Looking at the M4 CS and 718 Cayman GTS squaring up in the pit garages, both hiding from a rainstorm clattering on the roof, you wonder. About several things.
One: can the BMW really be worth thirty thousand pounds more than the Porsche? Two: what on earth is the M4 CS going to be like in these changeable conditions given that it has 600Nm to deploy via an M Diff and a set of liquorice-spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres? Three: goddammit, the Cayman GTS looks knee-tremblingly lovely in that colour, on those wheels, in this light, sitting next to the bigger, clumsier, more musclebound BMW.
But we’re not here to look, although you can’t help but form a visual opinion on cars as tasty as this; we’re here to drive. Before we do that, though, some key stats to discuss, the most significant being their weights: Porsche 1375kg, BMW 1580kg. That is a massive difference, in light of which it hardly seems to matter that the Cayman’s 2.5-litre turbocharged flat-four produces a mere 360bhp versus a thumping 454bhp for the 3-litre twin-turbo six-cylinder BMW. Nor the fact that the Porsche has ‘just’ 420Nm compared to 600Nm for the BMW (although the knowledge that it produces this number as a plateau between 1900 and 5500rpm is likely to be significant). Because it was always going to be their weights that separated these two cars most at TCoty.
And their tyres – the Porsche wears conventional Pirelli P Zeros, not P Zero Corsas or Michelin Cup 2s. And, of course, their differing drivetrain layouts. Yet in the event, nothing prepares you for the chasm that opens up between them when you first drive them around a soaking-wet Rockingham National Circuit – because after just a few exploratory laps in both, you climb out pretty much left speechless by the differences. The Porsche is that much better balanced, that much better damped, that much more forgiving of your mistakes near and beyond the limit, that you can’t help but emerge dumbfounded by how much sweeter it feels, how much more traction it generates, and how much more pure fun it is to drive, despite – or perhaps even because of – the atrocious conditions.
The BMW, on the other hand, feels utterly ham-fisted by comparison initially. Its traction isn’t borderline ridiculous, it’s ridiculous, end of. Its steering also feels heavy but at the same time strangely inert in the wet, and unless you select the very softest settings for dampers and drivetrain, it feels like it wants to spit you into the litter through most corners, and along some straights, too, if you’re brave enough to switch its traction and ESP systems off.
After some wet laps in the CS Dickie says: ‘It has a contrived agility and aggression that’s not wholly convincing or especially satisfying. The steering is numb and artificial so you never feel especially connected to the car through your hands. Its more by ear and butt cheeks that you sense what the car is doing. Engine and transmission are impressive – responsive and punchy – but the power and torque delivery isn’t subtle so it’s hard to find a point where steering and throttle are in balance.’ Adam agrees: ‘Just an astonishing lack of rear-end grip in the wet, even with ambient temperatures not that low. It’s almost certainly not worth the premium over the much more rounded regular M4.’
And of the GTS, engine noise aside, nobody has anything but high praise to deliver, more often than not by the tanker-load. ‘I don’t know how they do it. The grip and connection to the road the Cayman has in these conditions is uncanny,’ says John. ‘The track feels dry compared with how it feels in the BMW.’ Dickie is similarly smitten: ‘Bloody hell. How good is this car? So complete, so polished, so utterly transparent in its responses. And it gets better the deeper you dig.’
To be fair, the M4 CS does come into its own, albeit momentarily, when the track finally dries out in the afternoon of day two. I manage one solitary all-but-dry lap each in the Cayman and M4 CS, back to back. Then, and only then, does the BMW begin to feel like the real deal at Rockingham, like a car deserving of its Clubsport moniker.
It has grip and traction, poise and balance, plus a rabid turn of speed down the straights, all of which is 100 per cent absent in the wet. The CS is probably a touch quicker than the Cayman in these circumstances, due to its monster acceleration and, at last, the grip available from its now-warm Cup 2 tyres. But the rain returns before we get to confirm this by setting lap times.
Thing is, though, the Cayman feels even more lovely in the dry than it does in the wet. I climb out of it giggling in disbelief as the rain returns in anger. Which means that, in the end, and despite being maybe a whisker slower than the M4 in the dry, the GTS walks this one. Because, on a track, where the anodyne aural qualities of that flat-four engine don’t really matter that much, the GTS is just a phenomenally great car, wet or dry. Unlike the rather more fickle M4 CS.
Much as outright lap times aren’t really that important when you’re talking about using a car for trackdays, if there’s one pair here that we would have liked to have bagged times for, it’s the 911 GT3 and 570S Track Pack. Late in the afternoon on the second day, as Sutcliffe circulates in the M4 and Cayman, the track finally looks about perfect for the task, so we attach the Vbox timing kit to the McLaren and the sense of anticipation starts to build. Right up until we roll the 570S out of the garage and big fat raindrops start splashing on the windscreen…
I try. I really do, but the rain comes down hard and fast, rendering Rockingham’s notoriously slick tarmac almost undriveable before I finish my out lap. A trip across the gravel confirms as much, and I return to the pits cursing Mother Nature. With half an hour’s running left there will be no times set today in the 570S or GT3. Does it matter? Well, we’d all like to know how these very different cars compare against the clock, but while the numbers are a black-and-white benchmark, it’s the subjective shades of grey that are just as revealing. All five judges drove the pair (untimed) during the test and our thoughts are all closely aligned.
It’s fair to say we’re all generally more familiar with GT3s, though the breed has evolved rapidly in recent generations. Still, you approach the Porsche with a sense of what to expect and how to work it. The McLaren is more of a mystery – especially as a track car – and you take a little while longer to dial yourself in. One thing’s for sure: in the rain on Pirelli P Zero Corsas the 570S Track Pack finds a lot more bite than the GT3 on its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s. John says he’d think twice about taking the Porsche out if he found himself in similar conditions, while Steve reckons the Civic Type R would run rings round it.
I’m inclined to agree. Earlier in the day on a patchily dry track, the pair are much more evenly matched wherever they can both find decent grip, though they go about their business in different ways. The McLaren is defined by its torquey, turbocharged engine and hugely grippy and somewhat prescriptive dynamics. It feels gobsmackingly quick out of the corners and carries tremendous speed into and through them. It’s ultra-precise and asks for modest steering inputs, thanks to its nailed-down nose and fine balance.
You can sense the electronics keeping it poised, even in Track mode, when you feel the ESC nibbling away. The lack of a limited slip differential helps keep the nose pointy, but it does mean the Brake Steer and ESC are kept busy. Disabling ESC remains far too fiddly – McLaren, please address this in your next-generation cars. There’s no question the 570S encourages commitment, and its composure is truly breathtaking, but there’s something about the way it delivers its best and demands to be driven that leaves all of us feeling like we’re still missing out on a fine but vital layer of engagement and excitement. What’s missing? The Porsche’s miraculous powertrain, for one. The naturally aspirated 4-litre flat-six might lack the low- and mid-range punch of the McLaren’s turbocharged V8, but the PDK gearbox is sensational and the searing high-rev fireworks truly unforgettable. You need to work the car hard to extract all the performance, but when you do, it raises its game so completely that the effort is well rewarded.
The handling balance is more neutral than you might expect, but you still have to play with the throttle for the front end to bite. Once you’ve got the car rotated you hit that unique 911 sweet spot in which the car’s rear does most of the work. Once hooked up there’s immense traction; more than enough for you to disable the stability control with confidence. Personally, I am deeply impressed by the McLaren. It offers a pleasing sense of connection, is more nuanced than I expected, and heart-poundingly fast through the quickest sections. Steve praises its delicacy, Adam its rocket-ship pace. It’s a formidable machine, especially considering its junior status within the McLaren range.
However, the 911 proves wholly seductive. That 9000rpm red line is something truly special – one of the great internal combustion experiences – while the cohesion and completeness of the package is evidence of Porsche at the top of its game. Synaptic gearshifts, epic brakes and expressive dynamics make for a car that can be driven purely for fun near, at or well over the limit, or can nail a clean and 100 per cent committed qualifying-style lap. Which is quickest? I suspect the McLaren may have nicked it, but only thanks to the number of tight corners followed by hard acceleration zones at Rockingham, which would favour turbocharged torque over high-rev zing. Which would we choose? In the words of Steve Sutcliffe: ‘It’s not made in Woking.’
There’s no getting away from it – the weather was atrocious for the vast majority of this test. The rain fell on and off for two days, meaning conditions were best described as ‘mixed’. There were some periods where the track was dry, but mostly it veered from wet to damp, then back to wet again. Yet it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing us to really get under the skin of our contenders – when the surface is slippery there’s no hiding a car’s vices. And if you can enjoy and trust a car when the weather’s at its worst, then you’re going to have a riot the rest of the time. So after all the climatically challenged laps, which car wins? For gut feelings and grins, whether it’s the Yaris’s screaming engine, the flyweight Caterham’s glorious sense of instant connection or the McLaren’s seriousness that goads you into pursuing the perfect lap, each car we tested is an experience to be savoured. But none more so than the 911 GT3. Predictable? Maybe, but not without good reason. The GT3 is a car bred at the track and this shines through every time you fire up that glorious flat-six and head down the pitlane. Yes, it’s fast, and when the Cup 2s are up to temperature it grips hard enough to take your breath away. Yet it melds this outright ability with a sense of total driver immersion that makes it approachable and richly rewarding no matter what your level of experience. Its limits are staggeringly high, but not completely out of reach. And even when you’re driving well within its operating bandwidth it is always communicating, making every steering input, every throttle application and every squeeze of the brake pedal an operation to be relished. So, the GT3 is our TCoty champ? Well, yes… and no. You see, while the 911 is utterly brilliant, it’s also utterly unavailable – the entire production run having been spoken for. Which is where the Civic Type R comes in. Now bear with us here (especially since in India the only Civic you will get is the 4-door saloon with a 1.6 diesel engine, not this Type R hatch) because of all the cars here, the Honda is the one that dropped our jaws the lowest. Its breadth of ability is simply staggering, as it slips effortlessly from hassle-free commuting machine to all-out track-attack monster with little more than a press of a button. In the wet its pace was incredible (not much here was quicker), its ability to find grip bordering on witchcraft. Yet this unflappability doesn’t come at the expense of fun: the Type R is able to get expressive with a lift of the throttle here and a dab of the brakes there. Then there’s the way it operates – beautifully calibrated damping, meaty brake feel and that lovely, wrist-flick gearchange – and its tireless appetite for lapping. The 911 is the dream choice, but in the real world the Civic wins hands down. It’s a staggering achievement and arguably the performance bargain of the decade.