Hence, I now have the keys to our long term Ford Escort 1.6 Zetec complete with auto box, as most of the other staffers don't seem interested in driving it - which is fine by me, as after a week behind the wheel, I have found the experience pleasant in the extreme.
In three-door guise, the swirling, futuristic lines of the Focus are shown off to their best and a neat set of alloys give the car a fine sporting look. Inside, the swirls and curves continue with one of the best looking dashboards in the business and the front seats have a sporting, figure-hugging feel.
So I hop in, tuck my left foot away in a corner and fire up. Unfortunately, the performance of the car doesn't exactly match its sporty looks. Auto boxes always soak up a bit of power and here, 0-60mph comes in a relatively sluggish 12.2 seconds, as opposed to 10.9 for the manual version. Top speed is reduced from 115mph to 111mph.
But there's far more to a car than acceleration and top speed and these gripes apart, I can't complain. There are acres of legroom for my gangly frame and even rear seat passengers have remarked on its spaciousness. The stereo is a good quality one and the car comes with electric windows and a sunroof, albeit of the manual variety.
In standard format, the Focus 1.6 Zetec doesn't have ABS brakes and I must admit that over my years of testing new cars, I've come to rely on them. On this model, you'll pay an extra ú500 for such a facility.
My euphoric praise of automatics must also be tempered by the fact that for fleet users, there is a double tax whammy to be paid. As benefit-in-kind tax is calculated on the cost of the vehicle, a driver will pay extra because the auto box carries a ú500 price supplement. And under the new CO2-based system to come on tap in 2002, this model will be doubly penalised because it emits 200 grams per kilometre of this gas compared to 165 for the manual.
A nifty bit of fingerwork on the Fleet News calculator shows that under the new system, a 22% taxpayer will pay ú51.60 per month BIK tax as opposed to ú33.81 for the manual. It's hardly any wonder that autos are so unpopular among company car drivers.