Driving 100 laps of the M25 in the 1999 COTY-winning Ford Focus

Ford Focus rear
Ford Focus rear

We wanted to do a year’s worth of driving in one week to see how it coped. It excelled

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.

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.”

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