Performance cars are special. Going beyond everyday usability, practicality and affordability, they need to offer something more for enthusiasts.

They must excite you.

While every category in 2018 Drive Car of the Year, presented by BP, is important, the performance car classes represent vehicles you buy not because you should, or because you must, but because you can.

The Best Performance Car Under $60,000 category usually balances performance with value in endearing fashion. In 2017, Honda’s Civic Type R fought off a strong defending champion in Ford’s Focus RS, along with a reworked Volkswagen Golf R and intriguing Kia Stinger 330Si to take class victory. While the Honda looks extreme, judges were pleasantly surprised by its on-road manners, uncanny composure on tricky surfaces and the rev-happy power delivery of Honda’s turbocharged engine. Blistering on-track pace and finely honed poise when pushed to the limit came as less of a surprise.

Offering diversity in 2017, the category served up a front-wheel-drive machine in the Honda, a pair of all-wheel-drive hot hatches in the hardcore, manual-only Focus and more rounded, dual-clutch auto Golf, and an outsider in the rear-drive, twin-turbo V6 of Kia’s Stinger.

The category takes a different shape in 2018, where Honda’s turbocharged, manual and front-drive five-door hatch faces similarly equipped competition in the Renault Megane RS and Hyundai i30 N.

The Megane has plenty of form here - its predecessor was a two-time winner of the category, renowned as a driver-focused machine which excels on road and track.

The new version is more practical and efficient, packing a clever four-wheel-steering system which improves agility when exploring its dynamic potential.

Hyundai’s i30 N does things a little differently.

Built to a sub-$40,000 budget, it eschews the brand-name Brembo brakes and heavily reworked bodywork of the Honda and Renault to focus on the important stuff - engaging dynamics and engineering integrity that holds up on long days at the track.

The Best Performance Car Over $60,000 class represents an altogether more indulgent approach to performance. No one needs a twin-turbocharged European luxury machine capable of cosseting drivers on their way home from long a day grinding sports cars into the tarmac at the track. But that’s exactly what we have in the Mercedes-AMG E63 S, BMW M5 Competition and Audi RS5.

The ultimate Mercedes-Benz E-Class defeated the likes of Porsche’s 911 and Cayman, along with the Audi TT-RS and Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, in 2017 with a blend of prestige polish and supercar pace.

None of those cars could match the Benz’ breadth of ability then, but there’s a good chance its closest rival could match or exceed the AMG’s capabilities.

BMW’s M5 has won plenty of fans in the Drive office by being more refined than the E63 while giving away very little in the performance stakes. Can the faster, sharper BMW M5 Competition go even further to take an important victory?

Audi’s RS5 coupe is the other model standing in its way. Packing a twin-turbo V6, all-wheel-drive and flawless presentation both inside and out, the RS5 has plenty going for it, not least a price tag that is almost $100k less.

Recognising the push toward SUVs affects not only family and luxury models, but also performance variants, Drive introduced a new Best Performance SUV category for 2018.

Inaugural contenders include the shock-and-awe of Jeep’s Grand Cherokee Trackhawk - one of the five most powerful cars in Australia.

The Jeep wears its heart on its sleeve, with a massive supercharged engine, enormous brakes and stiff suspension that use brute force to keep physics in check.

You wouldnt expect such a machine to have much in common with a motor car supplier to Britains Royal Family. Like the special relationship between former US President George W. Bush and his opposite number in Britain, Tony Blair, the Range Rover Sport SVR joins the Trackhawk in a coalition of cars willing to shatter expectations. Just look at it.

Like the Jeep, the SVR packs a supercharged V8 under the bonnet. Like the Jeep, the Range Rover sounds cataclysmic at full throttle. Unlike the Jeep, the Range Rovers cabin blends tech and craftsmanship in a fusion of high-definition display screens and rich leather.

Both models represent brutal, loud and unforgettable options. As one of the original high-performance SUVs, our third contender in Porsche’s Cayenne Turbo represents a different kind of machine.

Quieter and more easily mistaken for lesser models, the third-generation Cayenne Turbo flies under the radar while delivering thunderous performance.

While it isn’t strictly a performance car class, our Best Convertible category tends to attract cars with a certain focus on driving appeal. Last year’s winner, the Mercedes-Benz C200 Cabriolet, was not available to return its crown as an updated model is just around the corner.

Instead, we have three entirely different contenders in the luxuriant, four-seat Audi A5 Cabriolet which represents a polished cruiser.

Porsche’s Boxster GTS could easily have been placed in the performance or drop-top category, serving up peerless balance and searing straight-line thrust for a price tag not far short of $200,000.

The third option is Mazda’s MX-5, which is back in 2.0-litre roadster form with a new engine, more safety gear and subtly revised cabin that make it quicker and easier to live with.

Our team of expert judges tested all of the contenders on road and track to determine which models stand tall in their class.

The Best Convertible winner will be revealed on Monday, November 19, followed by the Best Performance SUV on November 20, the Best Performance Car Under $60,000 on November 21, and the Best Performance Car Over $60,000 category on November 22.

Click here to see the full field of finalists for the 2018 Drive Car of the Year awards, presented by BP.

Source: Drive

October 31, 2018