THE WORD was that the Ford Motor people were going to turn their Escort econobox into an "affordable performance" car.

They were going to take that little ol' putt- putt and give it some zoom -- make that rascal run with some fast company, see?

There were those of us who laughed when we heard this, who thought it was more public-relations poppycock.

Some of the other cynics might be laughing still, but I've seen the light.

That is, I've driven it.

The word that Ford was putting out last fall has been made steel, and is zipping along U.S. highways as the 1986 Escort GT.

GT?

That stands for "Grand Touring," which, in this case, is no hyperbole.

Outstanding complaints: Ford put the Escort GT's directional-signal and windshield- wiper levers on the same side of the steering wheel -- the left side; and the two levers are close together.

The tendency to move the wrong lever disappears eventually. But in the beginning, the same-side arrangement is a little maddening, particularly on rainy days when a misbegotten turn signal just doesn't do much to clear the windshield.

The GT's 1.9-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline engine is a gutsy little gizmo that likes to be heard. That's okay for sports-car nuts who want their engines to growl and grunt. But the Escort GT is a kind of crossover car, one supposedly designed to appeal to regular folk and closet hot-rodders.

The regular folk didn't like the engine noise.

Outstanding praise: This car, despite its little faults, is a whole lot of fun to drive. It's sort of like going to an amusement park and finding a favorite ride.

The Escort GT has surprising speed. It accelerates with enthusiasm moving into traffic and holds its own at the higher highway speeds against some cars that are twice its price.

(Nothing tickled me more than to scoot past some German and Japanese jobs that were trying to play nasty in the fast lanes. Wonder what their drivers thought about being outdone by an "economy car"?)

The Escort GT's interior is well-appointed. The instrument-panel layout makes perfect sense -- all of the dials and buttons are reachable and readable.

Handling: Getting through the snow was no problem, thanks to the Escort GT's front- wheel-drive arrangement and its superb subcompact-body suspension.

There were no swerves, no glides, no skids at moderate speeds on slippery roads. Dry- road handling, particularly in turns, was equally commendable.

Head-turning-quotient: An excellent compromise between ugly and cute. Call it distinctive.

Sound system: Ford factory, basic AM/FM stereo cassette (no graphic equalizers or that sort of thing). Good.

Mileage: About 29 to the gallon, combined city-highway, running driver only and with winter climate-control system operating most of the time. The test car was equipped with a five-speed manual transaxle, which tends to increase mileage in most cars. But mileage in the test model might have been adversely affected because the engine was brand new -- 60 miles on the odometer -- at time of delivery.

Price-as-tested: $9,790, including $1,660 worth of options, such as the air conditioner and computerized systems monitor.

Warren Brown writes for the Business section of The Washington Post.