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Winner: Performance Car under $60K - Toyota 86 GT

Cut-price thrills take centre stage as Toyota's affordable 86 sports car takes the prize.

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Contenders:

Toyota 86 GT (winner)
Renault Megane RS265 (Carry-over champion)
Ford Focus ST
Subaru BRZ

Toyota's new 86 coupe has taken the trophy for the best performance car under $60K – but it was a closely run race.

The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012. Click for more photos

2012 Car of the Year

The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.

  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.
  • The Toyota 86 GT is Drive's Car of the Year and Best Performance Car Under $60,000 for 2012.

The 86 snuck home due to its unbeatable value-for-money equation, fun-to-drive nature and brilliant balance and steering.

One judge said: “I've never been in a car that generates that much attention. Kids are pointing it out on the street. Kids know about it.”

The 86 and its twin, the Subaru BRZ, were both commended for the way they make the driver feel as if they're going fast even when they're not, with their rorty 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines building speed in a linear fashion, rather than in a big whoosh from a turbocharged thump. In fact, the BRZ and 86 were the slowest in our independent 0-100km/h testing, with the 86 managing an 8.1 second sprint time, and the BRZ clocking 8.2s.

“They're not actually fast, but they're gangs of fun,” one judge said. “These two cars have enough power that you can have fun and not end up doing double the speed limit.”

Said another: “You simply don't have to try hard.”

Judges thoroughly examined the specification differences between the 86 GT and the BRZ, but decided that although the BRZ boasted some items such as bigger wheels and brakes and a digital speedometer, the 86 offered enough standard kit to make it the pick. In fact, the 86 – which uses the same tyres as the Toyota Prius – was found to grip better in the wet.

While there are subtle differences between the two cars in terms of suspension and tyre size, our judges agreed it was hard to pick, both on the road and on the racetrack. As one judge put it, no matter whether you choose the BRZ or 86, it's a “fun car to drive to the shop – it doesn't matter what you're doing”.

One common criticism for both cars was the brakes package. As one judge put it, the kind of buyer who does track days will notice it: “the first thing you'd do would be to put bigger anchors on it”.

The interior, too, was a bone of contention. The cheap looking stereo systems in both cars spoiled the ambience, and both didn't quite match their rivals for that “special” feel. The rear seats offered “bugger all space”.

The Ford Focus ST was the only five-door hatchback in the mix, so it had practicality on its side. “It's just as practical as any other Focus,” one judge said, while all applauded its big boot, rear seat space, excellent storage and the fact that it was the only car that didn't demand premium unleaded.

“It's going to be a lot easier for a lot of blokes to get the Focus ST across the line, rather than any of the others,” said one judge.

Many agreed, but it was also clear that the plethora of buttons across the dash and steering wheel were somewhat overbearing. As one judge labelled it: “it's got the most buttons of any car since James Bond's Aston Martin”.

The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine was lauded for its flexibility and its note, while the six-speed manual was smooth and simple.

While the car was very usable during town duties, many judges found themselves battling with torque steer, where the steering wheel tugs about in the driver's hands under hard acceleration. Some judges labelled it “annoying”, suggesting the car needs some sort of electronic or mechanical front differential to better get the power to the ground.

Aside from the tugging, the steering was sharp and precise. One judge labelled it “unbelievable”.

It was also spritely, managing the second-fastest 0-100km/h time during testing (7.0 seconds).

The other hot hatch in the mix was the reigning Performance Car under $60K champion, the Renault Megane RS. This car was updated earlier this year with more power from its 2.0-litre turbo and increased equipment, but at $42,640 plus on-road costs it was easily the priciest car here.

It was also the quickest. With a recorded sprint time of 6.6 seconds, the Megane was undeniably the perkiest – and it felt it, with judges calling its acceleration “exhilarating” and saying “it feels sporty and looks like a serious sporty car”.

Some weren't happy with the exhaust note, with one describing it as having “a soundtrack by Dyson”.

It was another criticised for poor button layout. To dial up the Sport mode – which you need to do in order to exact its full power potential – there's a complex series of buttons to press via a steering-column mounted stalk followed by an almost-hidden traction control button. All agreed it was too hard to do, but all concurred it was good “if you can find it”.

Still, its credentials as a go-fast car were evident. All agreed it was fantastic fun on the track, with excellent grip, flat and poised cornering and involving steering with no notable torque steer courtesy, of the car's mechanical diff.

On the road, though, it was outplayed. The ride was felt to be too harsh and the visibility from the cabin poor.

In the end, the Toyota 86 claimed first place with six votes, while the Ford Focus ST scored two, the BRZ one and the reigning Renault failed to poll – an indication of just how far the game has moved on in the cut-price performance category in the past 12 months.

Comment

Should we have considered the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 to be the same car?

Some will say yes, because they essentially are. They are built in the same plant, have the same underpinnings, same body, same engine and gearbox and same raspy exhaust note.

But they’re different cars, right?

The prices for each car certainly suggest so.

You can get the BRZ for $37,150 drive away, while the Toyota is $29,990 plus on-road costs. Sure, you get less equipment in the cheaper Toyota, but most of us felt that people who are going to buy the base model are more likely to spend the money they save modifying it for track days anyway.

Spare a thought for the Ford Focus ST. Any other year, this thing could have swamped the competition with its brilliant turbo four-cylinder, practical body and smashing price. But against the 86, it just didn’t quite get there.

And what of the Renault Megane RS265? Wow, how the mighty have fallen. Don’t get us wrong, this is still a spectacularly fun car to drive. But when you pitch it against these other bad boys, it’s no wonder the Frenchman didn’t get even one baguette from our nine Drive Car of the Year judges.

Tell us what you think - did we get it right?