Sports cars, we’re told, just aren’t in right now. The business case to make one is shaky at best, car makers constantly remind us. And yet, I’m in a car park with five brand new sporty coupes. They’re just a snapshot of what’s available right now, and the differences between them are startling.
There’s the front-engined, all-wheel drive Audi TT RS, the mid-engined Porsche 718 Cayman T and Alpine A110, and representing the good old front-engined, rear-drive sport coupe, we have the BMW M2 Competition and - the main reason for being here - the Toyota A90 Supra.
Looking at the prevailing conditions, however, I can’t help but wonder if we should have also brought along a few sets of oars. I’m calling bullshit on the weather forecast’s claims of ‘showers’, because what we’re actually in, is a deluge.
That’ll favour the Audi, but the car I want to start with is the Alpine, as it’s so different to everything else here. Even in loaded-up Legende trim it’s still nearly 400kg lighter than the TT, the M2 and the Supra, and 250kg lighter than the Cayman T.
The development of the A110 resulted in the opposite of a vicious cycle of sports cars. That’s because the decision from the outset to give the car a small and light structure meant a smaller, less bulky engine could be used. And with less power than its rivals, it can get away with little brakes and skinny tyres, dropping the weight even further.
Lined up next to the others, the A110 really does look tiny. But it’s not just its dinky size and pithy weight figure of just over 1100kg that sets it apart from the others - it also has a proper, supercar-like double-wishbone front and rear suspension setup. This kind of arrangement allows engineers to go for a much softer chassis than the usual MacPherson Strut front/multi-link rear deal.
All of which, I’m sure, sounds quite dull. But what you need to know is these core ingredients come together to make a sports car that blows you away from the off, and in a way that nothing else does for this kind of price. It flows beautifully with the road, no matter how bad it is, that extra give in the chassis making it a weirdly comfortable way to go quickly.
The skinnier tyres mean it moves around quite a bit at speed, but with so much information being transmitted from the road through your arse cheeks, you know exactly what the A110 is up to. The steering is fast and satisfying, with the column-mounted gear-shift paddles just behind the wheel being hugely enjoyable to use.
It may have the smallest, least powerful engine, but the Alpine offers up plenty of aural drama. Surprisingly brawny intake noise is ducted through the rear bulkhead and into the cabin, and from the exhaust, there’s a pleasing cacophony of pops and bangs each time you lift off.
You know what this is? It’s a grown-up, modern Lotus Elise. A lesson in how much more you get from being given less, in a package you genuinely could daily.
After a soggy session capturing another set of statics - the famous Shropshire Hills we’ve driven all this way for almost entirely hidden by the wretched conditions - it’s time to move to the next, hopefully drier location. Cue a switch to the most important car we’ve brought with us, the Porsche Cayman T.
The Cayman S was Toyota’s main benchmark, but with a base price of £51,145, the new Cayman T is just over a grand cheaper than the Supra’s starting point. Factor in some options and you’re looking at £57,904, a grand more than the most expensive A90 Edition version of the Supra. It’s in the right ballpark, in other words.
Like the Alpine, it ticks many a box within the first few hundred metres. The driving position, the weights and spacing for the three pedals (yep, it’s a manual), the predictability of the steering - no mainstream player can rival Porsche in this area. The only thing is, the more I drive the Cayman T, the less I like it.
The 2.0-litre flat-four is oddly flat wherever you place it in the rev range. It barely does anything below 3000rpm, and after that point, you’re waiting for the boxer to finally wake up and give you a right hook. But it never does.
It feels slow and uneventful compared to the Alpine, despite its 296bhp being way up on the A110’s 246bhp. It’s easily the least pleasant-sounding car here, too. The burbly exhaust note is characterful and quirky, but for a sports car? It just doesn’t fit.
I’m also not really sold on the ‘T’ concept. It worked for the 911 Carrera T, with its thinner rear glass and soundproofing reduction, but there’s something a little cynical about what’s been done to this Cayman. It has token weight reduction measures consisting of fabric door pulls, lighter seats and an optional infotainment delete, which together merely counteract the new petrol particulate filter.
There’s no sound-deadening reduction, and although it’s nice to have the 20mm lower PASM sport suspension setup (not normally available on a 2.0-litre Cayman), plus a standard-fit Sport Chrono pack, I can’t help but think a basic non-S Cayman befits the T ethos better.
Those systems make for a fine-handling car, however, as the Cayman T devours corners in a stable, unflappable way that still keeps you feeling wholly involved in the process of driving. It’s noticeably firmer than the Alpine, but the T makes that work even on these less-than-forgiving bits of tarmac. As the road we’re driving down seems to rapidly be turning into a river, it’s also handy that traction from the rear wheels happens to be stellar. I just wish the engine driving them was more fit for the purpose.
A bi-lingual sign emerges in the mist, welcoming us to Wales/Cymru. It’s time to switch to a different cockpit: the Supra’s. We’ve nicely sandwiched the A90 in the middle of this sports car quintet, and my, what a meaty filling it is: after being in the Alpine and Porsche, it feels huge, with its long bonnet seemingly stretching out forever in front of the windscreen.
At the launch in Spain, the GR Supra felt lighter than its lardy 1570kg kerb weight suggested, but getting behind the wheel after sampling the two featherweights of the group has done the Toyota no favours. The extra mass is immediately obvious. Combined with comparatively soft damping, the Supra is starting to feel more like a GT.
Dig deeper, however, and the Supra will reveal itself to be a proper sports car. Yes, the damping’s on the soft side, but the body control is brilliantly resolved. The initial turn-in to each corner is decent, despite there being a big straight-six at the front, and even with the traction control on, it will move around plenty at the rear.
Turn it off, and the Toyota reveals its mischievous side. It loves to light up the rear wheels, this thing - whether you want to lay down some fat 11s as you leave the line or use the throttle to adjust your line, the A90 will oblige.
The steering is acceptable rather than exceptional, with reasonable weighting, a good amount of speed and a lack of any real feedback. It feels very BMW-ish actually, which is, you may not be pleased to hear, a prominent theme for the car.
Sure, Toyota has gone to the effort of fitting its own dashboard, but this is hard to notice when it’s loaded to the hilt with BMW tech and BMW switchgear. Then there’s the biggest Munich-borrowed bit of all just in front of the cabin: the engine.
The ‘B58’ inline-six is a familiar lump, powering the Z4 with which the Supra was jointly developed along with scores of BMWs of all shapes and sizes. It has an absurdly punchy mid-range (which is why it’s easy to overload the rear tyres), it shows a complete lack of interest in being revved out, and emits one of the most disappointing noises I’ve ever heard from a six-cylinder engine.
It’s so whiney and apologetic. BMW has so much experience in making big sixes, it’s hard to understand how this happened. Some upshift ‘farts’ would at least liven up proceedings a little bit, but there’s nothing to enjoy other than some light burbling when you lift.
Speaking of the gearbox, it’s worth pointing out the eight-speeder is the only conventional torque converter auto in this test. It suffers for that, offering neither the fun of the manuals nor the brutally efficient shifts of the dual-clutch ‘boxes - there’s a noticeable delay each time you demand a new gear, whether you’re going up or down.
We’ve snaked up into low cloud cover, with the visibility dropping dramatically. Now seems like a good chance to try on the Audi TT RS for size. And sweet Jesus, is it fast. It’s probably the laggiest of the five cars, and it takes a good while to get going, with its full fury not being felt until about 4000rpm. Once there, though, the king of TTs makes stomach-churning progress akin to a supercar.
With a 0-62mph time of 3.7 seconds it’s by far the fastest-accelerating car of the five, but it’s not just during the four-wheel drive-assisted launches off the line that it feels quick. A scarily rapid increase in speed is possible whenever you venture near the throttle pedal.
The 395bhp 2.5-litre inline-five engine is easily the most interesting, most exotic-sounding engine here. Even this new emissions and noise regulations compliant version has no trouble belting out that classic ur Quattro symphony.
Many will tell you the TT RS can’t offer a whole lot beyond the warble-tastic, weapons-grade engine, but they’re wrong. The days of hot cars from Audi being understeering pigs are long gone, and the razor-sharp front end of this TT is Exhibit A for the defence. It laps up fast changes of direction, and although the four-wheel drive system is generally front-biased, it will rotate slightly under the right conditions.
The steering felt great in isolation when we drove the refreshed TT RS for the first time a few weeks ago, but alongside cars like the Cayman, it seems light and aloof. You’re pushing ahead using your knowledge of the four-wheel drive system’s capabilities, rather than the feedback the car is giving you. Not necessarily an issue, but it does make the TT RS less involving than the Cayman, A110 and Supra.
The rain is, at last, starting to dissipate. To ensure I’ve had a go in each car in similar conditions, I nab the keys to the M2 Competition. Like the TT it isn’t a sports car built from the ground up, rather a jolly quick version of a coupe. It’s far too heavy at 1625kg with fluids, and the body control still isn’t quite there - the damping lacks finesse, thumping over imperfections in the road and giving off a near-constant vertical ‘bob’.
I don’t care, though. I adored the M2 Competition when I first tried it last year, and in this company, it’s enhanced further, as opposed to being made to look like an overweight fool. The S55 inline-six engine is a big part of why the Comp works so well - the twin-turbo unit has oodles of mid-range thrust, but unlike the B58 in the Supra, it’s happy being revved out. All the way to 7000rpm, in fact. And the noise? Well, it’s not as good as what’s fired out of the TT’s tailpipes, but the sound made by the M2 is one of anger and purpose.
You can hook that straight-six up to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, but this particular M2 Comp is a manual. And the S55 with a stick is a damn good combination. It’s just a pity you can’t turn off the auto rev-matching feature without also binning all the other electronic aids.
That being said, with all the safety nets gone, the M2 is not a scary, wayward thing. Exploitable though the Supra is, it can occasionally be a bit snappy. Not so the M2 Comp - it’s a £49,285 facilitator of smooth sideways silliness.
As the final shots are taken, it stops raining. Typical. Tempting though it is to shout a big FU to the weather Gods, now’s the time to consider how these cars should be ranked. And that’s not easy.
It was a tough call, and one that gives me no pleasure to do this, but the Cayman T has to be placed - admittedly only just - at the bottom of the pile. Had this been the stronger 2.5-litre-powered S, it would have been a couple of places higher. The gruff 2.0-litre doesn’t feel the right fit for the sublime chassis, which is probably the second-best of the lot.
And then we have the whole ‘T’ thing. You’d hope it would be the driving connoisseur’s choice, but in reality, it seems more a car for boorish types to point and brag about the fabric door pulls and the missing infotainment screen. The Cayman is an amazing sports car - this just isn’t the right version to go for.
In fourth is our reason for coming out here to be drenched - the Toyota A90 Supra. As with the Cayman, its chassis is paired to an engine that just doesn’t inspire, but at least the A90 does - unlike the Porsche - encourage you to press on.
The TT RS may be at odds with the rest of this group, but it’s managed to carve out its own niche. It’s exciting in a different but no less valid way, and for its incredible powerplant and all-weather ability, it sits in the middle of our quintet.
At number two, we have the hooligan of the group. The tearaway. The kid who likes to light up behind the bike sheds. I’m referring to the BMW M2 Competition, which corrects what the original M2 didn’t get quite right, thanks to a suitably dramatic engine sitting in the most entertaining, fun-focused underpinnings of all five cars. The icing on the cake is that there’s an extra seat bench for two people to join you for the fun/terror, and a sizeable boot for all four occupants’ accessories.
"The A110 doesn't run with the pack. That's why it upsets the order - something the Supra isn't able to do"
This, of course, means the Alpine A110 is our winner. With sports cars continually increasing in weight and power, it’s come along to prove that less is indeed more. Its small, light frame is endlessly chuckable, and I really dig the looks. The only real minus point is practicality - there aren’t many places to put things in the interior, and the ‘boot’ is so hilariously small it requires quotation marks. But this car could have some hideous imperfections (it really doesn’t), and it’d still be the one I’d want.
The key with the A110 is it doesn’t run with the pack. That’s why it upsets the order, which the Supra isn’t able to do - it’s too conventional, while held back by its engine and slightly confused identity.
It is, however, a solid, handsomely-styled and fun starting point, and also a starting point it seems Toyota wants to build on with a potential GRMN version and other derivatives. When the A90’s final form is here, perhaps we’ll have a rematch.