Best Sports Cars, ABC

Winners: Hyundai i30 N & Mercedes-AMG A 45

Best Sports Car Under $50,000

Winner: Hyundai i30 N

The old adage ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ has just as much resonance today with car companies and consumers as it did in the Motorsport success can bring credibility and floor traffic into the showroom, and buyers today are faced with a mouth-watering array of affordable hot hatches, coupes and sedans.

Launched here just a few months ago, the Hyundai i30 N has undergone several years of development, much of it in Europe – the spiritual home of performance hatches and where Hyundai’s N performance arm resides. Hyundai Australia also knows that our unique road conditions throw up many challenges in developing the best ride and handling settings for our tastes. Shocks and damper calibrations are unique to the Aussie-spec i30 N, providing a more compliant ride than the hard-edged European version and this decision bears fruit with a best-in-class score for ride.

The same goes for handling, arguably the most critical line, where the combination of a unique rack mounted electric power steering unit, multi adjustable electronically controlled suspension, electronically controlled limited slip differential and low profile 19-inch tyres work perfectly together. The i30 N remains glued to the road like a barnacle to a boat hull, and it’s just as difficult to dislodge or upset through a series of sweeping corners or tight switchbacks.

At the heart of the i30 N is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine pumping out 202kW and 353Nm with an extra 25Nm available with overboost. Maximum torque is available from just 1450rpm, and the way the power is delivered provides a slight point of distinction to some of its peers. Rather than neck-snapping surges of power when the turbo gets on boost, the engine in the i30 N delivers a strong, seamless surge up to almost 5000rpm.

That driver-friendly power delivery underscores the i30 N’s overall user-friendly attributes. Ergonomically, all the major and minor controls intuitively fall to hand and front-seat support is comfortable without the need to resort to a hard race-type seat. Visually, the i30N remains on the understated side, but alter the drive setting to rev-matching mode and it’ll produce just the sort of mechanical cacophony from the exhausts that’s music to the ears for enthusiasts.

With a starting price of $39,990 there are few in the category that can match the i30 N price-wise and the value-for-money equation is enhanced with a good level of standard features and high build quality. Impressive as it is, you don’t win a sports category with those attributes alone and it’s the i30 N’s on-road scores that really matter and where it excels.

  • Indicative drive-away: $44,100
  • Body type: five-door hatch
  • Fuel economy/fuel type: 8.0L/100km, PULP
  • Engine/transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, six-speed manual
  • ANCAP: Not rated

2nd Place: Ford Focus ST
3rd Place: Ford Fiesta ST

Best Sports Car $50,000-$100,000

Winner: Mercedes-AMG A 45

The Mercedes-AMG A 45 is once again back on the winner’s podium in the premium sports car class. But it wasn’t a win that came easily, having to withstand concerted challenges from Honda’s affordable and stonking new Civic Type R, and the BMW M240i – an old adversary and very worthy past winner in this class. In the end, the points tally across 17 assessment criteria gave the Merc a skinny six-point winning margin to the Honda in second spot.

Owning and running the hot-shot A-Class will punish the bank balance more than the similarly priced BMW and fiscally-friendly Honda. For a small hatchback, it’s not that cheap and you can expect depreciation to bite harder, while running and repair costs are amongst the worst in class. The Merc is reasonably fuel efficient by class standards, but its beverage of choice is the dearer 98 RON fuel.

On the upside, its standard features list is more generous than the Honda or its German rival. The lengthy equipment list includes heated power front seats, LED headlamps, dual-zone climate control, leather trim, keyless start, infotainment system with 8.0-inch colour screen and navigation, Harman Kardon sound system, plus a host of AMG specific enhancements. These include the instrument cluster, performance seats, steering wheel, 19-inch alloys, high-performance brake system, performance exhaust system, spoiler, and a selective ride control adaptive sports suspension system.

Buyers expect strong safety credentials in a car such as this, and there are no disappointments – the A 45 and Kia Stinger GT are the only two cars in the class to score a perfect 10 for safety.

First impressions count, and the Merc’s body and interior styling shout the performance car message. But it’s what it can do, not what it advertises, that really counts. It’s hard to imagine any driving enthusiast that wouldn’t be impressed by its on-road talents.

There’s a ballistic 2.0-litre turbo engine that pumps out a mighty 275kW and 475Nm, making it one of the most powerful production engines of its displacement you’ll find. Mated to a seven-speed DCT gearbox, performance is nothing short of exhilarating, and there’s that lovely exhaust ‘snap, crackle and pop’. The 0-100km/h sprint is dispatched in just 4.2 seconds.

The AMG Dynamic Select system allows driver control over engine and transmission response, plus steering and suspension settings to best suit driving conditions and style. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system efficiently puts power down to the tarmac, allowing it to carve through and slingshot out of corners. With limpet-like grip, it’s more a point-and-shoot weapon than the agile and lively rear-drive BMW, with which it shares class-leading handling scores. The AMG braking system does a great job of restraining the vehicle when called on.

The A 45’s more overtly styled interior has switchgear that’s too fussy for the judges’ liking, however, like the Type R, the Merc’s body-hugging AMG sports seats provide great comfort and support, even during hard cornering.

The simple fact is, whichever of the three cars that made our final cut you choose, you won’t be disappointed. They all offer that wow factor and you’ll get a superb drive. Yet, by the numbers in 2018, the A 45 is the more complete premium sports car package.

  • Mercedes-AMG A 45
  • Indicative drive-away: $85,254
  • Body type: five-door hatch
  • Fuel economy/fuel type: 7.3L/100km, PULP
  • Engine/transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, seven-speed DCT
  • ANCAP: 5 stars

2nd Place: Honda Civic Type R
3rd Place: BMW M240i Coupe