If you're thinking this is a rather disparate collection of cars, then good - that's exactly the point. It's a mark of the regard held for the Porsche Cayman - and how high expectations are for the GTS - that a conventional twin test just wouldn't suffice. We know it's better to drive than an F-Type. We're still waiting for an Alfa 4C that delivers on its potential. And the Alpine? One to return to, for sure, but there aren't any right-hand drive cars available just yet.
Instead, the GTS must face a two-pronged threat from a pair of rivals at each end of the sports car spectrum: the TT RS and Exige Sport 410. Now we'll concede that a buyer looking at an Exige probably isn't considering a TT, and vice versa. However somebody in the market for the most expensive Cayman currently available might justifiably be after the very best bits of both cars in their Porsche. Across two generations and for 13 years the Cayman has been winning a lot of tests, after all, so evidently it needs more of a challenge. If this new 365hp GTS can match the TT for ease of use and the Lotus for exhilaration, then Porsche really does have something special on its hands. And the GT4 is still to come...
Our story begins, however, with the Lotus, because it needs collecting from Hethel. Which is a long way from anywhere. And yet even before reaching the A11, its prospects look good. You could argue that the Exige isn't really a sports car at all; think shrink-wrapped supercar and you'll have a more accurate idea of its performance, excitement and sense of theatre. It's even a pain to get yourself into and out of, like a proper supercar. But the way it just enthrals its driver, from 10mph to 110mph (and beyond), is rare to find in cars costing less than £100,000. A fortunate point, in fact, given the options added to this £85,600 Sport 410...
More revealing, however, is just how amenable the Exige proves on a tedious drive. It still requires some compromise - a pair of ripped jeans will attest to that - but, in right-hand drive with a stereo and air-con, 150 miles of motorway is perfectly doable. The torque of that supercharger means you barely ever have to come out of sixth, the visibility is better than you might expect and the ride, while firm, has a beautiful compliance to it as well.
Indeed, when swapping from the Lotus to the Porsche the night before the shoot, the latter comes across as distinctly ordinary. It feels like a sports car wrapped in cotton wool; playing it safe and never doing anything risky (or interesting) for fear of causing offence. Not something that's ever been apparent previously, though there's never been an Exige in such close proximity before either. What the Porsche offers as a riposte in the early miles is a better driving position, heated seats, infotainment from the 21st century and a sense of solidity that still eclipses a (much improved) Lotus. There's a lot to be said for perceived quality when you've been driving all day and just want to get home.
Fortunately for the Porsche, the next morning gives it more scope to show off why it's earned and exalted place in the test diary. What was muted and almost aloof the previous evening is now direct, engaging and, well, just very good. It somehow manages to combine all that is desirable about mid-engined sports car with apparently none of the vices: it's agile and immediate, as you would expect, yet also boasts a level of traction not far off something rear-engined and the kind of approachability usually associated with front-engined cars. It's quite some feat, and leaves you as the driver comfortable and confident to exploit a very fine chassis.
The engine proffers more opportunity to do this than ever before, too. Yes, we've made it this far without discussing four-pot Porsches. It's funny, really: the Lotus uses nothing more complicated than a Camry V6 with a supercharger, and the Audi is using a derivative of an engine that's been around since 2011, and yet it's the new Porsche engine that gets people so very cross. With its variable vane turbo, indirect intercooling and 180mph potential.
Alright, so it still sounds grumbly. But the way this flat-four responds and revs makes it at least the match of the others here - combine it with nice pedal weights and a typically Porsche manual gearbox and it's a far more enjoyable powertrain than the internet has told you. Then combine that with this masterpiece of a chassis - plus very good electric steering - and the Cayman's stock rises significantly. The only nagging issue is whether the GTS really delivers beyond the S; in six-cylinder form it was a no-brainer - this time around the thought gnaws at you constantly.
Right on cue, the rain becomes heavier and it's time to drive the Audi. Which should perfectly suit a sodden B-road, right? It's compact, fast, all-wheel drive and the only automatic here - perfect for all-weather pace. Yeah, that's what we thought too...
In the context of the other two, the TT doesn't feel like the more humble cars it shares architecture with; it feels like an SUV. And not a very good one. While the Audi is here as the everyday prospect, it still has to succeed as a sports car, and there's no question it feels leaden and obstinate compared to its rivals. And not all that confidence inspiring, despite the drivetrain. The TT steers quickly yet vaguely, seemingly desperate to give you a sense of sports car urgency without the substance to back it up. The ride manages to be both irritable and imprecise, apparently too stiff in compression and then too slow to rebound. The brakes are grabby. On more than one occasion, the front wheels spin noticeably before there's any sense of power going rearwards. Which isn't all that pleasant. And it's also a third of a tonne heavier than the Lotus. A third of a tonne!
As a daily user, the TT's case is stronger: there's something to be said for going this fast this easily, the interior still surpasses the Porsches despite being older and it's by far the cheapest here. Still sounds ruddy brilliant, too. That said, the Audi's advantages here are nowhere near strong enough to offset the Porsche's own strengths as something you might want to drive everyday. It's an early bath for the Audi. In the rain.
Swapping from RS to Exige, even in this disgusting weather, is a complete sea change - pun intended, sorry. It feels like listening to music through headphones to then playing it yourself. In the band. And you're brilliant. The band is brilliant. Everything is brilliant. The experience is so much more vivid and more memorable; more demanding as well, yes, but when was anything worth doing easy to achieve? And easy can get pretty boring. Can you remember the last song you listened to on your iPod?
Where the Audi can only deliver an approximation in all it does, the Lotus hits home like the business end of a syringe. Everywhere. Moreover, you have a direct influence over what the car does, which never feels the case in the RS. The ride is firm but doesn't crash like the Audi's, showing the quality in those fancy new Nitrons. Because the car is so immersive, it's far easier to approach the Lotus's limits in these conditions, as with the 3-Eleven driven recently. And even if it is slower than the Audi, the experience is that much more involving - without veering into intimidation - that whatever the TT can offer seems largely irrelevant.
When things finally becomes too wet for even Spongebob Lacey to shoot, too delayed by Nic's last protein fix and too far away from Hethel, it's time to call things a day. Well, it is for those two. The Exige needs to be returned to Norfolk. Here perhaps more than anywhere, the Lotus genius shines. Because actually, if you're realistic, longer journeys are perfectly tolerable. Switching between radio stations is a pain, but you won't notice that if you just play podcasts. The driving position could be a heck of a lot worse. There's even a cupholder. In a world where cars are festooned with a lot of equipment that nobody needs or knows about, there's something immensely refreshing about living with the basics. Alright, so they're optional - and you need to wedge your phone cleverly for some easy-access nav - but it does make you think about what cars actually require, and just how brilliant they can be when shorn of fripperies.
There's no denying that a Cayman would have been more pleasant for the four-hour journey - which will come as a shock to precisely no-one. It remains the consummate compact sports car, rewarding yet relaxing and fun without being frenzied. Maybe a GTS could have been more exciting still, such is superlativeness of the standard Cayman package, though it remains about as complete a sports car as could be imagined. Even with that noise.
So where on earth does that leave us in terms of a conclusion? Well, it's a matter of compromise. The TT places no demands on and requires no compromise of its driver whatsoever; as a result it's super quick, super easy and a bit forgettable. The other two could be powered by lawnmower engines and still be great sports cars, while the TT needs its epic five-cylinder motor to be worthy of consideration at all. But the Cayman proves you can do easygoing as well as engaging, a fact which endlessly spotlights the RS's inability to excite you with a third dimension.
Trouble for Porsche is, it's the Exige that we all wanted one more go in; exactly because it asks more of you but gives so, so much more back. The little Lotus always feels alive beneath you (and behind you, with that howling V6), stripped not only of suffocating weight, but also of the compromises made by its rivals to keep you at a polite distance from the road surface. Yes, it's the most expensive car here, but it feels like that in the way it drives. And don't forget the entry-level Sport 350 is still less than £60k.
Frankly, this Sport 410 feels good enough to take on whatever the next Cayman GT4 can offer, such is its breadth of ability, level of performance and glorious tactility. In this spec it makes an almost viable case for regular use, while still blowing the competition out of the water for thrills. Of course, if you're genuinely buying a sports car with the intention of driving it to work everyday, and value the niceties of a well-appointed interior, then the Cayman remains the best around (a distinction which applies just as well to the S variant as it does the more expensive GTS). However if you can compromise on the luxury, if you can learn how to get out gracefully and you can tolerate its spartanism, then the Exige really is utterly sensational. Where Lotus goes from here nobody quite seems to know, but by goodness can they make a sports car. It has to win.
SPECIFICATION - LOTUS EXIGE SPORT 410
Engine: 3,456cc, supercharged V6
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 416@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@3,000-7,000rpm
Top speed: 180mph (coupe)
Weight: 1,108kg (Lotus 'unladen' weight)
Price: £85,600 (As tested £103,410 (!) comprised of carbon hardtop for £3,000, carbon binnacle top for £1,000, carbon sill covers for £1,200, carbon rear diffuser finish for £1,200, carbon barge boards for £2,800. Titanium exhaust for £5,500, air conditioning for £1,250, stereo for £400, sound insulation for £500, cruise control for £110, full carpet for £350 and interior colour pack for £500...)
SPECIFICATION - PORSCHE 718 CAYMAN GTS
Engine: 2,497cc, turbocharged flat-4
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 365@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 309@1,900-5,500rpm
Top speed: 180mph
Weight: 1,375kg (DIN, so with fluids and 90% fuel but without driver)
MPG: 31.4 (NEDC combined)
Price: £59,866 (As tested £76,673 comprised of seat heating for £294, sports bucket seats for £2,315, auto dimming mirrors with integrated rain sensor for £345, cruise control for £228, GTS interior package for £2,096, Porsche Ceramic Composite Brake for £5,177, sports suspension (20mm drop) with PASM for £168, door handles painted in high gloss black for £84, headlight cleaning system covers painted for £143, rear wing painted in high gloss black for £245, ParkAssist with reversing camera for £1,086, LED headlights including Porsche Dynamic Light System Plus for £1,397, side window trims and window triangle trims painted in high gloss black for £329, Alcantara Package GTS in conjunction with GTS interior package in Crayon for £1,242 and Crayon exterior paint for £1,658. Phew.)
AUDI TT RS
Engine: 2,480cc, turbocharged 5-cyl
Transmission: 7-speed S-tronic dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@5,850-7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 354@1,700-5,850rpm
Top speed: 155mph (174mph optional)
Weight: 1,440kg (DIN, so with fluids and 90% fuel but without driver)
MPG: 34.4 (NEDC combined)
Price: £50,615 (As tested £61,080 comprising £550 for Catalunya Red paint, £1,695 for 20-inch '7-spoke rotor' design alloy wheels in matt titanium-look with diamond cut finish, £325 for brake calipers in red with RS logo at the front, £895 for RS Red Design Pack, £945 for Matrix LED headlights with LED rear lights and dynamic front and rear indicators, £250 for Audi Smartphone Interface, £1,000 for RS Sport exhaust system, £995 for RS Sport suspension with Audi Magnetic Ride, £800 for electrically adjustable front seats, £800 for Matrix OLED rear lights, £325 for Audi Phone Box with wireless charging, £1,830 for on the road costs and £55 for first registration fee)
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