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By Jack Baruth November 11, 2014 / Photos by Matt Tierney and Marc Urbano

THIS IS A QUIET, WOODED PLACE. There are no homes here, no driveways, no mechanical noises. A thick canopy of century-old oaks and maples shades the afternoon sun to a gentle twilight. A graceful young doe noses through the soft dirt, searching for acorns, her fawns nervous and unsteady beside her.

There is a road, barely two lanes, rounded on the shoulders, descending hundreds of feet in just a few miles, ragged with neglect. It cuts through a forest that has long since rejoined and blocked the sky above it.

Popping over a crest with a stutter-squeal of the ABS, a white M235i lands and settles in the road's trough, throttling down the long, gently curved descent to the next blind corner. Hot on its heels is another white car, this one with a chrome pony striding across its grille, the rear wheels stepping out briefly over the crest before the fastback flings into the wooded tunnel ahead.

The trio of deer remains still as the train of cars hammers through. A Challenger Hellcat rips by, seemingly as big as its Grumman namesake, blowing the early leaves off the road with a rasp and a supercharged Klaxon whine that trails away, leaving the forest silent.

RELATED: The all-you-need-to-know guide to the 2015 Performance Car of the Year Award

You can hear the 9000-rpm roar of the Ferrari 458 Speciale long before you see it. Then it appears all at once, LED marker lights haloed in the Hellcat's dust, whomp into the trough then whaaaaaaaaaa clickwhaaaaa and the deer flee into the safety of the woods and the trees echo in Dolby Surround and miles away a park ranger swivels his head and without a flash of brake lights the 458 changes direction as if Alonso himself were at the wheel and the aftereffect of the noise is like that scene in Inception where the whole landscape folds over itself and then it's as gone as it was here.
The rules of the game are simple: To be eligible, a car must be new for this year or feature significant functional changes. An example of the former: Alfa Romeo's 4C, arriving on these shores for the first time. An example of the latter: the you-can-call-it-a-Dodge-again Viper SRT TA, with a revised aero package and engine tuning. Cars that do not meet either criterion are not welcome, not even if it is last year's winner, the 2014 Corvette Z51. There's no champion's provisional.

RELATED: PCOTY '14 at Motown Mile - Times and Factoids

Fourteen cars were invited to our challenge, ranging from the $34,005 sensible-shoes Volkswagen GTI to the $336,120 Ferrari 458 Speciale. Every one of them someone's dream car, every one outstanding in at least one empirical measure, every one special and exciting to drive. But that isn't enough to win PCOTY. That's just your buy-in. To win, a car has to deliver on every level. It has to shine on the road and shimmer around the Motown Mile, R&T's private airport test track. It has to flatter the novice driver while challenging the experienced racer. It has to offer value for money, regardless of the MSRP.

Most of all, however, the PCOTY winner has to be the look-back car. The car you want to drive again, even with 13 other brilliant automobiles surrounding it. The one that you truly want, the one you'd go into debt for. In other words, the one. And like the man said, there can be only one. So let's go.

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I really need to go drive a Golf GTI. The new MK7 has been getting incredible praise as on of the best all around cars in the world.

The GTI, on the other hand … "Without a second's hesitation, this is the car in this group that each of us would buy with our own money," Cammisa says. In an assemblage of cars costing up to nine times its MSRP, the VW impresses in every respect, from interior quality to the idiot-proof, lift-throttle yaw control that's available at speeds from mild to felonious. No other car here gives you as much confidence approaching an unknown corner; no other car has this kind of broad zone between the onset of tire squeal and the fear of impending doom. You can push it. Hard.
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