Performance Car of the Year 2013: Small Cars – Classic MOTOR

Ford Focus ST drive

AFTER all the oohs and ahhs, the fingerpointing and bonnet-openings subside, and once the entire 14-car field for this year’s Performance Car Cup had gathered together for the first time, there was a general consensus that we’d be in for a few surprises over the event’s three-day running.

This Performance Car Of The Year article was first published in MOTOR Magazine January 2013.

And most of them would come from this bunch; the underdogs. Y’see, never in the 17-year history of this competition had we had a group of cut-priced contenders with as much potential to punch above their weight as this; a motley bunch from all corners of the globe attempting to converge on the same destination by offering just as many thrills as our heavyweight contenders for a fraction of the price.

2013-Ford-Focus-ST-rear.jpgAs a group, it consisted of three hot hatches – a pair of front-drive, four-cylinder turbos and a rear-drive, twin-turbo six – and the hottest car on the planet this year.

But then there was a whole bunch of ways you could dice them up: a pair of sub-$40K fun machines; a head-to-head between two of the hottest hatches; two rear-drivers versus two front-drivers; or even working class against premium… the list could go on, and on.

While what matters most here is performance, and the thrill factors they deliver, it’s hard not to put this quartet into perspective when it comes down to dollars.

2013-Ford-Focus-ST.jpgLike, for example, you could put all four of them – the Subaru BRZ (or its identical twin, the Toyota 86, which we decided to judge as the same car for this exercise), the Ford Focus ST, Renaultsport Megane RS265 and the BMW M135i – in your garage for under $200K, less than half of what’d it cost to get into the most expensive car here, the SLS AMG Roadster.

The Focus ST kicks things off at $38,515 (including its premium – and very yellow – paint), but it only takes an extra pineapple to get into the $38,650 BRZ (here with its optional leather/Alcantara and heated front seats but, unlike anything else, includes all on-road costs).

2013-Ford-Focus-ST-drive.jpgAt this end of the game, it seems like there’s a fair hurdle to leap into the limited-edition Trophy 8:08 Megane RS265 that comes fully loaded with leather Recaro seats and pearl white paint at $49,990 and an even bigger one to park the M-fettled 135i hatch in your driveway, which adds almost $12K worth of extras, including its eight-speed automatic, over the $68,400 entry price.

While an $80K hatch may seem pretty hefty, the inconspicuous little BMW packed a solid punch down Sydney Dragway’s blacktop. Jaw dropping, even. Its mildly tweaked 3.0-litre single-turbo six might only produce 235kW, nearly half of its sledgehammer sibling the M5, but its brilliant eight-speed auto helps to harness all the power and a fat-as torque curve (with 450Nm on tap from 1250rpm) with such devastating effect.

The BMW M135i’s glorious six howled its way to the fourth-quickest time to 60km/h (behind the Audi S7 and both Porsches), clocked triple figures in 4.84sec and tripped the 400m marker at 13.04 with a terminal speed of 175km/h.

And, if you didn't realise, that’s M3 territory for a third of the price. Not impressive enough? Well, amongst a field full of big dick-swinging machinery, it was only 0.4sec slower than the likes of the M5 and SLS, and faster than we ever managed to get out of the manic 1M Coupe.

2012-BMW-M135i-side.jpgSurprisingly, while the transmission always seems to find the engine’s sweet spot, its 80-120km/h time of 2.91sec was nothing special. On the flipside, its braking performance of 35.11m was the fourth best in the entire field – bettered only by the Porsches and the RS5 – despite the optional four-pot anchors not feeling overly powerful.

No surprises then that it was head-and-shoulders quicker than the other small cars. And no surprise that the BRZ, the least-powerful car in the field with only 147kW and 205Nm, was the slowest.

But not by as much as we expected, because it was literally a head-to-head shootout with the Focus ST for the straight-line wooden spoon; the BRZ using its light weight and better rear-drive traction to clock 100km/h fractionally faster (7.19sec versus 7.21sec).

2012-BMW-M135i-rear.jpgOnce the Focus overcame its clutch’s low friction point and you can feed the fat of its torque to the front hoops, it crossed the quarter mile 0.1sec quicker (15.06sec against 15.16sec) while carrying 5km/h more terminal speed.

It’s probably enough for each to claim a victory (or a dead heat at least), but ultimately it’s a disappointing start for the Focus which most of the crew expected to perform better. But then, the thickness of the humid morning air may have hampered it a little… Or so some thought.

That was until the Megane RS265 clocked 6.54sec to 100km/h and powered across the 400m marker in 14.39sec at 162.72km/h, the fastest times we’ve ever recorded in the French hyper hatch. And it kept on pulling hard too, a full 1.5sec quicker to 180km/h than the Focus.

2012-BMW-M135i-engine.jpgDespite having some serious Brembo hardware – which has excellent pedal feel and good initial bite – the Megane’s best 100-0km/h performance of 37.18m was the third worst of the entire field, ahead of only the BRZ (37.48m) and the E63 AMG (37.56m).

Whereas, at the other end of the spectrum, the Focus’s sliding caliper set-up might look ordinary, but it helped pull up the five-door hatch with the fifth-shortest distance of 36.24m.

Out in the real world, the number crunching meant nought as the form guide was thrown out the window.

The BMW is no less impressive on the road, though not quite as exciting as it was on the drag strip as it just doesn’t have the edginess of its rivals.

2012-Subaru-BRZ-exhaust.jpgNo doubt about it, the engine/gearbox combination works as brilliantly together as anything, even compared with the glitterati of this group, as the blown six feels both effortless at low engine speeds and thoroughly energetic from 2000rpm all the way to its 6500rpm redline.

We don’t think a BMW blown straight six has ever sounded so good either, with a liberal dose of its howling exhaust note filtering through to the cabin. But, while there’s always an underlying degree of rear-drive balance in the 1-Series’ chassis set-up, it likes to hang its tail out more on a trailing throttle into the corner than it does on the way out and the M-fettled suspension, even in its Sport+ setting, is more biased towards comfort than corner carving.

The Variable Sports Steering provides little in the way of intimate feedback and the seats lack bona-fide lateral support compared with a lot of the PCC field. It kinda felt like it was going to be a bit underwhelming when it hit the track… Yet it blew them all away; its 2:15.50 easily the fastest of the tiny tots and up there in the top half of the field.

2012-Subaru-BRZ-TESTING.jpgIt almost embarrassed the M5 again, too, matching it for corner speeds in most of the recorded apexes – even eclipsing it in three of them – and eventually lapped only 1.3sec slower. Ouch!

There’s no hiding the fact that it’s fast and amazingly efficient, and the pick of the small cars to cover long-distances in, but, apart from inducing that straight-six exhaust note, it’s never really felt all that exciting… Especially in white. But if Workplace Health and Safety is your thing then the Focus stands out like a hi-viz vest.

Like the BMW, its five-door body means it's more practical to live with everyday than either the Megane or BRZ and, while it’s nowhere near as fat (or is that Phat?) as the sold-out Focus RS, there’s enough boy racer in its bodywork to separate it from the garden variety model.

2012-Subaru-BRZ-interior.jpgThe interior, though, is busier than Daniel Craig’s promo tour schedule, the bolsters on the Recaro seats are designed for one body shape – whippets – and, it must be a Ford thing, you sit higher than you want, or need, to. The six-speed gearbox doesn’t like to be rushed and the clutch take-up point was almost on the floor of this test car, which made getting away without bunny-hopping or riding the clutch a bit hit-and-miss.

Get out of town, though, and the Focus doesn’t mind a good back road bollocking. The ride/handling balance is closer to the Megane than the BMW, but it never feels hyperactive or too stiff over pock-marked country roads. The electric steering is somewhere in between too, providing enough, though hardly intimate levels of, feedback.

And while it’s not too hard to outsmart the electronic front diff and induce wheelspin on the unloaded wheel – which, in turn, sends a faint tug of torque steer through the wheel – the Focus has masses of grip and its overall balance is fairly neutral.

2012-Subaru-BRZ-engine.jpgIt’s a little more lively on the track, where, with SMSP’s flowing nature, it seemed that the 184kW from its feisty (and rorty sounding) 2.0-litre turbo doesn’t trouble the front-end as much. The long corners also bring out a playful side to the Focus’s chassis, with a degree of throttle adjustability and lift-off oversteer that didn’t show-up on the road.

In the end it didn’t set any benchmarks, its lap time of 2:20.70 was the second slowest of the day and it didn’t win over any of the judges either. Which is something you can’t say about the remaining pair.

The BRZ doesn’t have the bling or the luxury, and certainly not the convenience of useable rear seats and a boot, like the Focus and BMW, but jeez it makes you feel like you’re driving something fun, even when you’re not hammering it.

The low-set driving position and generously, but not overly, bolstered seats are perfect no matter whether you’re tootling around town or thrashing around the track.

And the electric steering really is on par with Porsche’s for feedback and natural feel.

2012-Renault-Megane-RS265-rear.jpgOkay, the BRZ doesn’t have anywhere near the low-down grunt of anything else in this group, let alone in this whole competition, but the 2.0-litre boxer’s dual (port and direct) fuel injection system facilitates amazing tractability, with the ability to dig itself out of low engine speeds smoothly – albeit slowly – and then spin all the way to 7500rpm.

It’s not the most refined powerplant, and you really have to be right up the top of its powerband to get the best out of it, which means, in this prestigious company in particular, you have to work hard to keep up with anything else.

It kinda doesn’t matter in a way, because the BRZ’s precise steering, its playful lack of grip from the low rolling resistance tyres and its ability to drift like a demon more than compensate for its lack of outright performance.

2012-Renault-Megane-RS265-engine.jpgThe fact that it clocked the slowest lap time of 2:22.70 around SMSP was no real shock, but the variance in the judges’ rankings was ranging from a high of five to a low of nine.

Conversely, despite a fatal end to our long-term custodianship of the Trophy 8:08 RS265 when it threw a piston through the front of the engine block (just after Luffy had finished its hot lap, meaning no other judge drove it on the circuit), we clearly overlooked the Megane’s many faults.

Its ergonomics are not great, its vision terrible and reliability clearly questionable, but what the Megane does that the Focus can’t is make you feel like you’re driving a supercar.

2012-Renault-Megane-RS265-exterior.jpgThe thrust from its 195kW 2.0-litre can be altered to suit the mood – its default setting is the old RS250’s 188kW, while the full 265-spec is on tap in ESC Sport and the throttle map can be changed from dumb-footed soft through to linear and then manic lightswitch mode – the ride is bordering on jittery and the steering is light yet as sharp as a scalpel.

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Then there are things like its wafer-thin Recaro seats, red seat belts, Brembo brakes and its androgynous style that elevates the Megane beyond just being merely a hot hatch. It’s more than all that, though; the Megane is deceptively quick on a back country blast.

And although its lap time of 2:18.50 is almost 10sec off the best of this bunch – it was, after all, 40km/h down on the M5 on the main straight – it was the fastest car bar none through the daunting high-speed Turn One as well as the tight, downhill Turn 11 hairpin, thus proving its no one-trick pony.

2012-Renault-Megane-RS265-wheel.jpgIt is easily the most fun, charming and character-filled bum dragger on the planet. Even with a humble torsion-beam rear suspension system, it’ll lift-off oversteer as far as you want to provoke it into the apex and, with a proper limited-slip diff between the axles at the business end, you can adjust its trajectory out of the corner through the steering wheel and the throttle.

What that all equates to is that the input between man and machine feels raw, natural and well balanced. More importantly, it's not artificially synthesised, or dumbed down to cater for the lowest common dominator. We applaud, and clearly admire, that. More of it, in fact…

FORD FOCUS ST
Overall Rank: 14
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - 12th: “Fun, feisty and practical, but not as playful as the Megane”
Curt Dupreiz - 13th: “Agile little bugger, but feels less than the sum of its parts”
James Cleary - 14th: “Goes hard, and sounds growly. Gearbox’s shift is an Achilles Heel”
Nathan Ponchard - 13th: “Brimming with fast-Ford DNA. Turns in well, but it’s not that quick”

WARREN LUFF SAYS
“Such a great engine in this car, so torquey, so driveable, it really is the strength and basis of this car. The chassis is probably a bit too soft, the engine’s a lot better than what the chassis allows it to be.
You’d like to see it a little bit more agile like the Megane and then it would be a fantastic package”

BMW M135i
Overall Rank: 8
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - 8th: “Wow! Not that much slower than a M5 for a quarter of the price”
Curt Dupriez - 8th: “Probably a better all-round prospect than the nail-hard 1M Coupe”
James Cleary - 9th: “Firecracker on road that gets softer on the circuit. Better than the 1M”
Nathan Ponchard - 8th: “Great engine note and great fun. Dare I say it, more of an M-car than M5”

WARREN LUFF SAYS
“It’s a surprisingly fast car. It doesn’t feel that quick in the corners, it’s got too much understeer on the way into the corner and you’re forever fighting with that understeer, but the engine more than makes up for what the chassis can’t do in the corners and that’s where the speed comes from in this car”

SUBARU BRZ
Overall rank: 7
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - 5th: “Who cares if it’s slow, the fun factor is so accessible. And it’s cheap!”
Curt Dupriez - 6th: “Still love it. But far too slow here. Time for grip, brakes and turbocharging”
James Cleary - 7th: “Huge fun. Balanced and responsive on road and track”
Nathan Ponchard - 7th: “Underwhelming around the Creek, but is an exquisite driver’s car”

WARREN LUFF SAYS
“Lacks a little bit of power down the straight but it’s a good, fun car. Very oversteery through the tighter sections. Surprisingly the brakes went away quite early, which is disappointing. The pedal was almost all the way to the floor at the end of the first lap, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence”

RENAULT MEGANE RS265
Overall rank: 6
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - 6th: “The best bum dragger just got better… But would I own one?”
Curt Dupriez - 4th: “Achieves its aims better than many PPC rivals. Sorry we hurt you”
James Cleary - 6th: “Mini-supercar for hot hatch money. Renaultsport knows what it’s doing”
Nathan Ponchard - 5th: “Heaps of Gallic attitude matched to a sweet chassis and brilliant balance”

WARREN LUFF SAYS
“Such a fun little hot-hatch on the limit. It does everything you want. Probably a bit too much understeer when you start pushing really hard but up to nine-tenths it’s a good fun car, you can throw it around, it’s got good brakes, great chassis dynamics, the engine’s fantastic and it does everything that you want”

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