
When the car is in for servicing, technicians and mechanics always comment on its excellent condition, mechanically and cosmetically. There is very little sign of wear on this vehicle anywhere or in any regard.
Keeping the car maintained and clean is a big part of this, however I believe that the Escort is a well built vehicle all around. As mentioned above, the crank shaft pulley did loosen and begin to "walk" from the motor. There was no damage internally at all, and it was a $200 repair bill. This was the only requirement where the Escort had to be taken to the shop for something other than routine maintenance. I was not upset with this repair, as the Escort has been amazingly reliable over the past 4 years, and I can easily forgive this mechanical mishap.
Also, as mentioned above, a tie rod required replacement at 145,000 Km. I have always been aware of the fact that this is a minor weak spot of Escorts, so it was not surprise that it required replacement. I am sure the right rod will need to be done soon as well. But, parts do wear out on all vehicles and machinery in general, and all makes and models and cars seem to have an inherent weakness here and there.
I enjoy driving my little Escort wagon every time I get behind the wheel, whether it's 5 Km to work, 2 Km to drop the kids off to school, 200 Km on a family camping trip, or a 2,000 Km road trip to Drumheller in Alberta to visit the Dinosaur museum. I would drive this car across the country or continent without concern.
If you are considering the purchase of a Ford Escort, certainly do your due diligence and have it checked out thoroughly by an qualified mechanic. If it has a clean bill of health, buy the car and continue with a well structured maintenance schedule.
Take good care of the Escort, and the Escort will happily return the good care back to you for many years, and many reliable and trouble free miles.