Ford Focus ST

Indicative drive away price: $43,028

Australians have always had a love affair with performance cars, and for decades local muscle cars, powered by six-cylinder and V8 engines, dominated the sports car sales charts.

Depending on who had won that weekend in the muscle car races in the ’60s, ’70s and even into the ’80s, sales of Falcons or Commodores would spike on the Monday.

However, with Holden and Ford closing operations in Australia, and the Commodore and Falcon badges now destined to adorn products from other parts of the globe, comes the news that no Aussie car enthusiast wanted to hear: there are no plans for the replacement models to house V8s. This means that the four-cylinder turbo-charged models that dominate the Sports Cars Under $50,000 category will become a lot more popular.

For the second year running, Ford Focus ST has taken out this class, which is no mean feat given this is a highly competitive segment which carries a varied line-up of affordable hot hatches, roadsters, sedans and coupes. The ST has been slightly overshadowed by its fire-breathing brother, the RS, which has created quite a stir in the hot hatch market, but its higher price tag separated the pair in this competition.

With a 38-point gap between the ST and the second-placed Ford Fiesta ST, there was no denying the Focus offered the best bang for your buck. The ST is a clear winner in design and function, helped, in part, by boasting the best seats in the class. They are well bolstered and provide good comfort and support whether you’ re on the track or a country drive. Ford’s clever Sync2 system, combined with the eight-inch touch-screen that incorporates satellite navigation, saw the ST also voted the class leader for ergonomics.

The Focus ST was equal class-leading for performance and braking with the Holden Astra VXR – not surprising given its 2.0-litre turbo engine pumps out 184kW of power and up to 360Nm of torque. Performance enthusiasts rejoice as the ST comes with a six-speed manual transmission for a truer sports car feel.

The Focus ST is more about straight-line performance supported by good handling, rather than excellent handling supported by good performance, as is the case with the Fiesta and Renault Clio. Ford has upgraded the ST’ s overall dynamics which improves front suspension, steering and overall handling but it can’ t match the other finalists for point-to-point precision.

The ST starts life as a regular Focus, which has always been at the top end for handling in the small car stakes. However, apart from the more powerful engine, the ST gets lots of extra goodies and go-fast bits such as sports-tuned suspension, Recaro sports seats (driver and front passenger), sports body kit, bi-xenon HID headlights, LED daytime running lights, dual centre exhaust, 18-inch alloy wheels, sports alloy pedal covers, Ford SYNC emergency assistance and an alarm. In fact, its standard features list leaves daylight between it and all but one other contender in this class, the Subaru WRX.

For less than $50,000, the ST offers a lot at a reasonable price, and back-to-back wins further cement its credibility as a hot hatch in this extremely competitive market.

SCORE

1ST: FORD FOCUS ST, 662

2nd: FORD FIESTA ST, 624

3rd: RENAULT CLIO RS 200 CUP, 620