I have had 4 Essex front wheel drive, 3 rear wheel drive, and now have 2 Duratec.I would take an Essex over a Duratec.
The head gaskets were always an issue, but as head gasket material/designs got better, the chances of it happening got much lower, though it's always a liability. The engine is a pretty good design otherwise, the power output was good. It has a very strong block and the after market is the best for Ford V6 engines.I have had 4 Essex front wheel drive, 3 rear wheel drive, and now have 2 Duratec.
The Essex was a hodpog of fill in between old school and newer designs. Famous for blowing head gaskets. Aluminum head on iron block is formula for leaks. It is a very quiet low rpm high torque comfortable engine if you do not want to go fast. High torque, low HP. And unfortunat that they married it to high slip rate converter and slow shifting trans.
They upped the HP to 200 in '96. It got pretty peppy after that. I would tend to agree with you about durability, the Duratec is a very reliable engine. But on performance, the Essex always out torqued the Duratec.I had a '95 GL with the 3.8. I didn't like it one bit. The Duratec is light years better in performance, durability, and gas mileage. Of course, that's just my opinion, others may vary.
Ford should've kept the 4.9L (300cid) straight 6 in the offering. That was a great engine.