Currently reading: Driving 100 laps of the M25 in the 1999 COTY-winning Ford Focus
While the original Ford Focus is now renowned and loved, when it won COTY we gave it a much harder time

When we first announced the Ford Focus as European Car of the Year in our 18 November 1998 issue, would we have predicted, 25 years on, that it would remain the contest’s most significant winner, in our judging panel’s opinion?

Well, we must have had an inkling, because the test that Autocar conceived to welcome Ford’s new wunder-model into the market was as audacious as the Focus was groundbreaking.

Then editor Patrick Fuller tasked the road test team, which I’d recently joined, to take one of the first Focus press cars and accrue as many miles as possible in a week. Perhaps as a joke, some bright spark suggested 100 laps of the M25 – or roughly 12,000 miles.

But after the guffaws subsided, the idea somehow stuck, and thanks to a nicely timed embargo, Autocar was able to run the full story on the very day the Focus received its COTY gong.

Today, the car resides at Ford’s Heritage Centre, but in late 1998 it was about to endure a year’s worth of motoring by being driven 24 hours a day for an entire week on the world’s longest city bypass.

Piloting the Focus in six-hour stints, then road test editor Steve Sutcliffe’s first shift got off to an inauspicious start: “Three hours and 23 minutes. To do one solitary 117.7-mile lap of this wretched road. Not good. Not good at all.”

So it was probably with unalloyed smugness that senior staff writer Colin Goodwin bagged the night shift, entering the Focus’s cabin at midnight at our changeover point near junction 11.

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But he then discovered a fresh and unexpected challenge: “The major problem is resisting driving too quickly.” Thanks to the car’s tall gearing equating to just 3750rpm at 85mph in fifth, plus its 1.6-litre Zetec engine’s supreme refinement, particular care was needed to avoid setting off the speed cameras that even then were part of M25 life.

Goodwin’s drive was also accompanied by a hint of frustration: “I’m driving a car with one of the smoothest gear changes in the business and I hardly need to touch it.”

But we had already dealt with the more dynamic properties of the Focus at that point. In fact, it had become one of only two cars in 1998 that had achieved a five-star road test rating, with its trick multi-link suspension, excellent packaging and Ford’s ‘New Edge’ design all conspiring to put it front and centre in what was then the UK’s biggest-selling car class.

Still more plaudits came in as the hours and miles rolled by, with then special correspondent Andrew Frankel admiring the test car’s ergonomics: “Focus controls allow me to get my position absolutely spot on… Even the mirror adjustment knob on the A-pillar is mounted just high enough that you don’t need to take your eyes off the road to know where it is.”

The Focus was flawed at times during this mighty schlep, though, as editor-in-chief Steve Cropley noted in his second drive of the car: “The ride seems a little bony on the M25’s concrete sections… [and] the engine is more audible above 5000rpm than I remember.”

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But after some reacquaintance, Cropley began to warm to the Focus again: “I’m admiring the quietness of the 1.6-litre engine, pulling long-leggedly in the mid-3000s in fifth at a motorway cruise. The quietness of the tyres on most of the M25’s surfaces is impressive.”

And after 11,770 miles and a total fuel bill of £968 (scarily, £2104 at today’s prices), the Focus had impressed all of those who had grafted behind its wheel. Added to which, in the last 1000 miles it consumed seven gallons less fuel than it did at the start – improving from 36.2mpg to 42.1mpg.

But most importantly, we had put Autocar’s readers in the Focus’s driving seat for an extended test like no other and our story signed off with this verdict: “On page seven of this issue, there’s a story announcing the Focus as the 1999 Car of the Year. One hundred laps of the M25 later, we can say that it’s well deserved indeed.” 

By Simon Hucknall

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FastRenaultFan 18 March 2024
The brother had a brand new 1.4 litre 5 door LX with extras in 1999 for 15,000 punts. It was in the greeny grey colour. He got it up to 90 one day on the motorway with three of us in it before getting pulled by a Garda. Maybe for the better but it was doing 90 no problem and was still very quiet too. Was a great car. A fiesta then flew by going even faster but did not get stopped.
harveyg77 18 March 2024

I used the Focus extensively as hire-cars and would delight at taking long journeys through the Lakes to Scotland, Farnborough to the Lakes, etc. all with as much cross-country routes as possible.

You don't have to drive at crazy illegal speeds to appreciate the steering, gear-shift and handling.

 Was it AutoCar that drove the perimeter of mainland UK in a Freelander, when they were launched in the UK?

 These sort of 'challenges' in everyday cars were fantastic and a great, inspirational, read!  I'm not sure if they are still undertaken, or consigned to history.

Dozza 17 March 2024

I had a 2.0 Focus back in the day. Great ride and an amazing gearshift IIRC. The shape still looks good even today but that interior sure hasn't aged well at all.