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Everything you need to know about Performance Car of the Year 2021

By Andy Enright, 09 Mar 2021 Performance COTY

This year’s PCOTY is one of the hardest fought, and most intriguing, in years. Here’s your one-stop introduction to the fastest award in the country.

Everything you need to know about Performance Car of the Year 2021

Cards on table time. Like many events of the past 12 months or so, Performance Car of the Year 2021 nearly didn’t happened. A heady melange of cussedness, cabin fever and calling in favours eventually sees plans coalesce and a field begin to assemble that has us genuinely scratching our heads to pick a pre-event favourite.

Were you to believe the rest of the world’s motoring media, the Toyota Yaris GR is set to steamroller the rest of the contenders. The problem is that we’re testing a car that they weren’t. All of those plaudits were being heaped on the Rallye version of the Yaris, with its trick centre diff and focused tyres and that car isn’t in Australia in time for PCOTY. We’re keen to see whether the standard GR still has more than a pinch of that magic about it.

We know for sure the Ford Fiesta ST does. More than a pinch, in fact. A whole bucket of the good stuff has been emptied into its genetics and being the cheapest car in the field by quite some margin also earns it a stack of credit. Ford has never troubled the top step of the PCOTY podium before, that honour being shared amongst just five manufacturers, Porsche, Nissan, BMW, Lamborghini and Audi, but the ST is the first performance car from the Blue Oval in a  very long time to rate as best in class. Could 2021 be the year to break the duck?

We also know just how good the Mercedes-AMG A45 S was. In fact, so rapid is Affalterbach’s hyper hatch that in the sprint to 400m it would have decimated everything in the field at PCOTY as recently as 2011. When you pause to consider that event included tackle like the Lamborghini Gallardo Balboni and the Porsche 997 GT3 RS, that’s some serious progression to chew on.

MORE 2021 MOTOR Shootout: the fastest cars in the country, tested on track!

Porsche presents at PCOTY this year in force. Fully 772kW of it to be exact. The Cayman GTS 4.0-litre and the new 992-gen 911 Turbo S represent a heck of a combo. On the one hand, a manual, rear-drive atmo coupe for the purist and on the other a PDK-equipped, all-wheel drive  twin-turbo flagship designed to weaponise everything Zuffenhausen knows. Porsche has won 15 of the 24 previous PCOTY awards – or 62.5 per cent of them, if you prefer – and it arrives at this year’s event with a twin-pronged assault that looks ominously strong.

Audi also fronts up with a pair of powerhouses that share little other than the fact that both drive all four treads. The RS6 Avant, with its 4.0-litre 441kW V8 is the car that appears to do everything, and it looks the absolute goods presented in Tango Red metallic with contrast black detailing. How has Audi managed to make the massive grille thing work where the likes of BMW, Lexus and Aston Martin have all struggled?

The R8 Performance is one of the final standard-bearers for the big capacity atmo engine, its 5.2-litre V10 one of the all-time greats for many reasons. This unit can trace its lineage all the way back to the C6 generation Audi S6 that debuted in March 2006, so it’s celebrating its fifteenth year in production.

Since then the engine has been refined and improved for use in the R8 and its cousins, Lamborghinis Gallardo and Huracán, getting an uprated crankshaft, forged pistons, dry sump lubrication, different intake and exhaust valves, and a revised engine management system along the way. It’s old, but it’s still 449kW worth of magnificence. The R8 won in 2013 but a lot has changed in the past eight years. Can the 2021 vintage reprise that success?

MORE Your one-stop-shop for Performance Car of the Year coverage

At any PCOTY there’s always that car that the camera glides past, the dark horse in the field. And this year it appears to be the BMW M550i xDrive, the only conventional three-box sedan in the roster, finished in its low-key Phytonic Blue. Why not the full-fat M5? We reckon the M550i is the smarter buy and arguably the better road car, but will the track element push the softer-edged M550i too far out of its comfort zone?

That question’s inverse is being asked of the Mercedes-AMG GT R Pro. I’d driven this car on track at Hockenheim when it was stated by AMG that it wouldn’t be coming to Australia. Then there was a climbdown from that position and a limited run of right-hookers have made their way Down Under to our shores.

I remember it being phenomenal on track in Germany, but AMG was adamant that we couldn’t drive it on the road. That’s usually a dead giveaway that the car rides like a trolley jack on typical B-roads, so as the Pro unloads at Winton, there are still many questions to be answered.

It isn’t without precedent though. The Porsche 911 GT2 RS claimed the PCOTY crown in 2019 and a GT3 RS had done likewise in 2010, proving that ultra-focused circuit-biased models can, with serious talent on their side, work the judging criteria to their advantage.

Our final contender also has a lot of work to do in order to convince the more experienced PCOTY testers that it’s enough of a rounded proposition to challenge for the top spots. Our cover car for the December issue of MOTOR, the Herrod SM17 Mustang, wields the biggest stick of the entire bunch with 578kW and 810Nm.

Track testing with previous hot versions of Mustangs has thrown up a number of problems, so would mechanical durability or a cooling deficit prove insurmountable issues here? The most powerful production car ever to be presented for PCOTY judging certainly isn’t going out without one heck of a fight.

Two days of on-road testing in the Victorian high country are scheduled, followed by a couple of days of exclusive booking at Winton. The weather gods are appeased with the ritual cremation of the Mustang’s spare rear boots and ex-Supercars pedaller Karl Reindler is locked in to set the hot laps. The judging panel contains three grizzled MOTOR hands, Scott Newman, Louis Cordony and Curt Dupriez, while ex-Wheels editor and handy steerer Glenn Butler joins the team. The final place is mine, the editor learning the ropes at his maiden PCOTY. It’s set to be one heck of an introduction.

THE CONTENDERS

Audi R8 V10 Performance

It’s been out for a while overseas, but this atmo supercar should be celebrated... glorious soundtrack and all.

  • Engine: Naturally aspirated V10, mid engine
  • Drive: AWD
  • Power: 449kW/560Nm
  • Weight: 1595kg
  • Price: $395,000

Audi RS6 Avant

We love a fast wagon, and the RS6 is one of the quickest. It’s best to take the dog out of the boot before track laps, though.

Engine: Twin-turbo V8, front engine

  • Drive: AWD
  • Power: 441kW/800Nm
  • Weight: 2075kg
  • Price$216,000

BMW M550i xDrive

The monstrous M5 Competition made the podium in 2019, but can the M-lite 5 Series go a few steps better?

  • Engine: Twin-turbo V8, front engine
  • Drive: AWD
  • Power: 390kW/750Nm
  • Weight: 1810kg
  • Price: $149,500

Ford Fiesta ST

This feisty little hot hatch is a five-star car, but can Ford’s performance tiny tot play with the big boys? We think it can.

  • Engine: Turbocharged inline three-cylinder, front engine
  • Drive: FWD
  • Power: 147kW/290Nm
  • Weight: 1217kg
  • Price: $32,290

Herrod SM17

A power-hungry torque monster to celebrate three-time Supercars champ Scott McLaughlin. Yee-haw indeed.

  • Engine: Supercharged V8, front engine
  • Drive: RWD
  • Power: 578kW/810Nm
  • Weight: 1784kg
  • Price: $125,000 (approx)

Mercedes-AMG A45 S

Single-handedly coined the phrase hyper hatch, the A45 S lives up to its on-paper billing... but it doesn’t come cheap.

  • Engine: Turbocharged inline four-cylinder, front engine
  • Drive: AWD
  • Power: 310kW/500Nm
  • Weight: 1675kg
  • Price: $93,600

Mercedes-AMG GT R Pro

A more serious bit of kit than the GT R, the Pro aims to be a race car you can use on the road. Big daddy until Black arrives.

  • Engine: Twin-turbo V8, front engine
  • Drive: RWD
  • Power: 430kW/700Nm
  • Weight: 1632kg
  • Price: $453,200

Porsche 992 911 Turbo S

If you didn’t know, Porsche, and in particular 911s, have a habit of winning PCOTY... Can the Turbo S follow tradition?

  • Engine: Twin-turbo flat-six, rear engine
  • Drive: AWD
  • Power: 478kW/800Nm
  • Weight: 1640kg
  • Price: $473,900

Porsche Cayman GTS 4.0

It has all the right ingredients for greatness that are easy to access, but will known gearing issues hold it back?

  • Engine: Naturally aspirated flat-six, mid engine
  • Drive: RWD
  • Power: 294kW/420Nm
  • Weight: 1405kg, $173,100

Toyota GR Yaris

The weight of expectation is heavy for the diminutive GR Yaris, but can the homologation special overcome it?

  • Engine: Turbocharged inline three-cylinder, front engine
  • Drive: AWD
  • Power: 200kW/370Nm
  • Weight: 1280kg
  • Price: $49,500

THE CARS THAT MISSED OUT

BMW just missed the cut with a couple of contenders. We suspect the Mini GP might have been a bit steamrollered, but the M2 CS could have ended up challenging for line honours. As it stands, it may well find itself up against the Porsche 992 GT3 and the Cayman GT4 RS for 2022.

For a while it looked as if McLaren would finally let a 600LT join the fray but neither that nor the 765LT were offered in time. We approach Ferrari and Lamborghini each year, and a 488 GTB or a Huracán Evo would have been a great addition, but neither would put a vehicle up for appraisal.

Porsche’s Taycan EV was touch and go for a while, but timings conspired against it. That could have really put the cat amongst the pigeons. It’s nailed on for next year.

MEET THE JUDGES

Louis Cordony

Has developed his own scoring system. We don’t know why and we haven’t managed to talk him out of it. Or the manbag.

Glenn Butler

Wheels’ old boss is too experienced on both road and track to be spending his days driving a desk back at the executive suite.

Scott Newman

Our go-to man for sideways shots. Also has a Rainman-like ability to interpret seemingly random VBOX files.

Curt Dupriez

Curt has a voice so deep that some of his expert vehicle assessments can only be registered by sperm whales.

Andy Enright

Nobody has quite figured out how a 100kg man punted the 911 Turbo S so quickly down the strip and Enright’s not telling.

THE JUDGING CRITERIA

Performance

The VBOX doesn’t lie. Beyond the raw numbers, we’re looking for response and powertrain refinement.

Dynamics

The subtleties of balance, grip, and control fidelity that separate the great from the good.

Accessibility

Put simply, how easily the vehicle allows you to access its reserves of talent, and the payback it delivers when you do.

Liveability

Ride quality, interior comfort, visibility, ergonomics and noise suppression all contribute here.

Value

Price, running costs, option costs, talent versus similarly priced peer group determine the order.

X Factor

Never be impressed with mere charisma. Look for character. Which car’s light shines brightest?