It's easy to be a tad despondent as a PHer in 2020. The stipulation for more and more nannying technology has further distanced driver from car, and the car you can have has almost certainly increased in size and weight. Too much of what is new is not really for us. But that doesn't apply to these two. The latest contenders from Porsche and BMW are custom-built with enthusiasts in mind and ideally placed to generate some much-needed enthusiasm about the future of fast, halfway affordable sports cars. Or else just perk up 2020 a bit.
Both Porsche 718 Cayman GTS 4.0 and BMW M2 CS come as standard with six-speed manual gearboxes; both produce at least 400hp, rev to more than 7,000rpm, drive their rear wheels through limited-slip differentials and reach 62mph in less than five seconds. They're both a sensible size, weigh an acceptable amount and cost, if a long way from bargain basement money, then also not the six-figure sums that seem to characterise so many comparisons. This test couldn't be more PH if we brought Jason Plato and his dry cleaning along.
Moreover, both have a point to prove. The CS has to justify a £22,000 premium over the already fairly excellent M2 Competition, while the Porsche has to improve upon the old 718 GTS (which, despite sounding like a dishwasher full of breeze blocks, was great to drive) as well as the 3.4-litre 981 GTS - arguably a high point for non-GT Caymans.
It's impossible to consider the M2 CS without first assessing the stats: 1,525kg isn't any lighter than a Competition, 450hp isn't all that much more than standard, and yet £75,320 is a decidedly larger number; to the extent where it cannot make any empirical sense, even to the most devout of BMW heads. And yet, brooding at the kerbside in black with gold wheels and the CS add-ons (bonnet, boot spoiler and diffuser, most notably), those numbers become the calorie count from the dessert menu - a forgotten irrelevance, because what's in front of you now just looks so damn good. A Competition seems if anything a tad undernourished against the CS, it being meaner, moodier and sexier to look at than any previous 2 Series. Or will ever look, given where BMW apparently intends on taking its design...
The interior is familiar for those feeling kind; ordinary and plain for anyone less favourably disposed to it. While jazzed up with excellent seats, Alcantara on the girthy wheel and some CS emblems, it's a cabin easily comparable to a Foxton's 218d. Which may well smart a little for £80k. That said, the fundamentals are decent (bar slightly offset pedals) and, like the Porsche, it all works. Sensibly arranged buttons accompany a decent touchscreen, the steering wheel controls make sense, the ventilation is logical, the dials are clear... all obvious, you'd like to think, though seemingly not always guaranteed with new cars. Both the Cayman and the M2 feel like good driving environments principally because they don't try overly hard to impress you.
Starting the M2 CS is like starting any of the outgoing F8x M cars now that it is fitted with adaptive dampers: press the steering button once for Comfort (and the least gloopy resistance) the power button once (because who drives a M car in Efficient?) and leave the damper button as is - Sport, as it turns out, suits the springing and the car just nicely. Finally, because if you've bought a manual CS there's no damn way the car is blipping your downshifts, the DSC goes off (it's the only way to disable the auto rev-match. Honest).
Thus configured, the CS is a great, great road car, civilised enough for long journeys though never distanced enough to let the driver forget they're in something a little more special. The seats clasp better than any M2 ever has, the steering provides a better sense of connection (most likely through the Cup 2's stiffer sidewalls) and there's a bit more bark from the quad pipes. Perhaps there isn't £20k of fairy dust sprinkled on the experience, but the CS is tangibly more, at any and every point, than just four blingy rims and a lot of carbon fibre.
With more challenge comes, crucially, more reward. Though this CS never feels lighter than any previous M2, it does come across as a more direct, capable and responsive BMW M car. Again, some of that can probably be attributed to the additional adhesion of Cup 2 tyres, yet the fact that the car and the driving experience never feels dominated by them points to a more rounded, thorough development. Furthermore, given the Competition was already about as good as M cars got, that's all intended as extremely high praise.
Most pleasingly, the CS has given the M2 greater bandwidth; you want to saunter around like a boss on a wave of turbo torque in something that looks like a destickered race car? It can do that. Want to attack a road, shifting that knuckly manual as fast as you dare and getting into the excellent bite of the ceramic discs? Go ahead. Want little skids as the flourish to a corner? Happy to oblige. Want bigger ones off roundabouts? This car's mismatched Cup 2s suggested someone had already done plenty, and it's honestly hard not to indulge given the chassis' indulgent balance, progression and accuracy. It feels like peak M car, the CS; and not the M car delusion of a delicate four-cylinder homologation special, because that went out of the window 25 years ago. It's peak M car of the charismatic yet capable hooligan mould, with fun and finesse brewed in equal measure to startling effect. The feel here, and not just because of the colour, is of a BMW in the AMG Black Series mould: track add-ons to a burly kerbweight shouldn't work, but the result is an absorbing, enthralling performance car for the road, punchy and pugnacious and more than a little lovable.
Which renders the Porsche effort a little redundant, doesn't it? If only. On the same stretch of road across Exmoor, the 718 GTS 4.0 is a model of chassis dexterity and cohesion that even the best M car in a generation can't match. While the BMW forces a mode selection to get the very best from it (if not from the dampers, with all modes accommodating, then certainly the steering) the Porsche immediately beguiles in default setting, so much so that the wheel mounted dial goes unturned for hours. There's no need to adjust anything, because the Porsche reeks of finely honed class before walking pace is breached - of course, the driver sits lower, but the pedals are also in a better location, their weighting more natural and the steering blessed with greater feel without requiring a button to modulate it.
On a road that causes the M2 to fidget, the Cayman glides with imperious, impenetrable control; it can be tightened up further with the Sport damper setting, though that robs the experience of some fluency. When the standard mode balances poise and comfort so well, there's precious little desire to change. Here more than ever the benefits of a lower, better distributed kerbweight - the Porsche has near enough 150kg on the BMW - can be enjoyed and exploited; the ability to smother bumps more effectively on larger wheels (while also managing body control better) is quite something to witness. The Porsche highlights inertia in the BMW you might never have noticed, scything into bends and settling its mass, whatever the scenario, spookily well.
That idea of inertia extends from the chassis to the powertrain, too, because for all the world it seemed like the M2 rasped its way beyond 7,500rpm with precious little hesitation, only for the Porsche to show it up fairly comprehensively in throttle response and vim. Put simply, it's very rare for a twin-turbocharged engine to match a naturally-aspirated one for outright eagerness, and for all BMW's sterling work that's not changing here. The new 4.0-litre isn't as memorable as the old flat sixes - the howl is now gruffer, the appetite for revs subdued slightly - but it's sufficiently good to feel jolly exciting in a world that doesn't exactly enjoy a surfeit of similar configurations. The BMW's S55 straight six remains very good; it's simply that the Porsche's flat-six, for a sports car installation at least, is superior. And where you might seek to defend the 'physicality' or 'toughness' of the BMW manual, no such excuses are required for the Porsche gearbox: it feels right from the moment the clutch is depressed.
'Right' seems a nice word for the GTS 4.0; right size, right performance, right steering and so on. But the lingering doubt never entirely evaporates that it could be just a little more fun. Those big wheels require big tyres, for example, which a car with such great traction doesn't need; it means there simply isn't opportunity on the road to even cautiously approach what we know are pretty benign, expressive limits for a mid-engined sports car, and which the internet is only too keen to tell us about in skiddy circuit videos. The gearing contributes as well, because 50mph equates to 5,000rpm in second gear, meaning you still have the almost 3,000rpm - and he best bit of the rev range - to go. And it's going to take you beyond 80mph. The brakes are maybe a tad overservoed, too, meaning they only feel really good when using them properly hard.
Imagine Lionel Messi played in your 5-a-side football team. Even in a new environment and at much less than maximum effort, he's going to be vastly better than anyone else on the pitch. But it's not the place to show off his ability. That's the exercise in frustration that the Cayman GTS can be on the road; clearly superb, yet desperate for a track where every gear ratio can reach 7,800rpm and its chassis limits properly explored. It's still wonderful on the road, but it's too easy to feel like you're only scratching the surface. And scratching the surface isn't terrific entertainment.
To criticise the Porsche for being 'too good' would be churlish as well as wrong, because there's no such thing. It should be noted, however, that ability ought not to come at the expense of involvement - and that's where the idea that the GTS is a cut-price GT4 falls short. Recent Porsche GT cars have been modern masterpieces because they perfectly combine everyday usability with the sort of immersion and gritty detail it seemed might have been lost from regular Porsches. A 981 or 718 GT4 fizzes with feedback and captivates you with the experience - yet doesn't allow any of it to overwhelm the novice - which is why they're so highly regarded. For all its rightness and suitability, the GTS is missing, perhaps inevitably, that final bit of interaction which separates the truly great from the merely exceptionally good.
Is it fair to contrast GTS with GT4? Maybe not, but given how much is shared between 981 and 718 - and given the amount of original GT4s available for around £70k with miniscule mileages - the comparison becomes irresistible. And intriguing. Perhaps the more relevant match-up is with the old 981 GTS, if only to establish whether or not Porsche has reinvigorated the flat-six Cayman experience - or merely restored it to where it was.
Of course, if all Porsche has done here is replace an excellent sports car with another excellent sports car a little further down the line, it can hardly be faulted for that. The Cayman still possesses perhaps the best mid-engined chassis out there, and now underwrites its exceptionalism with an atmospheric flat-six. There are very few more compelling combinations on sale anywhere, for any price.
The M2 CS does present an alternative way, though. The suspicion was that the Competition might have been superior to the old four-cylinder 718, and even with its right and true engine restored the BMW runs the Porsche close here as a driving device. Ultimately it is a little unrulier on British roads, lacking that final veneer of sophistication that Porsche does so well - though we're dealing with fine margins here: they're both exceptional driver's cars in their own way.
Truthfully neither is a gobsmacking revelation for their respective brands. What they are is an imperious return to what each is carmaker does best. For BMW, that's front-engined, rear-drive, straight-six mischief with a layer of everyday civility; for Porsche, it's mid-engined dynamic delicacy and flat-six prestige. Both are a thumb in the eye to a generation of plodding, tediously amenable also-rans and are a reminder that fantastic sports cars needn't be a vanishing breed in 2020. And even if the next generation of BMW 2 Series and Porsche Cayman do succumb to electrification and digitisation and excess weight, then the CS and GTS are terrific high points in the long goodbye and absolutely worth buying this instant. The latter nicks this test on account of it being a modestly better for slightly less money. But CS buyers won't care one bit. They'll be having too much fun.
SPECIFICATION | PORSCHE 718 CAYMAN GTS 4.0
Engine: 3,995cc, flat-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@5,000-6,500rpm
0-60mph: 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 182mph
Weight: 1,405kg (DIN, without driver)
CO2: from 246g/km
Price: £64,480 (as standard; price as tested £74,343 comprised of Python Green paint for £1,658, GTS interior package in Crayon for £1,242, Side window trims and window triangle trims in high gloss black for £329, LED main headlights including Porsche Dynamic Light System Plus for £1,397, Electrically folding exterior mirrors including courtesy lighting for £210, Automatically dimming interior and exterior mirrors with integrated rain sensor for £345, ParkAssist (front and rear) for £623, Speed limit indicator for £236, Cruise control for £228, GTS interior package for £2,096, Two-zone automatic climate control for £539, ISOFIX child seat mounting points on passenger seat and BOSE Surround Sound System for £834.)
SPECIFICATION | BMW M2 CS
Engine: 2,979cc, twin-turbo straight-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive (7-speed M DCT dual-clutch optional)
Power (hp): 450@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406@2,350@5,500rpm
0-62mph: 4.2 seconds (4.0)
Top speed: 174mph
Weight: 1,550kg (1,575kg, then minus 22kg for ceramics, both DIN without driver)
MPG: 27.2 (30.1)
CO2: 238g/km (214)
Price: £75,320 (as standard; price as tested £83,050 comprised of 19-inch non-run-flat Matt Gold Style 763 M wheels for £500, M carbon ceramic brakes for £6,250, Reversing assist camera for £330 and Electric front seats with Driver memory for £650.)
(Figures in brackets for DCT)
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