After six years in the market with the current model, Ford Motor Co. is ready with new replacements for the Escort/Tracer. But hang with us here, because it's a complicated deal.

The new models will roll out of Ford's assembly plants in Wayne, MI, and Hermasillo, Mexico, just as do the outgoing Escort/Tracer. Production begins in March for the new cars, which continue to be based on the current cars' CT20 chassis -- wheelbase is unchanged -- and are, as Robert A. Kiessel, chief program engineer for Ford's Escort/Tracer/Aspire program, puts it, "a distant cousin of the (Mazda Motor Corp.) Protege." As you might remember, the current-generation Escort shares most of its basic architecture with the Mazda 323/Protege range, and Mazda was a "partner in the design and development" of the new Fords.

But the '97 Escort/Tracer's shelf life will be considerably shorter than the six years enjoyed by the current cars. Come 1999, Ford will scrap the CT20-based Escort/Tracer and generate an all-new "world" platform -- CW170 -- for Escort/Tracer that means the subcompacts will at last fall in step with the Ford 2000 goal of integrating models for varying worldwide markets into global platforms. Ford execs say Mazda most likely will not participate in the CW170 program.

Get a good look at the current 3-door Escort, because that's it for the hatchback body style. The 1997 Escort/Tracer range will include, at first, a 4-door sedan and station wagon. Roughly a year after their May introduction, a 2-door coupe completes the lineup, replacing today's hatchback body style.

The curvy if somewhat generic new sheetmetal is the product of Ford's Pacific Rim design studio. If the silhouette could be that of any number of small Japanese cars, at least the stylists have skillfully incorporated the Ford "family" appearance in the front and rear caps. Perhaps too discerningly the new cars from some angles exhibit lines alarmingly similar to those of the Contour. No matter, as the '97 Escort/Tracer, viewed side-by-side with the current models, are Frisbees next to cinder blocks.

Mr. Kiessel says Ford has "really gone at value analysis and value engineering," for these short-lived new models, which means engineers have had a go at a mild reworking of the existing independent MacPherson strut front and independent trailing-arm rear suspension found on the current cars. They went in search of increased ride suppleness and crisper handling, but until the '97 cars are available for evaluation drives, we'll have to take Mr. Kiessel's word that the new Escort/Tracer will enjoy improved ride and handling. The claimed 25% increase in body torsional and bending stiffness can't hurt.

We can almost certainly expect increased levels of performance. New -- and exclusive -- to the 1997 Escort/Tracer line is a 2L "split port" inline 4-cyl. derived from the current 1.9L OHV engine. Employing the same split-port design that enhances the 3.8L V-6 in Ford's Windstar, the new engine uses a butterfly valve-controlled long/short intake runner setup, hence the term "split port," to route intake air in the most combustion-efficient, torque-producing manner.

The new 2L engine develops 110 hp at 5,000 rpm, compared to the measly 88 hp worked out of the superseded 1.9L engine. Torque takes a similarly healthy jump, from 108 ft.-lbs. (146 Nm) to 125 ft.-lbs. (169 Nm).

Powertrain improvement extends to the 4-speed automatic and 5-speed manual transaxles that are reworked for better shift quality in the 5-speed and less shift "busyness" for the automatic.

And yes, there will be a "performance" version of the new Escort/Tracer: a 2-door coupe to replace the current Escort GT/Tracer LTS models. Launched about a year after the mainstream line, the new coupe will feature the 2L Zetec DOHC 4-cyl. engine used in the base Contour/Mystique.

Inside, the new cars enjoy marginally increased headroom and rear-seat legroom and a scaled-back version of the ICP, or "integrated control panel," the funky all-in-one control unit for sound system and HVAC functions pioneered by the 1996 Taurus/Sable.