Sports car under $50k winner: Ford Focus ST - 2015 Australia's Best Cars

By NRMA Motoring on 25 February 2016
Ford Focus ST 2016

Winner: Ford Focus ST
Second: Renault Megane RS 265 Cup
Third: Ford Fiesta ST

Winner: Ford Focus ST

The Sports Under $50,000 category again carries a star-studded line-up of affordable hot hatches, sedans and coupes. These are the cars that are attainable, and offer the best bang for your buck for those who want to enjoy motoring with a sporty edge.

With a few exceptions, the vehicles in this class start life as everyday sedans and hatchbacks, but they get to show their serious side here and take on a completely different persona. The competition in this field is fierce, so to climb to the top and take an outright win is an achievement not to be taken lightly.

Since its release, the Ford Focus ST has been a force to be reckoned with and it grabbed third place at Australia's Best Cars in 2013. It tends to take a blunter approach to the hot hatch genre with straight-out powerplant muscle - 184kW and 360Nm in fact, which is no laughing matter when putting this through a front-wheel-drive axle. Memories of first-edition Clubsport V8 Holden Commodores boasting 185kW come to mind … look how things have changed.

It's always been the ST's Achilles heel about how to deliver all that power to the ground and get around some of the steering behaviours that result from this. So Ford has worked very hard to address this with an upgrade in 2015 which saw significant work and improvements to front suspension, steering and driver input signals to complement the ST's stability control system. Overall, the handling characteristics have improved, and combined with an equal best-in-class score for performance, the ST has stepped up to the top position this year.

And the refresh does not stop there, with considerable interior improvements; gone is the busy Bermuda Triangle-style central button array. It's been replaced by a more intuitive and user-friendly layout including a new eight-inch touch-screen that now incorporates satellite navigation. Active xenon front headlights also complement the standard equipment list.

The ST uses Ford's acclaimed SYNC 2 system, which can automatically alert emergency utilities such as police and ambulance should it detect that you have been involved in a serious crash. The ST also receives Ford's clever MyKey system which allows different driver profiles and restrictions to be programmed to the car's powertrain and body control modules - ideal if the vehicle has to be shared with a young driver.

Even though the Focus ST is biased towards a sporty offering, a fuel-saving stop/start system makes its debut on this model. Fuel-economy has a low weighting of importance for buyers of sports cars, but it's a welcome advance nonetheless, although the Focus's final score in this criteria is still bettered by more than half the contenders.

The sports persona of the Focus ST is apparent straightaway as you slide into what we consider to be best-in-class front sports seats. These are well bolstered and certainly able to provide the right sort of comfort and support for every type of driving condition.

Various exterior upgrades and treatments have been applied to round off the overall package that gives the Focus ST even more sporting prowess. This is a car that knows its market and is playing to it.

Second: Renault Megane RS 265 Cup

Renault Megane

The Renault Megane RS 265 moves up a place after finishing third last time. It brings an edgier package to the field and ups the performance stakes even further, even outpointing the winning Focus ST in overall On The Road scores with a generous 195kW and 360Nm, delivered via a 6spd manual transmission (there's no auto).

With all this power on tap, there is no point boasting about performance without having a handling package to match it. This is where Megane starts to shine because it handles like it's on rails, and turning into corners promotes a level of competence and confidence that this field struggles to match.

To have this level of handling prowess, something has to be sacrificed and that unfortunately is ride quality. It's not as bad as you might first think, and although some may find it too stiff for the everyday commute, that won't be a problem for many drivers.

Well sculpted sports seats provide good bolstering and generally there is perception of quality in the build. There's some historical criticism that exists around the placement of switchgear and dash controls but these are typical of European ergonomic trends.

While Megane RS 265 will always be a popular choice for many, it has underperformed in some Value For Money criteria this time.

Third: Ford Fiesta ST


Small engines have improved dramatically over the past 10 years in regards to performance and economy. So much so that there's renewed interest in performance offerings in lighter sports cars.

Ford Fiesta ST's 1.6L engine produces 134kW and a useful 240Nm, and that in a chassis of around 1200kg of mass makes for spirited performance. Handling aspects haven't been ignored, with ST's sports suspension set-up able to emphasise sure-footed behaviour and turn-in. The torque and power of the engine have been well-matched to the 6spd manual's ratios (there is no automatic option on the ST).

Where Fiesta ST really throws the challenge out is its attractive purchase price, fuel economy and, compared with the rest of the class, reasonable running costs which made it one of the best scorers in the Value For Money criteria. While its standard features list isn't long - this is one area where the entire class is lacking - it does have desirable items such as rain-sensing wipers, daytime running lights and climate-control air-conditioning. A five-star ANCAP safety rating rounds off the attractive package.

So if you're a bit sporty-minded or just want a small car that looks a bit snazzier than usual, Fiesta ST fulfils both briefs with a good balance of performance and value for money.

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