Classic Sports Car

…and the winner is


Had it not been for their desire to push boundaries, the manufactur­ers of our five finalists would have left the car industry – and mainstream car buyers – in a far poorer place. And while the European Car of the Year didnʼt always back the right winner, its recognitio­n of these particular cars added to each oneʼs game-changing gravitas.

In many ways, the NSU Ro80 had more potential than most to set new benchmarks. Our judges all applauded its modernity, despite it being the oldest car in our final quintet. Its wedge profile was a glimpse of the future, and all agreed that its sublime ride quality, surprising­ly deft handling and powerful brakes represente­d a huge leap forward in its class. Alas, its flawed diamond of a rotary engine means that it goes to the back of this admittedly high-performing pack.

Our fourth-place taker, the Audi 100, may well have taken a leaf from the Ro80ʼs design book, though, after NSU came into Ingolstadt­ʼs clutches from the 1970s. All of our judges acknowledg­ed that itʼs the 100ʼs slippery shape and class-leading aerodynami­c performanc­e that made such an impact on future large-car design, enabling the use of smaller and lighter engines. Clever safety technology also showed Audiʼs emerging grip in this area. But a driverʼs car? Not on this showing. Rather, a car to be admired for its deep-rooted engineerin­g excellence and benchmark design.

Proving that the newest cars in our original group werenʼt necessaril­y the ones that shifted the dial forward the most, our first podium star, the Toyota Prius, beat the 100 by just two points. The second-generation Prius was recognised by our panel for being the first production car to bring electrific­ation to the masses. Overlay that with its respectabl­e performanc­e and packaging, and itʼs not hard to see why it is arguably one of the most significan­t cars to launch this century.

Even so, it was still pipped to the runner-up spot by a car 35 years its senior: the brilliant Fiat 128. No judge came away without a smile on his face after driving the Fiat, and marvelling at its light and precise controls, zesty overhead-cam engine, and bright and roomy cabin. And while it wasnʼt the first car to use many of the advanced technical solutions it employed, it was arguably the first to bring them together in one intelligen­tly designed package, making it the template for the modern front-wheel-drive car.

And so to our overall winner, the Ford Focus. All of our judges awarded it more points than any other finalist, with Matt gifting it a maximum 10. Like the little Fiat, the Focus was enamoured by everyone who drove it, but added generous layers of late-20th-century refinement, impressive build quality and safety, all wrapped in a body that still looks fresh and modern 26 years after it first appeared. This was Fordʼs riposte to the by-then unloved Escort, and its engineers and designers went overboard to make sure it was the best and most complete mainstream car on the market. And, boy, did they succeed. The Focus Mk1 is not only our top Car of the Year, but a guaranteed future classic, in all its forms.

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