My previous '89 Chrysler Lebaron, which I also wrote a review of on here, was giving me serious trouble during the 12 months that I owned it. My finances finally allowed me to upgrade to something a bit newer and lower mileage.
I purchased a used '97 Mercury Tracer LS Wagon from a family friend who had reached a point in her life where she realized she shouldn't be driving anymore. Timing worked out perfectly for me to buy the car from her. Boy was I excited! The chance to buy a more economical and more practical car from the original, non-smoking, elderly owner was a wonderful opportunity for me. She offered the car to me for an incredibly good price, so I would have been a fool to turn her down.
I had never driven this generation of Tracer/Escort before, so I didn't know what exactly to expect. I had driven the previous generation Escorts, a '93 Escort sedan and a '94 Escort GT, and wasn't terribly impressed. Way too noisy. Too cheap and plain. However, after driving this '97 Tracer, I was pleasantly surprised! It's quieter, roomier, and has a higher quality interior than the previous generation. It's honestly not any noisier than my '89 Lebaron convertible. In fact, I think it's a little quieter, which surprised me. Don't let me fool you, it's still a small, plain economy car with too much road noise, mainly from the rear tires. Overall though, I'm very impressed and content with the driving experience. It's a nice upgrade from my feature laden, but very problematic Lebaron. I was more than happy to give some creature comforts for a more solidly built, more economical and more practical car.
The 2.0L 4cyl. engine does not make the car fast by any means, but it's not pokey either. It's reasonably strong for most driving situations. I feel peppy and responsive around town, but kind of weak and too eager to downshift on the highway. It's smooth running, although it don't care for the slight vibration at idle. The engine sounds a heck of a lot better than other small 4cyl. economy cars I've driven in the past, like the Civic and Sentra. Those cars tend to have whiney, high revving motors. I can't stand that! The throttle is far too touchy for my taste though. It's very difficult not bucking on take-off. In most driving situations, the engine revs quite low, which is surprising for an economy car. They tend to like to rev high no matter how slow you are accelerating or driving.
The 4-speed automatic shifts a bit more abruptly than my Lebaron, so that's taking some getting used to. Especially the 2nd to 3rd shift is too abrupt. It's smooth into the other gears though. The lock-up torque converter is nice to have because it reduces engine RPM and increases gas mileage. The downside is that it likes to engage and release that lock-up feature far too often, no matter if you're going 40mph around town or 75mph on the highway. The Tracer seems to rev quite low for a small car. Cruising at 40mph, it only revs about 1,500rpm. At 75mph it only revs about 2,800rpm. I like this a lot because it increases fuel economy and cuts down on engine noise. There is NO engine noise cruising at 70mph. However, there is a very deep, resonating tone inside the cabin while cruising at around 40mph because of the excessively low RPMs. However, anytime you want to pass someone or go up the slightest of hills, the lock-up torque converter releases, causing what feels like a downshift and the engine to rev up to about 3400rpm at 70mph. If you REALLY need to pass on the highway, it downshifts into 3rd causing the engine to rev to about 4,500rpm. That's really unnerving, so I'm learning to be more patient and not feel the need to pass people so much. That's one of the few things I hate about this car. What I have noticed though, is that the engine does not become louder and more vocal the higher it is revved. It's kind of strange, but nice.
The steering is pretty much perfect for my taste. The steering wheel is a good size. Not to big, not too small. The steering effort is fairly firm, which I like and feels connected to the road nicely.
The seats are very hard, but are shaped fairly well. They are comfortable for only a couple of hours before my lower back starts cramping up. However, I have a bad back and have noticed that these seats seem to cause my back less pain than the seats in my Lebaron, which are much more plush. Apparently firm seats work better for my back than do plush seats.
The car seems very well built for an economy car. The doors sound nice and solid when they shut. There are, however, a myriad of squeaks, chirps, buzzes, and rattles that come from various places in the interior. They are not all always apparent, but if one area isn't making noise, another area is. It's still a very solid feeling car driving down the road though. MUCH better than my Lebaron, which feels so loose and disconnected.
I'm quite impressed with the amount of interior space the car has up front, in the backseat, and the cargo area. I'm average male height(5'9") and weight roughly 155lbs. I've sat in the passenger seat and rear seat while someone else drove. There is ample room for my average-size dimensions, both in the front and back seats. I was surprised how much leg/knee room there is in the backseat with the front seats all the way back. It's no Lincoln Town Car in interior space, but it's pretty roomy for a small economy car.
Overall, the Tracer LS Wagon is a very competent little car. The availability of a wagon, which I have, is awesome! So many economy cars don't offer a wagon version. My Mom borrowed the car to go pick up a new dining room buffet she bought because she couldn't fit it in her larger Volvo 940 sedan. The car seems too shift-happy if you drive any quicker than at a moderate pace, no matter if you're in town or on the highway. I think the Tracer/Escort are a fantastic choice. Reliability ratings are high, body integrity seems good, parts are cheap and plentiful, and one of these cars can be had for a MUCH more reasonable price than the imports. I HIGHLY recommend this car if you are on a budget or just want economical transportation.