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The Cayman R has a mid-mounted 3.4L flat-six engine and the BMW a front-mounted 3.0L straight six. The BMW is quicker to 100kph but not by much. Max Earey
The Cayman R has a mid-mounted 3.4L flat-six engine and the BMW a front-mounted 3.0L straight six. The BMW is quicker to 100kph but not by much. Max Earey

Punchy BMW vs. practical Porsche in a tussle of sprightly newcomers

The similarly powerful BMW 1 Series M Coupé and the Porsche Cayman R present a testing choice for Kyle Fortune.

You get the overriding impression that both the BMW 1 Series M Coupé (from now on referred to as just the 1 M) and Porsche's Cayman R kind of slipped through the net. They're clearly the product of BMW and Porsche's skunk-works departments, after-hours projects driven by hard-core enthusiasts building the cars they want, rather than models designed to fulfil a product manager's brief.

That the 1 M exists at all is surprising, especially as it effectively does everything its big brother, the M3, does but at a more affordable price. Given that the older sibling is effectively in its twilight years, someone, somewhere, surprisingly gave this M division machine a nod for production. Initially it was to be a limited-run model, but such is the interest it's rumoured that BMW has lifted the cap on production and will build as many as it can before the 1 Series Coupé it's based on is replaced in 2013.

The Cayman R is the car that Porsche's customers have been asking for since the original was introduced. At the press launch, Walter Rohrl himself quipped that a lighter Cayman R with a limited slip differential was as quick if not quicker than a contemporary 911. That was back in 2005, Porsche never a firm to rush into things. It's typically Porsche, too, in that it's incremental, rather than seismic, changes that have created it; the end result gelling in a whole that's infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

That both cars represent a more bombastic yet intimate driving experience cannot be denied, but what's fascinating is the differences, despite the obviously shared goals. BMW's M division has taken a 1 Series Coupé, fitted a 3.0L straight-six with second generation "Twinpower" turbocharging and direct injection to boost output to 340hp. Torque of 450Nm (plus 50Nm on overboost) from just 1,500rpm right up to 4,500rpm creates a 1 Series that's able to cover the 0 to 100kph sprint in just 4.9 seconds.

The Cayman R trails that, its mid-mounted 3.4L flat-six (the BMW is front engined) giving up 20hp to the BMW, with 320hp on offer. Naturally aspirated rather than assisted by turbocharging, the Porsche's 370Nm of torque isn't quite in the BMW's league, and neither is it so accessible - that peak torque arriving at a relatively high 4,750rpm. That results in a 0 to 100kph time of 5.0 seconds - a number that can be dropped to a 1 M-matching 4.9 seconds if you specify your Cayman R with Porsche's paddle-shifted PDK transmission.

To do so would be to miss the point though, as both the Cayman R and 1 M are meant to be driven - and that means changing gears manually. It's to be applauded that the 1 M is only offered as a manual and, if you're interested in a paddle-shifted Cayman, just buy an S and be done with it. Both are cars where you can enjoy rolling your foot from the brake and blipping the throttle to match engine revs to road speed and slip in another gear.

The action of the shift in both is familiar, the 1 M's retaining the slick springiness of its M3 sibling; quick but perhaps lacking that mechanical precision that marks out the shift in the Cayman R. If you've never used a Porsche manual gearbox, you're missing one of the few remaining intimate man-machine interfaces in the automotive world. You can feel the gears meshing as the lever moves though the gate, the light clutch allowing you to jab though ratios swiftly, or languidly push the stick through and enjoy the feel. The BMW's shift is good, but a poor relation to that in the Cayman R.

You'll be busier with that gearstick in the Cayman R, too, as it requires quick feet and a busy hand to keep the 3.4L flat-six in its sweet spot. It demands revs as well, as the Cayman R only really feels quick above 4,500rpm. The 1 M feels quick everywhere, its turbocharged 3.0L straight-six endowing the short, squat machine with a real surfeit of power. It's the flexibility that's most notable compared to the more delicate Porsche. There's a tiny bit of delay before the 1 M delivers its best but, when the power comes, it's relentless and eye-widening. It sounds pretty fine, too, even if the turbocharging does mute some of the more thrilling engine notes.

The Cayman R also lacks the soundtrack you might expect. Even with the optional - and must-have - Sports Exhaust System fitted, it's not that vocal. Press the twin-pipe icon button and the R's timbre changes to one that's deeper and richer but, just like the 1 M lacks the finer nuances that make the BMW M3 an aural joy, the Cayman R cannot live up to the sound from the pipes of its 911 GT3 relative.

Sound be damned though, as finer as either cars' relatives are on the ear, both the Cayman R and 1 M are perfect examples that less is more. In the case of the Cayman R that's down to weight, Porsche stripping out excess bulk to help aid agility and performance. Not masses, admittedly. Indeed, some might suggest that, by the time you've put the air conditioning and radio back in, the kerb weight changes have little real effect. Then you drive it.

The tiny 10hp increase in power, combined with its 20mm lower suspension and differing tyre and camber specifications, change the R more than you'd think. Precision is enhanced a notch, bringing greater feel and delicacy to the response at the steering wheel. You feel more of what's going on at the wheels, though that does translate sometimes to a ride that can prove a touch compromised when the tarmac isn't perfect. It's a pay-off worth having though, as the Cayman R is a joy in corners.

By comparison, the BMW is more rounded, more user-friendly. It's ridiculously quick anywhere, and leave it in its most nannying settings and you'll be doing well to unsettle it. Naturally, there's the option to take more control, with the M button loosening up the response of the traction and stability systems to turn the 1 M into a hooligan. Do so and you'll get through tyres pretty quickly, but the fun to be had with the mobile rear is worth a higher than normal tyre bill. It rides with greater composure than the Porsche, though lacks the mid-engined car's steering intimacy and poise in the bends. There's not that much in it, though. Some information is offered at the chunky rim but, even with hydraulic, rather than electric, assistance, it feels like there's a filtering process before detail gets through to your hands on the wheel.

Even so, the 1 M aces the Cayman R in a number of areas, not least practicality. Sure, such cars are indulgences, but even toys need to be useful sometimes. The two luggage compartments of the Cayman R are handy, but not as useful as the conventional boot and two rear seats you get in the BMW. The Cayman's a strict two-seater. That alone might rule the Porsche out for many. Not that it really matters, but both return about 9.6L/100km on the official combined cycle and emit much the same CO2 figures.

But these cars aren't about numbers, they're simply about driving. They're both brilliant in that each so faithfully fulfils the goals that clearly defined their creation. That they're so different is part of their appeal. It's difficult to choose one over the other then; the purity of the Porsche's appeal offset by the bombastic BMW. They're both quick and both ridiculously good fun. In an ideal world you'd have one of each, but if I had to walk away with the keys to just one of them, the Porsche would get the nod. That's simply down to its crisper steering and that wonderful gear shift. I'd forever lament the loss of the greater practicality and more rounded nature of the BMW, though.

However, the 1 M isn't a loser here; indeed, enthusiastic drivers are the winners, both BMW and Porsche creating quite incredibly appealing, enjoyable driver's cars. Relatively affordable, too, with performance that, while easily dipping into the realms of illegal on the road, aren't so potent as to find driving them a constant frustration. Either is a joy, and a reminder that the very best cars are never produced by product planners, but by people in greasy overalls who take driving seriously.

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