At Performance Car of the Year there's often a Surprise Packet that shows up the more fancied rivals. You're looking at it.
Stop for a moment and consider that Ford's absolutely brilliant new Focus RS has beaten not just the adored BMW M2 – the car heralded as the M brand's return to form – but the rear-drive Lamborghini Huracan that some judges needed to be forcibly removed from; and the scintillating Audi R8 V10 Plus.
In fact, with not a single vanilla contestant at PCOTY 2017, pipping any of the cars you've so far read about would be remarkable, let alone nine of them. A $51K hot hatch.
Clearly, though, not any old hot hatch. With its turbocharged 2.3-litre inline four (shared with the Mustang EcoBoost) belting out a whopping 257kW and 440Nm (470Nm on overboost), channelled through an innovative 'Twinster' all-wheel drive system able to shunt 100 per cent of the rearward thrust to either rear wheel for true torque vectoring, Ford has created an impressive performance car – on paper.
But in truth it's even better to drive, a car clearly engineered by people who not only love driving and understand what makes a proper performance car, but how to innovate to move the game forward.
And in that sense the Focus RS is an annoying car for any manufacturer that makes a hot hatch because it is category redefining. Previously, a hot hatch would have one of two handling configurations: security and stability, pushing into understeer at the limit – like a VW Golf R or Mercedes-AMG A45 – or I-wish-to-kill-you startling oversteer, like a Renault Sport Megane or Ford Focus ST. Provided your driving style is versatile enough to tap into each, the Focus RS can provide both these handling personalities – with a bonus party trick.
Not only can you drive the Focus RS 'flat' up a twisty road, leaning into the satisfying grip of those 235/35R19 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres; and not only can you drive the car more 'on the nose', inviting the rear end into play under brakes, or exciting it with some daring steering inputs; but the Focus RS will – in one of the most unusual feelings in modern performance driving – power oversteer just the right amount out of tight, first- and second-gear corners, providing the sensation of a rear-driven hot hatch.
There are very few cars that can provide such a multi-dimensional driving experience all in one – and certainly no others under $100K. Yep, we are confident in declaring the Ford Focus RS has the most talented chassis of any new performance car under $100,000.
Big call, and perhaps worth verifying in a separate test, but from the outset, it's a statement we're reasonably confident making. Part of its sorcery is, again, in its all-wheel drive system which overspeeds the rear axle by two per cent for spookily eager handling.
Fortunately it's got the grunt and brakes to keep up with the chassis, the four-pot cracking and popping like a World Rally Car at all the right times, and showing off turbocharged muscle and flexibility right across the rev range, peak torque available from just 2000rpm. The big (350mm Brembo front) brakes feel firm and strong underfoot, and it's a doddle to heel-toe.
Of course, the Focus RS is not perfect. Far from it, unfortunately. For that utterly sublime chassis you give up comfort, making the Focus RS almost more of a weekend than weekday car. On this basis alone many would-be customers might gun for the Focus RS's arch-nemesis, the Golf R, for a more comfortable daily driver.
To continue on the Focus RS gripes, you also sit oddly high in it. Under full throttle it sounds merely okay with a lot of synthesised engine noise. There are nicer interiors at this price point like the 308 GTi or, again, Golf R. The much-spoken-about Drift Mode is a bit silly. And its backwards-cap styling is not for everyone, not to mention that the lack of a twin-clutch option will be an instant deal-breaker for many people. (Let's be grown-ups and admit that not everyone wants a manual.)
But trust us, all of these ills are but minor misgivings to own a performance car as stimulating as this one. From purely a performance perspective, the Focus RS moves the game on. And to think it's just $51K... that's it, this year's Bang For Your Bucks is cancelled. Here's the winner.
0-100km/h: 5.04sec (10th)
0-400m: 13.08sec @ 173.82km/h (9th)
DAVID MORLEY: =2nd
If you love hot hatches, you will need a Focus RS. That is all.
DYLAN CAMPBELL: 2nd
I'm not sure I would ever get bored of driving this car.
SCOTT NEWMAN: 3rd
A cut-price World Rally Car. Crap ride, brilliant everything else.
TIM ROBSON: =3rd
A wild, wild ride, and an absolutely amazing car for the cash.
JOHN BOWE: 9th
I love it in many ways but the damping is appalling.
Body: 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Engine: 2261cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 87.4 x 94.0mm
Power: 257kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 440Nm @ 2000-4500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Suspension: struts, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
Brakes: 350mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 350mm ventilated discs, single piston calipers (r)
Wheels: 19 x 8.0-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 235/35 R19 (fr)
Tyres: Michelin Pilot Super Sport