Auto Express' 50 best cars

We countdown the 50 best cars from the past 25 years

1st Ford Focus Mk1 Family hatch has beaten some stiff contenders to top prize – and it’s a truly deserving winner.

Your votes have been counted and verified, and now it’s official: the unassuming first-generation Ford Focus has beaten a hot hatch with world rally championship-winning pedigree and the world’s greatest supercar to the top prize – you voted it the best car of the past 25 years. That may shock some of you, but for us there’s no more deserving winner. Our trip down memory lane with the Focus wasn’t sepia-toned – as it still feels like a well built, sharp-handling hatch 15 years after launch. It’s easy to see why it set the bar so high, and rather than getting old that styling keeps getting better.

2nd Lancia Delta Integrale

There had to be an Italian car at the sharp end of our poll, but among the Ferraris, Alfas, Lambos and Maseratis, who’d have thought it’d be a Lancia? And a hatchback, to boot? But this is no ordinary hatch...The Delta Integrale took on all-comers in the WRC and won, so it’s no surprise that the road model is brilliant to drive. But the real bonus is that the Lancia we drove feels fast, agile and fantastically dramatic in a way few of today’s cars can match.

3rd McLaren F1 Old-school supercar still flies flag for Britain more than 20 years after it was built.

It’s amazing to think that the F1 was McLaren’s first attempt at a production car. We can’t think of another car rivals are still chasing 20 years after its launch, but the F1 really is that good. While the modern crop of supercars is all about massive performance and Toyota Prius-like economy through the use of heavy hybrid technology, the McLaren represents a much purer form of engineering, where less weight is king.

4th Volkswagen Golf MkVII

With 30 million sold to date, the Golf has been setting the standard in the hatch class since 1974. So why has the latest MkVII model scored so well? The new MQB platform takes refinement, handling, interior space and efficiency to a new level. You can also buy it with everything from an 88.3mpg 1.6 TDI to a storming 296bhp 2.0 TSI in the Golf R. Put simply, there are no longer any ‘small’ car compromises.

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5th Nissan GT-R

When Nissan introduced the GT-R, it revolutionised supercars. Not only was it hugely capable, it also cost just £52,900. At the time, nothing at that price could get close to the GT-R’s 3.8-second 0-62mph time or 193mph top speed. It’s still largely the same as when it was introduced, although its 3.8-litre V6 is now more powerful and the 0-62mph time’s been cut to 2.8 seconds. Sadly, the price has also shot up to £76,000.

6th Audi TT MkI

The Audi TT landed in 1998 like an alien spacecraft, taking the look of the 1995 concept and translating it directly to production. Not many cars become design icons while still on sale, but the TT did. It was never as engaging to drive as the Porsche Boxster or Nissan 350Z, but customers didn’t care – Audi couldn’t build them fast enough. Before the Fiat 500 and new MINI came along, turning cars from functional objects to fashion items, the TT was the ultimate accessory.

7th Bugatti Veyron

The Veyron was the car to strip the McLaren F1 of its top speed world record, when it hit 253.81mph in 2005. The engine behind this incredible speed was an 8.0-litre quad-turbocharged W16 producing 987bhp. When paired with a dual-clutch gearbox and four-wheel drive, this propelled the Veyron from 0-62mph in 2.5 seconds. Bugatti also introduced a Super Sport version, which boasted 1,183bhp and recorded a top speed of 267.85mph.

8th Alfa Romeo 156

Why have a BMW 3 Series like everyone else when you can own a something that looks as good as the 156? This wasn’t a temperamental rustbucket like some Alfas of old, either, and featured a range of good four-cylinder petrol and diesel options, plus a thirsty but tuneful 2.5 V6. The 156 was facelifted in 2003, and replaced by the 159 in 2006, but there’s no compact executive model in Alfa’s current line-up – and that’s a shame when it’s got pedigree like this.

9th Aston Martin DB9

Perfect proportions, a sumptuous interior and a 6.0-litre V12 under the bonnet – what’s not to like about the Aston DB9? Initially, the handling was less than sharp, but the beautiful shape meant customers were seduced regardless. Over the years, careful evolutions to the engine and bonded aluminium chassis turned the DB9 into a talented GT. But from day one, those looks and a huge sense of occasion meant it was always destined to be a classic.

10 Rover Mini Cooper

Based on the 1959 original, this 1990 Rover Mini Cooper featured a white roof, new 12-inch alloys and chrome bumpers. In a taste of things to come, owners could customise their cars with racing stripes and rally-style lights. The cabin was still cramped, but the way it drove was exhilarating. With its carburettor-fed 61bhp 1.3-litre engine it could hit 90mph, but it was the pure steering and the way the Cooper darted from corner to corner that won it legions of fans.

11 Honda NSX

Honda launched its New Sportscar eXperimental – or NSX – in 1990. It was the first all-aluminium road car, and was powered by a 270bhp 3.0-litre V6 that revved to 8,000rpm. F1 driver Ayrton Senna gave feedback on the car’s set-up before its launch, and Jenson Button had one as his company car when he drove for the BAR Honda team. Its engine grew to 3.2 litres and 290bhp in 1997 and, when production finished in 2005, 18,000 cars had been built.

12 Ferrari 458 Italia

The 458 Italia wowed crowds on its debut at 2009’s Frankfurt Motor Show. Its amazing looks blended modern, F1-derived aerodynamics with retro details like the Ferrari F40-inspired exhausts. And it delivered on its promise, with a high-revving 562bhp 4.5-litre V8 giving 0-62mph in 3.4 seconds. The 458 is as sharp to drive as they come, with incredibly quick steering, firm suspension and a rapid-shifting twin-clutch box helping to make for a hugely engaging experience.

13 Ford Escort Cosworth

In the early nineties, Ford set its sights on winning the World Rally Championship. And it planned to do this with the wild Escort Cosworth. Based on a cut-down Sierra chassis, it had almost nothing in common with the standard Escort, and was a winged, spoilered road rocket with a 227bhp 2.0-litre turbo engine that could blast from 0-60mph in six seconds. The rear-biased 4x4 system ensured lively handling – although the car never tasted WRC title glory.

14 Skoda Yeti

From the moment it launched back in 2009, the Skoda Yeti started winning fans – and the following year, we crowned it Auto Express Car of the Year. Our judges commended the way it combines the best of a family hatchback with the looks and go-anywhere ability of an SUV. And now, Skoda has released a facelifted Yeti, which features a choice of exteriors: one for a rugged off-road look and one designed for the city. The fresh car goes on sale in October.

15 MINI hatchback MkI

With the break-up of Rover in 2000, BMW poached the rights to the MINI name – and introduced the revolutionary new hatch a year later. It was designed by Frank Stephenson, who now pens McLarens, and combined the original Mini’s go-kart handling with countless posh personalisation options that helped increase BMW’s profits on the British-built hatch. The third-generation MINI arrives in 2014, and will stick closely to the successful formula of the 2001 original.

16 BMW M5 E39

The E39 BMW M5 is a genuine Q-car. It looks subtle, with just a set of neat 19-inch alloy wheels and quad exhaust pipes hinting at the performance potential on tap. There’s lots of space and luxury kit inside, too – but even with two people on board, the E39 M5 weighs around two tonnes. So it was a good thing BMW crammed a 394bhp 4.9-litre V8 under the bonnet – this amazing engine could launch the car from 0-60mph in under five seconds.

17 Skoda Fabia MkI

The VW Group hadn’t quite taken full control of Skoda when the chunky-looking Fabia arrived in 1999, but the car did use a lot of VW technology. It replaced the Felicia in the line-up, and offered a spacious and well built cabin in a top-value package. The Fabia was also central in changing public perception of the brand – until then, Skoda had been the butt of many jokes. It even spawned a diesel-powered vRS performance model that outpaced the MINI Cooper at the time.

18 Fiat Multipla

It's won more than its fair share of ‘ugliest car’ awards over the years, but under the controversial design, the Multipla is a very clever people carrier. It features seating for six adults in two rows of three, with each seat folding individually. There’s also a spacious 430-litre boot. Huge windows provide a great view out wherever you’re sitting, while the high, flat sides not only boost interior space; they also make the big Fiat very easy to park.

19 Porsche Boxster MkIII

The third generation of the Boxster is the best yet. While the original two-seater convertible slashed the cost of Porsche ownership and boosted sales, the latest 981 series is the most efficient ever built, as well as the most resolved in terms of design. Crucially, though, it’s also the most dynamically accomplished yet, and can worry the latest 911 on a twisty B-road. It’s no surprise the Boxster was crowned Best Roadster at our New Car Awards 2013.

20 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton

GM enlisted Lotus to transform the dull Carlton into a fire-breathing performance car. Its twin-turbo 3.6-litre engine sent 377bhp to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip differential. It covered 0-60mph in just 4.8 seconds, hit 176mph and cost a massive £49,000 – the equivalent of nearly £90,000 today. It was even singled out for mention in a parliamentary debate on road safety.

21 Audi R8

Audi introduced the R8 at the Paris Motor Show in 2006. It shares its name with the brand’s legendary prototype racing car, which won the Le Mans 24 Hours race five out of the seven times it competed. The four-wheel-drive road car uses the same aluminium platform as the Lamborghini Gallardo and was initially available with a 4.2-litre V8. Later in the car’s life, Audi added the Gallardo’s 5.2-litre V10 engine to the range, as well as a convertible Spyder and a hardcore GT.

22 Rover 75

Rover set new standards for comfort and refinement with its 75 executive car, built in the UK from 1998. It debuted at that year’s British Motor Show and came with a range of Rover K Series petrol and BMW diesel engines. Most cars were front-wheel drive, but the flagship V8 sent power from its 4.6-litre Ford engine to the rear. The 75 was sold in saloon and estate form until MG Rover went into administration in 2005. MG also offered a sportier version of the 75 called the ZT.

23 BMW M3 E90

Until the BMW M4 arrives next year, this is the most up-to-date version of the company’s compact performance car. The M3 is available as a coupé, saloon or convertible, powered by a 4.0-litre naturally aspirated V8, producing 414bhp. It remains one of the best-handling cars on the road and there have been various special editions. Among them is the M3 GTS – a race-inspired model with a 444bhp 4.4-litre V8, six-point seatbelts and a huge rear spoiler.

24 Aston Martin V8 Vantage

Aston Martin introduced the V8 Vantage as an entry-level model in 2005, and it still holds that position today, if you disregard the Toyota iQ-based Cygnet. The Vantage was designed to offer everything Aston is famous for – desirable looks, a fantastic engine and a luxury cabin – for the same price as a Porsche 911. It was initially available with a 4.3-litre V8, but this was soon replaced by a larger 4.7-litre engine.

25 Range Rover Evoque

Range Rover’s Evoque caused a big stir when it was launched, as its concept car looks were rarely seen on a production model. The high-quality interior lives up to the promise of the sleek exterior, so even though this is the smallest car in the range, buyers enjoy the full Range Rover experience. It’s still quite capable off-road, but Land Rover focused on getting the Evoque’s on-road dynamics spot-on – and it’s worked, with over 170,000 Evoques sold in the past 18 months.

26 Range Rover MkIII

The Range Rover MkIII proved that you can have go-anywhere off-road ability with Bentley levels of luxury. It was a spacious car with a sumptuous interior and a range of hi-tech infotainment options, yet could also keep up with a Land Rover Discoveryin the rough. V8 and V6 petrol and diesel engines were offered, producing up to 503bhp. Several facelifts and special editions appeared during its lifetime, including the £120,000 Ultimate Edition.

27 Ford Ka MkI

Introduced in 1996, this cheeky city car was based on an old Fiesta platform. It initially came with black plastic bumpers to keep repair costs down, although customer demand led to body-coloured ones being offered. The Ka quickly became one of the best-selling cars in the UK, and Ford added a Streetka convertible and Sportka hot hatch. The car was replaced in 2008 by a new model co-developed with Fiat, but this hasn’t managed to recreate the huge success of the original.

28 Jaguar XF

The Jaguar XF was a replacement for the S-Type and one of the new generation of models that helped to drastically improve the company’s image. It came to showrooms with a set of bulbous headlamps, but a facelift in 2011 sharpened up the lights, to give a much more streamlined look. The XF was initially available only with V6 and V8 petrol and diesel engines, but a 2.2-litre four-cylinder was added later to boost the car’s appeal to business users.

29 Mercedes S-Class MkVI S-CLASS

Mercedes have always been technological pioneers, and the latest model is one of the most advanced road cars ever. It can drive itself through traffic jams and even read the road surface ahead, adjusting the suspension to soak up bumps. Occupants can connect to in-car Wi-Fi, while hybrid versions help keep running costs down. A convertible and an extra-long Pullman are on the way, too.

30 Porsche Carrera GT

When Porsche decided to build a flagship supercar for its range in the early noughties, the result was the Carrera GT. Power came from a 602bhp race-developed 5.7-litre V10 – this gave 0-62mph in 3.9 seconds. And while the Carrera GT was a handful on the limit, the gorgeous looks and spine-tingling engine note were enough to make it one of the most desirable supercars ever. Hi-tech kit included a carbon fibre tub, inboard suspension and carbon-ceramic brakes.

31 Volkswagen Corrado

Auto Express hailed the Corrado as “one of VW’s best-ever drivers’ cars” at launch. The coupé was conceived in 1988, and used mechanicals from the Golf MkII and Passat. Engine options included 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrols, although the supercharged 160bhp G60 and hot 192bhp 2.9-litre VR6 are the most desirable and expensive versions today. All Corrados featured an electronically adjustable rear spoiler, which the driver could raise or lower.

32 Lotus Elise MkI

Lotus' back-to-basics Elise was a real revolution when it was introduced in 1996. Despite being fairly low on power – early cars developed only 118bhp – the 725kg lightweight body helped it cover 0-62mph in just 5.7 seconds. More powerful 143bhp 111S and 158bhp Sport 160 models followed later. Yet the low-slung, aerodynamic body hasn’t changed much even on today’s cars, and the Elise still delivers one of the most engaging driving experiences around.

33 Renault Clio Williams

The rally homologation Renault Clio Williams had all the ingredients for a legendary hot hatch: a sub-1,000kg kerbweight, a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine and an uprated chassis. It benefited from an extra 200cc and a 13bhp increase over the standard Clio 16V, meaning a power-to-weight ratio of 150bhp per tonne. Only 500 were planned, but such was the demand that Renault built two further models – the Williams 2 and 3 – bringing the total made to 12,100.

34 Vauxhall Calibra

The Calibra was Vauxhall’s response to the influx of Japanese sports cars to the UK in the early nineties. It came with a 2.0-litre engine – normally aspirated or turbocharged – or a 2.5-litre V6, and while it was based on the Cavalier chassis, it had a much more fluid and aerodynamic design that still looks smart today. At the time of production, the Calibra was the most aerodynamic coupé in the world, with the entry-level 2.0i (below) boasting an amazing 0.26Cd figure.

35 Jaguar XJ220

Designed out of hours by a bunch of Jaguar engineers known as the Saturday Club, the XJ220 rocked the motoring world when it was unveiled at the British Motor Show in 1988. It originally debuted with a V12 and four-wheel drive, but by the time it hit the road it had a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 and rear-wheel drive. Many buyers pulled out because of the financial crisis and the hefty £470,000 price, but the XJ220 has still gone on to secure legendary status.

36 Peugeot 306

A wide range of engines, bodystyles and trims meant there was a Peugeot 306 to suit almost everyone. The comfortable ride and excellent handling set the car apart from rivals at the time, while the crisp Pininfarina styling made it far more desirable than the ungainly 309 that preceded it. One of the highlights of the range was the refined 1.9-litre turbodiesel, which delivered punchy performance and decent economy. Still, the hot 167bhp 2.0-litre GTi-6 was the 306 to lust after.

37 Fiat 500

The modern interpretation of the classic Fiat 500 has been a huge success for the company. Its retro looks hark back to the fifties original and a near-infinite number of customisation options provides it with plenty of character and appeal. Compact dimensions and nimble handling make the 500 an ideal city runabout, too. Plus, it serves up decent practicality, with enough space in the back seats for two adults to get comfortable.

38 Ford Fiesta MkVI

Not only is the Ford Fiesta MkVI the best-selling car in the UK, it’s also one of the best all-rounders you can buy. On top of its stylish looks and surprising practicality, it’s great fun to drive – especially in hot ST form. It’s available as either a three or five-door model, and there’s a host of small, economical engines to choose from. They include the excellent 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol, which manages to combine a 123bhp output with CO2 emissions of just 99g/km.

39 Nissan Qashqai

Nissan's Qashqai defined the crossover class by blending rugged off-road looks with the compact dimensions and low running costs of a traditional family hatch. The chunky styling, elevated driving position and optional four-wheel drive made it a real success, and many have since copied the formula. Despite the Nissan badge, the Qashqai is a very British car – designed and developed in the UK and built at the company’s Sunderland factory.

40 Citroen DS3

The DS3 is Citroen’s offering in the premium supermini class established by MINI. It certainly stands out, with bold styling and some funky personalisation options. It doesn’t have the heritage or retro feel of the MINI or Fiat 500, but is comfortable and fun enough to tempt buyers away from those more traditional choices. The success of this car led to the introduction of more DS models: the VW Golf-sized DS4 and BMW 3 Series-rivalling DS5.

41 Toyota GT 86

Our reigning Performance Car of the Year held off talented contenders like the Porsche Cayman to take its crown. With the GT 86, Toyota has proven sports cars don’t need huge power figures or loads of grip to entertain – it’s a back-to-basics masterpiece. The rear-wheel-drive layout lets you exploit its perfectly balanced chassis, while the relatively low £24,995 price tag only adds to the appeal. There’s even a cabriolet version expected to launch next year, too.

42 Mazda RX-8

The Mazda RX-8 was famous for its high-revving rotary engine and futuristic design touches – including rear-opening ‘suicide’ doors – and proved to be a big hit. Popular with aftermarket tuners, it was offered in the UK with either 189bhp or 247bhp as standard. Yet the RX-8 was also notoriously thirsty, and used oil at an alarming rate. It was axed in 2010 after falling foul of tightening CO2 regulations. Mazda is still working on rotary engine technology, however.

43 Renault Twingo Mk1

Despite achieving worldwide acclaim and recording total sales of 2.4 million in its lifetime, the original Twingo never came to the UK, as it was engineered to be left-hand drive only. This simple, featherweight city car tipped the scales at just 790kg, but featured neat touches like a sliding rear bench and a digital speedo in the centre of the dash. At launch, buyers had only one trim level and four colours to choose from, and the 1.2-litre petrol engine produced a mere 54bhp.

44 Ferrari F355

The 355 was the first Ferrari ever to use an F1-style paddleshift box, even if the robotised manual was a far cry from today’s lightning fast dual-clutch set-ups. The stylish bodywork was the result of extensive wind tunnel testing to improve aerodynamics, and set the supercar template for years to come. But as with most Ferraris, the highlight was the 3.5-litre V8 – mounted in the middle of the car for better weight distribution – which gave the 355 superb handling balance.

45 Alfa Romeo

Spider MkIV fourth-generation Spider was the final incarnation of the iconic Italian roadster, and design by Pininfarina saw a return to the striking looks of the first two cars. The chassis had remained largely unchanged since the sixties, but there was a choice of 1.6 or 2.0-litre twin-cam petrol engines and a five-speed manual box. The Spider always scored with its fine handling, and paved the way for small convertibles like the Mazda MX-5.

46 Volvo 850

Before the 850 came along, Volvo had a reputation for building safe and sensible cars with ungainly square styling. However, this new model was a true rival to sporty BMWs and Audis, with its dynamic handling, rorty five-cylinder engines, softer design and classy interior. Highlights of the 850 range included the hot turbocharged T5 and R models, while Volvo even entered a racing version of the estate in the British Touring Car Championship.

47 Honda Integra Type R

Honda’s meticulous engineers left no stone unturned in their quest to reduce the weight of the stripped-out Integra Type R. They used thinner windscreen glass, ditched the sound-deadening and even got rid of the spare wheel cover. It’s powered by a 187bhp 1.8-litre engine that revs to 9,000rpm, and does 0-62mph in under seven seconds. With a specially tuned chassis and a limited-slip diff, the Type R was regarded as one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars on sale.

48 Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series

Toyota had already been building Land Cruisers for nearly 40 years by the time it launched the 80 Series in 1989, but this was the first version with permanent four-wheel drive across the range. It was also the first Land Cruiser to combine rugged ability with genuine luxury. To prove it was still one of the toughest 4x4s around, two unmodified cars took part in the 1996 Dakar rally, where they finished first and second.

49 Alfa Romeo SZ

With wild eighties styling, a snarling 200bhp-plus V6 and an eye-watering price, the ultra-rare SZ was always destined to become a future classic. The car was a collaboration between Alfa and Zagato (SZ stands for Sprint Zagato), and only 100 were imported to the UK, all finished in bright red and with a contrasting black roof. The RZ drop-top version was – at the time – the rarest Alfa Romeo ever built, with only 278 examples made throughout its lifetime.

50 Volvo XC90

Any car that’s been on sale for more than 10 years has to be pretty special, and it’s a testament to the XC90’s longevity that Volvo thinks it doesn’t need replacing until next year. This seven-seater SUV has consistently been one of Volvo’s top sellers as it offers just what families want: safety, practicality and value for money. The XC90 is based on the same platform as the old S80 luxury saloon, and its success prompted the introduction of the smaller XC60 crossover.

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