TMR Best Buy 2016 – Top 5 Performance Cars Under $50,000 – Mazda MX-5, Subaru WRX, Volkswagen Polo GTI, MINI John Cooper Works, Ford Focus ST

The Performance Car category was a tale of two halves sales-wise in Australia throughout 2015.

On the one hand, ‘sports’ cars under $80,000 were down 5.6 percent on 2014 while the over $80,000 group was down 3.9 percent.

Buyers with much deeper pockets however weren’t shy in handing over their hard-earned to acquire a new performance car priced above $200,000, with sales in the high-end segment up 17.3 percent.

Further analysis shows that while Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon sales are slowing in the lead-up to their respective retirements, the eight-cylinder models (especially for Falcon) appear to have stirred much buyer interest last year as fans realise their days are numbered.

Then there’s the hot hatch market, sports coupes, roadsters, wagons and the rest. So here it is: the top five TMR Best Buys in the performance car category under $50,000 for 2016 in no particular order of preference.

Mazda MX-5

Price Range: $31,990 (Roadster 1.5 Manual) – $41,550 (GT 2.0 Auto)

Engines: 96kW/150Nm 1.5 petrol 4cyl, 118kW/200Nm 2.0 petrol 4cyl

Transmissions: 6sp manual, 6sp automatic

Mazda’s all-new MX-5 has once again proven that a performance car doesn’t have to be about cubic capacity first and everything else second.

Fans were worried when they learnt the new model would offer up ‘only’ 96kW from its 1.5 litre naturally-aspirated engine, but just a few miles behind the wheel of the roadster reassured them that the balance was just so.

Throw in a significant price-cut over the old MX-5, and Mazda’s cash-for-car equation for the driving enthusiast in this new model is very hard to beat.

Our Review Verdict:

So which MX-5 is right for you? There are some factors that you’ll need to consider.

For some, there’s no replacement for displacement, and in that case the larger 2.0-litre engine ticks the box. We’d also suggest the bigger engine if you must team the MX-5 with an automatic transmission.

For manual devotees the decision is much harder. The bigger engine is stronger but here at TMR we don’t lament in the slightest the lower output of the 1.5. It’s involving, lively, spirited, and an all-out hoot behind the wheel.

So, we’ll offer this: as a sports car, the 2.0-litre is no more, nor less, than the 1.5 – it’s just different.

Subaru WRX

Price Range: $38,990 (manual) – $57,690 (STI Hyper Blue manual)

Engines: 197kW/350Nm 2.0 turbo petrol 4cyl, 221kW/407Nm 2.5 turbo petrol 4cyl

Transmissions: 6sp manual, CVT automatic

Like the MX-5, the current Subaru WRX is a whole lot cheaper than the model it replaced but no less worthy of your attention.

A 2016 update arrived midway through last year, packing more value into the ‘Rex’ with new safety tech, more interior features and a price-cut for the STI.

We declared that the WRX had returned to greatness with the current model, and its combination of performance, space and presence combined with all-wheel-drive grip makes it great value buying.

Our Review Verdict:

The Subaru WRX places among the fastest and finest-handling cars you will find for under $40,000.

This four-door sedan offers premium all-wheel-drive mechanicals for nix, so don’t go also looking for premium interior quality and refinement at this price.

If you really want some premium-ness, there’s always the actual WRX Premium for a few thousand dollars more, though it’s more of a features-hit than quality-boost.

With its improved looks and infotainment system, the Subaru WRX is at the top of its game and continues to deserve its sales popularity.

Volkswagen Polo GTI

Price Range: $27,490 (Manual) – $29,990 (DSG Auto)

Engines: 141kW/320Nm 1.8 turbo petrol 4cyl

Transmissions: 6sp manual, 7sp automatic

While the Golf GTI has earned its place as a fan favourite among hot hatch buyers, waiting in the shadows nearby is the little sibling – the Polo GTI.

The Polo GTI is around $13,000 cheaper than the Golf GTI before on-road costs, and its 0-100km/h time of 6.7 seconds is just 0.2 seconds slower.

Unless you really need the extra room that the Golf offers, do yourself a favour and check out the Polo GTI (preferably with the manual transmission).

Our Review Verdict:

This is a very well-rounded performance package, the Polo GTI (and the extra equipment included on newer versions only enhances that).

It is comfortable enough for the daily commute, offers beautifully taut handling, but isn’t bone jarring, and is plenty of fun without being a scoundrel.

Secure roadholding and deceptive speed make the smallest member of Volkswagen’s GTI clan something of an undercover assassin.

MINI Cooper John Cooper Works

Price Range: $47,490 (Manual) – $49,990 (DSG Auto)

Engines: 170kW/320Nm 2.0 turbo petrol 4cyl

Transmissions: 6sp manual, 6sp automatic

Since the MINI as we know it returned to showrooms around the world, the pedigree has never been stronger than it is now.

And what better way to maximise the MINI-factor than with the all-out John Cooper Works model, with turns the MINI into a MINI-maxi for performance.

The JCW is pushing the upper limits of the Under $50,000 Performance Car category price-wise, but for fans of the original wishing to relive the experience in the 21st century, it’s worth every cent.

Our Review Verdict:

Is there something for everyone in the new JCW? Not a smouldering chance.

Those stubborn buggers at MINI deserve a pat on the back for serving up a car that is still (beneath all the electronics) raw, hard-edged, and an absolute hoot to drive.

Refinement isn’t the name of the game – in fact, name one race car that ever won on a track based on its exemplary comfort – this little belter is about making you feel as if you’re at the helm of something “built to win”.

And while the price of admission might seem a little high, its potency (both under-bonnet, and in handling terms) makes it a unique proposition within its class.

Ford Focus ST

Price: $38,990

Engine: 184kW/340Nm 2.0 turbo petrol 4cyl

Transmission: 6sp manual

Yes, Ford’s Focus RS is coming to take the reins as the new ‘daddy’ of the carmaker’s hot hatch range, and the Fiesta ST offers compelling buying for the driving enthusiast at a cheaper price.

But as far as performance cars in hot hatch bodies go, the Focus ST is a fabulous all-rounder and it starts at around $39k.

You won’t be pining for space with its five-door body, there’s plenty of go in that 2.0 litre turbocharged engine which is matched with a slick six-speed manual transmission (as any good hot hatch should) and the price won’t leave you feeling as though you should have gotten ‘more’.

Our Review Verdict:

The Ford Focus ST is effortlessly quick, it strains at the leash exactly as a hot-hatch should and, like others of the hot-hatch rat-pack, put it on a track and it will blast a lot of fancied machinery into the weeds.

There are no unresolved or half-baked edges to this car, no fierce compromises in the handling or performance. It goes like a brat, it’s as toey as a Roman, but is impeccably well-mannered at speed.

And it has a vault-like feel – over-engineered and so ‘tight’ at the wheel – with a chassis absolutely free of creaks and groans, even when giving it a lash.

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