The age-old rivalry between Corvette, Porsche, and BMW kicks off once again, this time at Connecticut's gorgeous Lime Rock Park. Road & Track's Editor-in-chief Larry Webster, Executive Editor Sam Smith, and Senior Editor Josh Condon grabbed their gear, packed their stopwatches, and headed east to find this round's victor in a title fight they never want to end.
3. BMW M4
Along with Porsche, BMW helped introduce enthusiasts to the true dual-purpose car, a no-compromises street-and-track machine that brings circuit talent to every session behind the wheel. Because we live for that feel, we can't help but compare a Munich car to its predecessors, especially when it wears the Motorsport badge.
No BMW signals that we're about to get what we want more than the M3, a model widely agreed to be the blueprint for the modern sport sedan. We did not, however, ask for much of what the latest iteration delivers.
At 184.5 inches long and 73.6 inches wide, the M4 coupe—the M3 sedan's renamed, two-door twin—is about the same size as BMW's large cars from 30 years ago. Four adults and their luggage fit easily, which you can't say about any other car in this group. If that's important to you, the conversation ends here: The M4 is the one. But we remember when the M3 delivered practicality with uncanny balance and unmatched feel. Now we're bombarded with performance.
The new 3.0-liter, twin-turbo straight-six cannot be faulted. It delivers big-displacement grunt at low rpm with an almost unbelievable smoothness. And it revs, too, with a guttural, deep whine all the way to a 7600-rpm redline. This is a best-of-all-worlds engine that, thankfully, can still be mated to a manual transmission. The six-speed in our tester had that typical BMW light clutch and rubbery yet precise shifter. We challenge anyone to try it and still choose the optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
The autobox would surely help the M3/M4 sprint to 60 mph in less than the 3.9 seconds we saw, but that's splitting hairs. This is one of the swiftest sedans on the market. Calling it supercar territory is an understatement.
There are supercar brakes as well, massive carbon-ceramic rotors that save 16 pounds over the standard steel units. These unflappable stoppers scrub speed so quickly and effortlessly they're like a panic button, the savior to deploy when you've, say, plunged into Lime Rock's Turn 7 foolishly fast.
Such a thing is easy to do: The corner is preceded by a six-story downhill plunge. Gravity, 425 ponies, and speed-masking refinement converge here. Smart drivers look through the turn to where they're going, and Lime Rock presents an open right-hander that leads onto the main straight. Everything about the car nudges you faster.
The M4 won't kill or even maim here. A moment after I realized that 105 mph was perhaps 10 mph too much heading into a corner, the brakes came to the rescue, a slight tap to get things back in order.
This all sounds safe and nice and the kind of thing that makes a new driver confident enough to explore the M4's pace. And that's true. But as you grow used to the BMW's speed, the objective measures—agility, feel, and chassis balance—become paramount.
This is where the M4 trails the others in this group. It weighs roughly 150 pounds less than the last M3 coupe (the evidence is everywhere from the carbon-fiber roof to a gorgeous carbon python that reinforces the engine bay), but like Corvettes of old, it's dominated by its drivetrain. Gone is the one-piece delicacy of M cars past. The electric power steering, an M3 first, tells you what you need to know about the front tires but leaves out the details—pavement changes, subtle touches—that make things fun.
READ MORE: 6 tracks, 6 days, in the BMW M6 Gran Coupe
Some will argue that comparing a car like this to two purpose-built sports cars isn't fair. Maybe so, but BMW's small sedan has always held its own against more purebred machines—part of why we loved it. One tester griped that the M4 is the world's best M6, a large, aloof GT car that can eat up 1000-mile days in comfort. And it'll easily do that. It's a hammer. The trouble is, we want a scalpel.
In a lot of ways, BMW's smaller 2-series now occupies the slot the M3 once held. An M2 is rumored to be on the way. Until then, we'll respect the M4 for what it can do and lament what we've lost. —LARRY WEBSTER
2. Porsche Cayman S
To be clear: The Cayman is here instead of the 911 because of its price. Stuttgart's mid-engine two-seater has become so good, so dance-ready and fast, that various outlets (including this one) have suggested it's actually Porsche's "proper" sports car, not the larger, heavier 911. But the fact that you need six figures to drive even a meagerly outfitted Carrera off a dealer's lot makes it a different class of wallet from the Stingray and M4. Such is the charging power of Porsche add-ons: Even our Cayman S, with a base price of $64,750, jumped over $87,000 with seemingly ordinary options like a leather interior ($2385), 18-way adjustable sport seats ($3465), and an infotainment package with Burmester surround sound ($6730).
Power-wise, the 2014 Cayman S finds itself significantly outgunned in this company (and to be fair, so would that Carrera). The Cayman's 325-hp, 273-lb-ft, 3.4-liter flat-six is down 100 hp and 133 lb-ft to the BMW's twin-turbo, 3.0-liter straight-six, and a massive 135 hp and 192 lb-ft to the Vette's performance-exhaust-equipped V-8. No matter. Porsches have always been about the experience trumping specification. And on paper, this 981-chassis Cayman—lower, longer, faster, more rigid, and up to 66 pounds lighter than its 987-chassis predecessor—should significantly improve on that car's reputation for speed and engagement.
On the twisting Connecticut roads around Lime Rock, the Porsche is obviously capable, but the engagement bit is sporadic. Peak grunt comes at 4500, and no matter how you work the gearbox, the Cayman lacks the satisfying, kick-to-the-chest hustle of the Corvette or BMW. It's brilliant in the corners, with turn-in that makes the faster cars seem dawdling by comparison. Credit sticky Pirelli tires, direct and dead-accurate electrically assisted steering—the best of the group, though still a shadow of the old Cayman's wonderful hydraulic setup—and a light, extremely stiff chassis.
The overall effect is one of restraint, even subtlety. Both in performance and looks, the Porsche seems mature in a way the BMW and Chevrolet simply don't. The airy, upscale interior favors clean lines and a simple mix of leather and brushed aluminum. And while I personally found it impossible to get comfortable in the stiff, upright seats, I'll suggest this is merely a quirk of my anatomy, as they're adjustable every which way and were the other testers' favorite.
My aha! moment with this car came at the track, shortly after Executive Editor Sam Smith returned the Porsche to pit lane, jumped out, and said, "You have to grab it by the scruff of the neck and get dirty with it." That's what I did, and he was right. Put the car in Sport Plus mode for sharper throttle mapping and firmer electronic damping, go a bit mental, and the Cayman transforms from pleasant afternoon companion to pants-off-dance-off freak machine. Suddenly, the 45/55 chassis balance feels perfect, and you're trail-braking everywhere to let the back end rotate. The brakes, while lacking the brute stopping power of the M4's carbon-ceramics, are easy to modulate and last for days. Back in pit lane, grinning, you wonder, "Where the hell did that car come from?"
In a small way, that question is a problem. With the Cayman, it's up to you to supply the drama. The car doesn't push, cajole, or suggest terrible ideas in sweet whispers; it's tabula rasa. Yet it's a fact of human nature that we prefer a definable disposition—even a challenging one—to aloofness. It's why White Fang remains an enduring classic while The Indifferent Dog That Nonetheless Did Everything Right never found a publisher. That's the Cayman's main flaw: It's utterly content to let you be boring.
Maybe this is the price Porsche pays for widening its focus from the sports-car-only days of yore. Not that the company somehow forgot how to build fast cars, but on some level, this mid-engine two-seater feels like a luxury car first and a sports car second. While the elegant, considered, upscale Cayman S seems better built and better suited to heirloom status than the muscle-bound M4 or the blunt Corvette, it also feels less likely to be used—and enjoyed—that way. —JOSH CONDON
1. Chevrolet Corvette Z51
When building a car, how important is it to appease those already on your side? How necessary is consistency—what buyers have come to expect from a driving experience? In its quest for performance, BMW is building faster and more capable sport sedans but straying from what made us love BMWs in the first place. Porsche is crafting ever-sharper sports cars but losing some of the company's traditional feedback and small-brand charm. Sales for both firms are strong, but if you listen to the car clubs, the diehards aren't thrilled. Which is odd, because the diehards are always thrilled.
And next to those two, you have war-torn GM, perpetually in the throes of some government investigation or corporate fiasco, building Corvettes that feel an awful lot like … Corvettes. Only better.
The seventh-generation Corvette was launched in 2013. It's a mark of the Chevy's astonishing goodness that, almost two years later, we can't stop talking about it. Twenty years ago, the hierarchy in this test would've been different: The BMW would match the Porsche in capability but lack that car's telepathic connection. The Porsche would trail the Corvette in raw power but offer hundred-year build quality. And the Chevy would be a flawed but effective piece that placed speed above everything, including dash plastics that felt like Playskool rejects and a chassis with all the refinement of a dead goat.
No more. There's still a big V-8 (6.2 liters, 460 hp, 465 lb-ft). A virtually indestructible manual transmission (seven-speed Tremec). Rear-drive, composite bodywork, and an easy clutch. The Z51 handling package on our test car added close-ratio gearing, sportier suspension tuning, and a host of other significant tweaks. But the flaws of the sixth-generation Corvette are gone. The interior is genuinely special at its best and up to industry par at its worst. The accurate, nicely weighted steering is one of the finest electrically assisted setups on the planet. The rear tires send a steady fizz of information straight to your tailbone. You use it all to flat-out haul—confidently, massively, everywhere. This car is an assassin. And unlike the Porsche or BMW, each of which requires a careful approach on road or track, nearly anyone can capitalize on the Vette's talents.
Each of these cars is essentially a neutral handler, but the Chevy's chassis is the only one that eggs you on—that can't be said about the Cayman's binary happiness (racer clean versus sloppy fun) or the BMW's knife-edge vibe. The Chevy likes whatever you throw at it, it makes you feel great about your talent or lack thereof, and it begs for more throttle, all the time, forever. The brakes are nearly as confidence-inspiring as the Cayman's, which is saying something. This is also one of the few new cars where you don't constantly worry about the front tires. You don't get annoyed when they run out of grip, and even on a largely right-hand track like Lime Rock, where idiots can obliterate a left front tire in a few laps, you don't worry about understeer. It's present but never crippling, so you just chill out and inhale pavement.
Halfway through our test, Road Test Editor Robin Warner put it best: This is a Corvette for people who hate Corvettes, but also for people who love them. The thunder of a third-gear run. The big pace that comes without even trying—and the fact that when you try, you go even faster. The Chevy was the only one of these cars that made me want to get air under the front wheels on Lime Rock's famous Uphill turn. It was also the only car where I did it. And then did it again, stability control off, trying for more altitude. The Cayman takes time to appreciate, and the BMW is distant and cold, but the Corvette is friendly from the start. If it cost just as much as the other two, it'd be a worthy contender. At more than 20 grand cheaper (as tested), it's a freakin' miracle.
Being a Vette booster is a new thing for us, but if you think we're full of it, ask the European media. For the first time, the rest of the world is genuinely in love with America's sports car. After years of being a good-enough answer, the hometown kid knocks it out of the park. Warms your heart. —SAM SMITH