Before Ford offered the ST performance badge in North America, or even an SVT Focus, there was a lesser-known hot subcompact with a blue oval badge. And not the Escort GT; I’m talking about the Ford ZX2 S / R, one of the best platforms from the venerable “Fazda” era (or similarly pronounced “Fozda”) when Ford and Mazda merged.
Peter Nelson is a writer at Car Bibles, an upcoming sister site of The Drive that focuses on automotive adventures and DIY tips to help you get the most out of your car. This includes industry comments, hot takes, and random reflections around the automobile. – Andrew P. Collins, EIC Autobibles
Before Mazda had its current goal of dismantling the luxury institution, Ford owned a healthy portion of its stock. Between the mid-1970s and 2015, Ford and Mazda worked together on various projects. This led to some really cool stuff, including rad-tiny V6s, the Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta siblings, the underrated Mazda MX-6 and Ford Probe siblings, some forced induction technology, folks who Ford valve covers on Miata engines, and a lot more. But it also meant that the Ford ZX2, an otherwise nondescript car, shared many of the same parts as the Mazda Protege, another otherwise nondescript car.
The chassis was remarkable. Independent suspension on all four corners and a decently light curb weight meant the ZX2s and Proteges were well handled and could be even better with some aftermarket upgrades. Ford decided to take advantage of this and offer a hot version of the ZX2. The blue oval brand brought Ford Racing and Small Vehicle Center product development together in one room, so to speak, and they developed the ZX2 S / R.
A SEMA Sport Compact from fasting and angry
The S / R fairing, which debuted in March 1999 at the big, brightly colored auto accessory show SEMA in Las Vegas, was a rare bird from the start. It was only available for 1999 and 2000 ZX2 models. 100 were produced in 1999, 2000 were produced in 2000. You can have it any color you want as long as it’s black … or yellow or red.
More interesting: the performance features included a Roush intake system, recalibrated control unit, and Borla exhaust. The result of all this was a claimed 10 percent increase in performance. Ford also included an Exedy short-stroke gearshift lever, Centerforce power clutch, Tokico shock absorbers and struts, Eibach Pro Kit springs, Energy polyurethane bushings, Goodyear Eagle F1 tires 205/55/15, and all-wheel disc brakes. It also had some humble interior and exterior accents to sharpen its look a bit. All the ingredients necessary to provide consumers with a fun, engaging sports compact.
At this point, Motor Trend achieved a 0-60 of just 7.6 seconds; Not bad for an all-motor, 140 hp in 1999.
Ford had also planned to offer a Dynamic Suspension Kit, but according to ex-forum members of the now defunct TeamZX2.com, this never seems to have come off completely. These included 500-pound springs in the rear and 300-pound springs in the front with adjustable shock absorbers, an adjustable rear swing bar, and crash bolts. Ultimately, the enthusiasts were not offered the shock absorbers and springs and they had to get larger rear swing bars from other Ford cars and purchase their own crash bolts if they wanted such an upgrade. Apparently, Ford also swapped the intake manufacturer for a company called Iceman and got rid of the Centerforce clutch.
That said, it’s pretty cool to develop a limited-production sports compact from a domestic auto company that has gotten as far into the performance arena as the ZX2 S / R.
Even for the year 2000 the availability of spare parts for the spare parts market was very good. The companies offered turbocharging, performance camshafts, attachments, sub-drive pulleys, adjustable cams (remember those ?!), aftermarket exhaust systems, ECU tuning, and much more. How perfect that this cool little car debuted at SEMA; The tuning community for the aftermarket came into effect.
These cars were extensively autocrossed and tracked at the time, and were popular with enthusiasts, tuners and the automotive press alike. You’re still on the right track here and there in the US
A quick end to a short era
Not too long after 2000, Ford pulled the plug on the ZX2. Next came the better developed ZX3 and ZX5, and of course, the Focus got serious performance variations many years later. However, it seems that enthusiasts and tuners have largely forgotten about S / R. The ZX2 tuning forums have almost completely disappeared, and no one has made aftermarket parts for them in a long time. Even a recent review of eBay didn’t come up with anything special.
Ford’s attention turned to the newer SVT Focus and the Focus ZX4 ST. Eventually the STs Focus and Fiesta came and just recently weren’t sold here anymore.
The ZX2 S / R didn’t start the trend of an OEM Sport Compact from Ford USA. The SVT Contour, Escort GT and of course the Merkur XR4Ti deserve this recognition. But it was the first really modern one with a very solid connection to the aftermarket. Plus, it had some solid numbers for an NA 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It’s a shame Ford stopped building. If I could find one I would totally brush it up and get started on the right track. Bet it would look sick on some Rays 57DRs.
Peter Nelson is a writer at Car Bibles, an upcoming sister site of The Drive, which focuses on practical tips and DIY advice to help you get the most out of your car. Look for a redesigned Autobible in early 2021. Visit us on Twitter, IG and Facebook.