Making great mid-engined sports cars isn't exactly priority number one for the car industry right now. For an assortment of reasons that most focussed of sports car concepts, where almost all practicality and usability is sacrificed at the altar of outright handling purity, isn't currently top of the agenda. A shame, if an understandable one.
Yet some remain laudably committed to the cause. Alpine has capitalised on the success of its A110 with a more powerful, faster A110 S, Porsche has resurrected the Cayman GT4 to considerable plaudits, and the Audi R8 RWS is also making a return. The eagle-eyed among you will notice that the latter is one of the original examples - but given how little will change from 'RWS' to 'RWD' it will bookend the test, and illustrate the point we want to make just nicely. Namely that sports cars with engines in their middle, and drive to the rear, are flipping brilliant.
Clearly this isn't a cost-based comparison; it can't be, given the as-tested price of the Porsche is 50 per cent more than the Alpine, and the new price of the R8 another £15k again. Instead it's a celebration of the genre; how the essence of mid-engined, rear-drive genius is there whether it's with four-cylinders and 1,100kg, or a V10 and another half a tonne along for the ride. The breed might be a rarity for sub-supercar money, but a blind man could see the common thread running through them. Even in the bleak mid-winter doom of Exmoor.
The R8 is here for another reason, too. Both the Alpine and Porsche are hard to find rivals for, the former better than a four-cylinder 718 and the latter unique in being manual-only at its price, so it required lateral thinking of a uniquely PH sort. And in case we haven't made this point loudly enough in the build-up, an R8 RWS like Audi's, i.e. one showing 12,000 miles and 2018 number plate, can be yours for less than £85k. Or £10,000 less than this Porsche as tested. New versus used is always a tricky discussion, but you'll forgive us for indulging the temptation here - given that rear-drive, mid-engine sports cars are hardly a sensible shoes purchase in the first place. (NB. We did ask Lotus for an Exige Sport 350, but they didn't have a car until March - one to return to.)
Test day one begins in the Alpine, its gorgeous stance afforded to it by the new forged wheels and lower ride height. Much praise has already been heaped on the revived model, and don't expect that to change with the S. A world that is unsure of - virtually allergic to - the concept of the mid-engined coupe should take a lot of heart from 1,100kg, 160mph, 40mpg and sub-150g/km proof that it can work.
That featherweight parsimony is not at the expense of entertainment, either. So significantly lower and stiffer is the S than a standard A110 - the springs are up 50 per cent, the roll bars by 100 per cent - that it's impossible to ignore initially. Rather crucially, however, the anticipatory winces and clenches of the wheel are unnecessary, the Alpine still dealing with virtually every imperfection thrown at it. That uncanny ability to glide over everything has gone, replaced by a more steely precision. Yet it remains an eminently usable (and enjoyable) sports car. A comfortable one, too, as 600 miles in it proved.
Where the S moves the A110 on, and where it eventually shows the Audi and Porsche a thing or two, is in more spirited driving. Its ability to fly down a B-road is almost unparalleled, the combination of dinky dimensions, immediate responses, good visibility and that superb suspension working wonders even in adverse conditions.
For the S, it's a more intense experience than ever, less languid than we've known from the A110. Another 40hp ensures even more potent performance, aided by tightly stacked ratios that expose the Porsche's needlessly long ones; the brakes rival the GT4's for feel and the steering does as well; lighter than that 718 but more connected and feelsome than a standard Alpine's. Arguably it still wants for a locking differential in slippery conditions, and the dual-clutch gearbox isn't the best - but never mistake the A110 S for anything other than a wonderful sports car.
The GT4 feels like a 911 directly after. Or a Panamera. Wide, large, even a little cumbersome following all that lithe precision. That's the effect the Alpine has - it makes almost everything else seem gratuitous, because it summons up an enchanting sports car experience from so little. The Porsche has an engine more than twice the size, a kerbweight more than 300kg greater and a significantly larger footprint on the road, which don't sound like the ingredients for success against a flyweight foe.
Funny how Porsches tend to defy the odds though, isn't it? Because despite the extra size and overt track focus, there's huge joy to be had tackling a road in a GT4. (Maybe not as much as the old 981 GT4, but that's a discussion for another time.) Here, in this company, certain elements shine. Brightly. Like all the best Porsche GT cars, it manages to make a virtue of its circuit bent on road, flooding (yet not overwhelming) the driver with information and engagement. Part of that is optional, thplenty is innate, too. The driving position is beyond reproach, the clutch weight perfectly matches that of the gearshift throw, the steering's response is exactly in tune with the front axle's behaviour; it all just works, and works damn near perfectly. This GT4 is a cohesive, harmonious, wonderful driver's car, exactly as previewed on circuit and hoped for on the road, the sort of thing to drive further and further just for the sake of it.
Despite what you may have heard, the new engine contributes as well. If any other manufacturer had made this 4.0-litre lump, we'd all be raving about it, conforming as it does to contemporary emissions standards (with a manual gearbox!) while still making 100hp per litre and revving to 8,000rpm. But as it's Porsche, the engine doesn't exist on its own merits - it must be measured in the pantheon of the greats, and there's no escaping the fact that the 4.0 doesn't quite howl like the old Otherwise it's a gem, blessed with sublime energy and the sort of willingness that only comes with atmospheric engines. Which you'll be wanting with a chassis that compels you to push; in these abject conditions the difference between straightening the car under power and something sillier is pretty fine, but the way the engine delivers exactly what your right foot requests is completely absorbing. Whichever way you want to drive, the GT4 is willing to oblige, all while entirely enveloping you in the experience.
It's hard to imagine the R8 improving upon the standard set by the GT4, and it doesn't begin its assault auspiciously. The driving position is awkward, perching the driver too high and with insufficient support; the lever and paddles for the dual-clutch feel like they belong more in a Q7 than a supercar; and the brake pedal seems overservoed against the progressive, measured items in the other two. Where the GT4 - and, to a lesser extent, the A110 - put you immediately in the mood, the R8 seems more occupied with simply looking good and making noise.
Don't be fooled, though; the RWS is a brilliant car, the best second-gen R8 there's been and, going from the current values, an absurd bargain as well. At launch it seemed a little ordinary almost, little different from the standard car and a bit soft against the GT3 it was inevitably paired with in favourable conditions. Today, however, in the fog and the rain and with a fair chunk of its value cleaved away, it feels magnificent; as well it might, given the comparison is Audi supercar against Alpine sports car with a Megane engine, but there's more to it than just a stonking V10.
It's a good place to start, mind. The Cayman might as well be four-cylinder for all its comparable emotional appeal, so utterly brilliant is this 5.2. It's sharp as a blade, thunderously strong through its mid-range and with a savagery around its 7,800rpm power peak that beggars belief. You'll know the hollow 10-cylinder howl is a USP by now; obviously in this company it feels like little else matters.
However, the R8 can hold its head high dynamically as well. And - handily for this story - there are mid-engined attributes here that hold true for all three cars: there's traction thanks to that weight distribution, an urgency to direction changes for the same reason, and an enthralling connection to all that's going on because, well, there's a V10 on your shoulder. All layouts have their virtues, though it's hard to make the case for them after a mid-engined onslaught. Who wants to take other people with them, anyway?
By and large those attributes were true for the all-wheel-drive R8s, but the driving experience is evidently better here (including, it should be said, a more supple ride on passive dampers than the frequently optioned mag ride). And while it seems perverse given the conditions, rear-wheel drive is advantageous; there's traction, purchase and poise to spare, within reason, yet uncanny balance (and enormous fun) once beyond that. The RWS brings another dimension to the R8's handling character, one that should be celebrated more widely than it currently is. Because while it can't match the effervescent agility of the Alpine or the dynamic zeal of the Porsche, this is a great mid-engined chassis punted along by staggeringly good engine.
Driving the three back to back is endlessly fascinating. The Alpine is so small it makes roads seem twice as wide, the Audi makes them feel half the size because it's so fast. The A110 might actually be fastest across a foggy, craggy moor, never left behind in the group and incredibly simple to extract speed from. The Porsche is somehow absorbing, challenging and forgiving all at the same time, yet also crying out for a track to really show off. Swap from GT4 to R8 and it feels like going from race car to limousine, albeit with a chassis and powertrain that soon redress the balance. At different prices and aimed at different people, all three are a superb take on the mid-engined formula.
It does make a verdict seem a little redundant. But, like a main meal without pudding, something would be amiss without a sweet bit at the end. Moreover, the context of having them all together does providsignificantly, is that a comparison with cars much more expensive and much more powerful has only made the A110 S seem like an even better sports car. It delivers all the benefits of a featherweight with none of the drawbacks, feeling both alert and accommodating, rapid and refined, dynamically deft and yet desirable enough to warrant its asking price. All that's exposed is here is a fairly crummy infotainment system and a powertrain lacking a bit of star quality - both understandable, if not wholly excusable, at £60,000.
Given the choice of the three though, it would be between the German pair. Those (yes, much more sophisticated) powertrains elevating them to a level of desirability beyond the Alpine. The 718 evades any difficult second album slips-ups for the GT4 by sticking to the script almost word-for-word. This remains one of the great driving experiences, every element perfectly balanced with the next and involving at whatever commitment level the situation or talent level dictates. Where it loses out, however, is in a similar area to where the BMW M2 did to its 1M predecessor; while the original was the forbidden fruit, the car that was never meant to happen and a little raucous as a result, the follow up has been smoothed off, polished up and denied some of the edge. The difference is minuscule, sure - but noticeable.
Regardless, the Porsche is the best driver's car here. Yer it's not the most memorable experience. That accolade must go to the Audi, a mid-engined sports car so unforgettable that it's still being fawned over long since the test finished. Perhaps the initial verdicts were unfair, or maybe Audi misjudged demand; whatever the case, it has proven with the RWS that it's possible to keep vast swathes of the R8's everyday usability with a welcome sliver of supercar excitement. That a car just like this one is available for the price of a GT4 with ceramic brakes, cruise control and some contrast stitching looks an outrageous bargain given they're both limited-run, mid-engined, naturally-aspirated sports cars.
Don't be crying foul play too soon, though; as soon as that new, rear-drive R8 is here, there'll be a new 911 ready and waiting as well. Just don't bet against Audi making it two from two...
SPECIFICATION - ALPINE A110S
Engine: 1,798cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 292@6,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 239@2,000-6,400rpm
Top speed: 162mph
Weight: 1,114kg (1,107kg with forged wheels and carbon roof)
Price: £56,810 (as standard; price as tested £63,136 comprised of Iridescent White paint for £1,656, Floor mats with Alpine logo for £110, 18-inch Titanium Grey 'Fuchs' forged wheels for £936, Mirror Pack (foldable wing mirrors, interior anti-glare system) for £468, Carbon roof for £2,208, Storage Pack for £468, Reversing camera for £480.)
SPECIFICATION - PORSCHE CAYMAN GT4
Engine: 3,995cc, flat-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 420@7,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@5,000-6,800rpm
0-62mph: 4.4 secs
Top speed: 189mph
Price: £75,348 (as standard; price as tested £94,506 comprised of Black leather interior with extensive items in Alcantara and decorative stitching in yellow contrast for £1,242, Headlight cleaning system covers painted for £143, Door handles painted in black for £84, Chrono Package and preparation for lap trigger for £336, Porsche Ceramic Composite Brake for £5,597, Wheels painted in satin black for £387, LED main headlights including Porsche Dynamic Light System Plus for £1,397, Auto dimming mirrors with integrated rain sensor for £345, Cruise control for £228, Park Assist (rear) with reversing camera for £825, Speed limit indicator for £236, Clubsport Package for £2,778, Steering wheel rim with top centre marking in yellow for £168, Full bucket seats for £3,788, Fire extinguisher for £105, Racing Yellow seat belts for £194, Decorative stitching in contrast colour for £834 and Carbon interior package (with leather interior) for £471. And breathe.)
SPECIFICATION - AUDI R8 RWS
Engine: 5,204cc, V10
Transmission: 7-speed twin-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 540@7,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 398@6,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.7 sec
Top speed: 199mph
Price: £112,450 (new; used from £82,995)