2016 Drive Car of the Year: Best Performance Car Under $60,000

“The Ford Focus ST is back to defend its Best Performance Car under $60,000 title against two of its stablemates the Ford Focus RS and Ford Mustang GT.”

Ford had the Best Performance Car Under $60,000 title wrapped up before a wheel was even turned in testing.

After a diverse contest in 2015 with the Ford Focus ST taking the crown against the Holden Commodore SS-V, Volkswagen Golf R and Mini John Cooper Works – it needed to take on similarly diverse field this year, but all wearing the blue oval.

Going up against the front-wheel drive Focus ST is the all-wheel drive Focus RS and the V8-powered Mustang GT coupe; three different cars from the same company.

But before we go into which one is best, let’s deal with the elephant in room – why is it an all-Ford showdown?

Before you accuse us of any favouritism you need to understand that the Drive team looked at all of the new or updated performance cars that arrived this class over the last 12 months and found nothing worthy of taking on these three.

Of the possible contenders none stood out as capable of besting the Focus ST based on its success in 2015. Peugeot’s 308 GTi is a good car but its value equation loses out to the Focus RS. The 2017 Toyota 86 update wasn’t here in time for our testing. The Volkswagen Golf GTI 40 Years was a limited edition model.

But it was a banner year for Ford with two iconic, but very different, performance cars arriving in the form of the Focus RS and Mustang.

After a hard fought contest it was the Focus RS that emerged on top to knock off the ST.

Powered by a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine (based on the EcoBoost unit found in the Mustang) the Focus RS produces a mighty 257kW of power and 440Nm of torque. That much performance not only means it out-guns its direct rivals but also puts it in the same hot hatch territory as the significantly more expensive Mercedes-AMG A45 and Audi RS3.

It was an engine the judges fell in love with, and not just purely for its performance.

“The soundtrack is fabulous,” said one judge, summing up the feelings of all. “It cracks and pops – it’s great.”

But the Focus RS is more than just an engine. The all-wheel drive system drew praise for the way it worked too, including its ground-breaking ‘Drift Mode’ and the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres provide plenty of grip and traction, allowing the chassis to really exploit its potential and that of the engine.

“It’s a cracking little car,” said one judge.

Said another: “You’d have to be doing something stupid to get into trouble. It’s so competent.”

“You can drive it like any other Focus but at the flick of a switch it’s a serious performance car.”

It wasn’t perfect though with the judging panel criticising the interior for lacking anything special (beyond the polarising Recaro racing-style seats), in what is ultimately a car costing more than $50,000.

The Focus ST may have lost its title but it put up a strong fight and ensured the RS didn’t take a unanimous victory.

Judges were still big fans of the ST, hailing it for not only being one of the cheapest hot hatches (starting at $38,990) in its class but also one of the most fun and enjoyable to drive.

The ride earned positive comments too, striking the right balance between dynamic poise and day-to-day liveability.

It’s more bolstered Recaro seats also earned praise, hailed as the most comfortable and supportive in the hot hatch segment; even if they may be a little tight for some.

However, the 184kW and 360Nm from the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine was sometimes too much for the front-wheel drive set-up, resulting in a tendency to torque-steer (the steering wheel tugging under acceleration).

And while the ST is significantly cheaper than the RS, ultimately the majority of the judges felt the added performance offered by the bigger brother justified its price premium and made it the better choice.

Which left the Mustang GT to take a unanimous third place in the voting. The American pony car may be an automotive icon but in the contest to find the best performance car it fell short in several key areas.

On the positive side, the judges loved its “feel good factor”, as it was hard not to enjoy driving the ‘Stang with its 5.0-litre V8 grumbling away under the bonnet.

It’s value also scored well too, as it’s $57,490 asking price makes it (by far) the cheapest V8-powered, rear-wheel drive coupe you can buy.

But that comes at a cost. The interior’s retro looks won praise but the cheap plastics drew criticism. The ride and handling was also a letdown to the judges in some respects – perhaps after decades of locally-tuned XR and FPV Falcons we expect better from the blue oval.

“It’s a happy meal car,” said a judge. “Tempting on the outside, and immediately satisfying but ultimately it’s not all that substantial.”

It was inevitable that Ford won this year’s contest, but for 2017 the Focus RS will no doubt have some worthy rivals to try and steal its crown.


Judge’s votes:

Focus RS – 7

Focus ST – 11

Mustang GT – 18

(The Drive Car of the Year judging process awards points to every car in the category according to the position they were ranked by all six judges. The car with the lowest score therefore wins the category. If this vehicle defeats the existing category champion it is then eligible for the overall 2016 Drive Car of the Year award.)


Ford Focus RS Specifications:

Engine: 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol

Power: 257kW at 6000rpm

Torque: 440Nm at 2000-4500rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive

Fuel use: 8.1L/100km


Ford Focus ST Specifications:

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol

Power: 184kW at 5500rpm

Torque: 360Nm at 2000-4500rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Fuel use: 7.3L/100km


Ford Mustang GT Specifications:

Engine: 5.0-litre V8 petrol

Power: 306kW at 6500rpm

Torque: 530Nm at 4250rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Fuel use: 13.1L/100km


Source: www.drive.com.au

by Stephen Ottley
22 November 2016