If this line-up - Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 versus an Alpine and something V10-powered - looks familiar, that's because it is. In those care-free, travel-rich, innocent, and bygone days of, um, early 2020, the newly launched 718 GT4 was pitched against an Alpine A110 S and Audi R8 RWS. Primarily because it's jolly hard to get a direct rival for the Porsche after the Lotus alternative, and, secondly, it was an excuse to drive three mid-engined, rear-wheel drive sports cars, a proper reminder of how joyous the genre really is. Even in conditions better suited to sailing.
However, 18 months can seem awfully long time - as we're all now painfully aware. Since last year not only has the R8 RWS been updated to becomes the series production R8 RWD, the Lamborghini Huracan with which it shares so much has also been revised; as an Evo RWD it was so good it ranked as one of our cars of 2020. Therefore it had to be here, hopefully representing mid-engined motoring at its very best.
There's a new Alpine, too, albeit one very much like the A110 we first knew and loved. For all its improvements in certain situations, the firmer, faster S lost some of the standard car's lithe, limber ability to get down a road. This Legende GT, with the both the set up and power of the standard car, should restore the balance - albeit now at £60k, thanks to a plusher interior.
Once again though, proceedings centre on the Porsche, new this time by virtue of its 7-speed PDK automatic. Though never before seen in the GT4 - the old 981 legendary for only ever offering three pedals - it's expected to become the most popular transmission for UK customers. It adds 30kg to the kerbweight and £2,000 to the list price, but trims half a second from the 0-62mph sprint, making this the first Cayman ever to dip under four seconds. There's the promise of slightly shorter ratios, too...
As the hook for this test and the middle ground in terms of price and performance, the Porsche is the sensible place to start. That's surely the first time 'middle ground' has ever been used in the context of a GT4, and it'll certainly be the last in this story - as evidence of just how good the mid-engined, rear-drive template can be, the Cayman seems little short of peerless.
It has all the benefits of the layout with seemingly none of the drawbacks, blessed with huge traction, balance and agility, but without the flighty character which might still be expected from a sports car with an engine behind the seats. Plus, of course, Porsche equips the driver with all the tools required to make the most of an exquisite chassis, with electric steering leagues ahead of the other two here, a perfect driving position, reassuringly hefty pedals and feedback coursing through every control. Perhaps some of the old GT4 rawness has been buffed out, but the 718 remains a dynamic masterclass - fast or slow, road or track, it rewards like little else.
No truly great driver's car has ever been without a great combustion engine (at least not yet anyway) and the 718 certainly delivers there as well. It's an atmospheric 4.0-litre flat-six making more than 100hp per litre and revving to nearly 8,000rpm, which should say all that needs to be said about its indomitable, insatiable character - it's fab.
And on occasion, the PDK is the perfect fit. However quick your wrists, gears can't be flashed through at the 7,600rpm power peak (or beyond) by hand as fast as they can by machine, complementing the immediate, gratifying nature of the chassis. And it feels very motorsport to lean hard on brakes and flick for a lower gear at the last second in a way the manual car wouldn't permit - the link between this car and the actual GT4 racer is now closer than ever, an appeal that shouldn't be underestimated.
Furthermore, as they go, this is a pretty involving automatic transmission. The GT4 still uses the old lever rather than a 992 switch, meaning changes are possible, touring car-style, with the stick, and there's something a great deal more satisfying about moving it around than flicking a new PDK selector. This seven-speed 'box is marginally less superb than the eight, too, not quite as incisive and playing to the Cayman's slightly old-school nature well.
But therein sort of lies the PDK's problem. The joy of the GT4, despite its undeniable track credentials, was the traditional engagement it offered in all scenarios. And while the quality of the chassis certainly still holds up its end, the automatic serves as a reminder of how much of the experience was tied up in the manual. A PDK suits a rabidly fast 700hp Porsche, or one that fizzes to 9,000rpm; the performance and character of this one feels better matched to six gears and a clutch pedal, put simply. Which is probably why it once had that option and no other. Because the manual was (and is) so beautifully wrought, it meant a consistent level of interaction and enjoyment that seemed unmatchable - it's probably taken this PDK to show how good it is. To some extent you're left frustrated in a way that didn't happen before, desperate for an opportunity to pull a paddle at 8,000rpm or as late as possible into a bend, desperate to feel those fleeting moments of the car at its best. On track the GT4 would surely be epic; on road it simply isn't as compelling as the manual car. And second still goes to almost 80mph...
Don't say it too loudly, but the Alpine is the nicer road car. Yes, even with its own dual-clutch transmission. Actually, that shouldn't be too much of a confession now - since 2017 we've had a suspicion that the little A110 might be one of the greats, an impression that neither time, nor the presence of the other two in Wales, has done anything to diminish. Proof of the fundamental rightness of the package can be found in the spec of this Legende GT: same engine and chassis as standard, only with warm amber leather, matching luggage, and 18-inch Pale Gold wheels. There is now another, newer Legende GT (because all 400 of these have found buyers) with the 292hp S engine, though even that keeps the standard chassis settings - surely to its benefit.
Further praise for the Legende GT will likely sound familiar to many, but it's adulation that deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible. The Alpine is a joy to drive on a country road; as so many endeavour to carve a heavy, stiff route to sports car enjoyment, here is proof that light, small and soft is far more to conducive to fun - on UK tarmac, at least. The relative squidginess means a car that squats and pitches and rolls, but its slender 1,100kg mass and tiny size ensures that it never feels unruly or wayward. Certainly not at realistic road speeds, at least, instead the driver is able to manipulate the weight and attitude of the car as they see fit, without too much fear and always with a big smile on their face. Perhaps the driving position isn't the snuggest and the steering still a tad light, though you're never left in any doubt as to the A110's responses. It's direct in a way that only an 1,100kg car could be and mellow in a fashion that the French do better than any other, flowing with the surface while ensuring the driver knows all they need to know about it. The brakes are excellent, too, feelsome and strong. Inevitably the powertrain is exposed a tad here, but the fact remains that the Alpine never feels like the short straw in a line-up of mid-engined maestros. Its outright thrill might be less exhilarating than the other two, but the manifest quality is never in any doubt. The ability to meld everyday usability with undeniable mid-engined panache marks the Alpine out as something really special. Let's hope a few more people follow Dan's lead in taking the plunge - it's wonderful.
For the sake of this story, it would be nice to say that the Huracan RWD combines the supreme ability of the Porsche with the Alpine's ease-of-use. Well, handily, it's really not as far off as you might think. As proof of what the modern supercar can be, a car that's eminently drivable yet deliriously exciting at the same time, the Huracan really might be the best out there.
A McLaren may offer better steering feedback, and a Ferrari a more sophisticated suite of technology, but turbocharging robs them both of a mesmerising soundtrack - and absurd speed isn't always an adequate substitute. Now, obviously, a Huracan remains prodigiously fast, but with almost 150lb ft less than an F8 Tributo it doesn't have the same ability to do 130mph without you realising it. A useful feature in the UK. You'll know about travelling quickly in a Huracan because of the symphony erupting from behind your head, a wildly exciting V10 shriek that just gets better and better as 8,500rpm nears. It warbles under load and growls through the middle of its rev range, sounding better hauling from 3,000rpm in top than its rivals do flat out; of course it's epic going fast, but that engine ensures it's pretty spectacular at low speed as well.
To which you'll say 'of course it is', because Lamborghinis - even rear-wheel drive ones - are for showing off. And there is a certain amount of appeal in being seen driving a matt white Lambo daubed with a Tricolore. But nowhere near as much as there is to take from actually driving it, the Huracan's ability to glide down a road yet also scythe through its bends quite remarkable to experience. How a car this low on wheels this big can ride how it does defies logic; that's a trait shared with the McLaren and Ferrari, but feels more notable here.
That composure means confidence, the key to enjoying anything potent and mid engined, knowledge that the Lamborghini won't ground out or get deflected gives you the faith to push a little harder and really immerse yourself in the 610hp Huracan experience. Of course, the car needs more than just a Welsh valley road to unpack its best, but there remains a lot to appreciate: great traction, immediate turn in, a flawless dual-clutch, immense braking, the sense of a whole Lamborghini pivoting around a glorious V10. People will tell you an accessible supercar is a less memorable one; on the contrary, a supercar that actively encourages its driver to its exploit its abilities leaves a pretty resounding impression. A mid-engined Lamborghini that could be used everyday might take some of the shine off; that exquisite chassis and momentous powertrain ensure it would always be special.
As we turn for home, that feels like the takeaway. Sure, both Alpine and Lamborghini can't really carry much - the Porsche is like a family hatch by comparison - but they all prove that it's possible to meld the driving excitement of the most exotic configuration out there with day-to-day habitability. You would gladly commute in the GT4, take the Evo to the other end of the country, or use the A110 to go shopping - yet never feel like you're driving anything less than a superb sports car. They all do something at certain points, be it the initial turn in response, the balance mid-corner or the traction on the way out; even in ordinary driving, there's just enough to remind you all the compromises were worth it.
An outright conclusion is probably redundant in the circumstances, though special mention really ought to go to the Alpine. It should have been overshadowed by a near-£100k Porsche or a Lamborghini with an engine almost three times the size; it's a mark of the A110's quality that it wasn't. As for the other two, it seems clear that a 718 GT4 - despite the road racer vibe - best suits a manual, and that the most affordable Lamborghini supercar is also the best one.
SPECIFICATION | PORSCHE 718 CAYMAN GT4
Engine: 3,995cc, flat-six
Transmission: 7-speed PDK dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 420@7,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 317@5,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.9 secs
Top speed: 188mph
Weight: 1,450kg (DIN unladen)
MPG: 26.4 (WLTP)
CO2: 242g/km (WLTP
Price: £75,780 (price as standard; price as tested £97,132 (!), comprised of - wait for it - Black leather interior with extensive items in Race-Tex and decorative stitching in contrasting colour Red for £1,242, Headlight cleaning system covers painted for £143, Model designation painted in black (high-gloss) for £168, Porsche Doppelkupplung (PDK) for £2,000, Chrono Package and preparation for lap trigger for £336, Porsche Ceramic Composite Brake (PCCB) for £5,597, Wheels painted in satin black for £387, Tyre sealing compound and electric air compressor for £42, LED main headlights including Porsche Dynamic Light System Plus (PDLS Plus) for £1,397, Automatically dimming mirrors with integrated rain sensor for £345, Speed limit indicator for £236, ParkAssist (rear) with reversing camera for £825, Cruise control for £228, Club Sport Package for £2,778, Steering wheel rim with top centre marking in yellow for £168, Full bucket seats for £3,788, Two-zone automatic climate control for £539, Fire extinguisher for £105, Guards Red seat belts for £194.00, Decorative stitching in contrasting colour for £834.)
SPECIFICATION | ALPINE A110 LEGENDE GT
Engine: 1.8-litre, 4-cylinder turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 252@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 239@2,000-5,000rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,123kg (minimum kerbweight)
MPG: 44 (WLTP)
Price: £59,140 (price as standard; price as tested £60,376 comprised of Alpine telemetrics for £264, Focal audio system for £552 and Heated front seats for £420
SPECIFICATION | LAMBORGHINI HURACAN EVO RWD
Engine: 5,204cc, V10
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 610@8,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 413@6,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.3 seconds
Top speed: 201mph
Weight: 1,389kg (dry)
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