Alpine A110S vs Porsche 718 Cayman T | Top Gear
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Alpine A110S vs Porsche 718 Cayman T

Two of the best sports cars on sale right now go toe-to-toe

Published: 25 Jan 2020

You enjoy driving, right? Me too. Now, what sacrifices are you prepared to make in pursuit of that? Boot space? Fuel economy? Cabin functionality? Running costs? We all draw the line in different places, for different reasons and end up with different cars. But we can all agree that if you can justify a two-seater, then Porsche and Alpine build good ones.

This is the Alpine A110S. All the Ss: sharper, stiffer, swifter, stoppier. An extra 40bhp from the 1.8-litre turbo engine, wider torque band, active sports exhaust, high performance brakes as standard, 10mm wider tyres front and rear, new springs, stiffened anti-roll bars, 4mm suspension drop, recalibrated ESP. All the fun of the fair.

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Words: Ollie Marriage // Photography: Jonny Fleetwood

And now the Cayman T. I tried to think up a load of Ts, but failed dismally because really it’s another load of Ss. The sportiest sections of the options list added to a base-model Cayman. 20mm lower suspension, bigger 20-inch wheels, dynamic engine mounts, alcantara, decals.

They’re a bit apart on price (more on that later), but inseparable on philosophy and aggression, close on power – the Porsche’s turbocharged 2.0-litre flat four delivering 296bhp to the Alpine’s 288bhp. The Alpine’s faster of course, because it’s smaller, lighter: 1,114kg to the chunky German’s 1,350kg. Which of course isn’t that chunky, it’s just that the Alpine is the automotive embodiment of Veganuary.

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Weight defines the Alpine experience. It’s 10mpg more efficient everywhere than the Cayman, has zestier, perkier acceleration, doesn’t unduly tax its brakes or tyres, skates lightly over any surface. The Porsche has to work harder. There’s more inertia to overcome at low engine speeds which manifests itself in turbo lag, despite the broader tyres (30mm fatter front and rear) understeer sets in sooner, it feels heavier in your hands. After a back to back 10-mile cross-country jaunt, the Porsche is the one clutching its sides and wheezing.

Well, sort of. Driven in isolation the Cayman T is great. This is the current Cayman to have if you enjoy driving and a) can’t afford a GT4 or b) don’t want to buy a used nat-asp flat six. Sure, it doesn’t skim as deftly, gently along as the Alpine, but it has rewards of its own. The oily, mechanical precision of the steering, brakes and gearbox makes each a delight to just operate. The suspension’s taut springing is matched by superb damping. I’ve roundly criticised the flat four engine previously, but it’s smoother and more immediate at the top end. Keep it bubbling away over 4,500rpm and there’s not much to complain about. I get out of the Cayman after every drive with a warm feeling, knowing that as a car to drive day-in, day-out, this would feel pretty good.

I was hoping to write this without too much reference to the standard A110, but realised you have to see the S in context. What we love about the standard version is that it took a different path, softer and more playful, unafraid of roll, unashamedly individual. In tightening it up, Alpine has made it more conventional. Undoubtedly faster, even more nimble and agile, stunning through direction changes and with communication through chassis and steering that’s the best this side of a Lotus. There’s one dynamic element of both A110s that isn’t quite up to scratch. The steering needs a bit more bite on turn-in, just to let you know it’s really got its teeth into things. The S gives you so much information that as soon as the rear axle engages with a corner – that sliver of a second after you turn the wheel – you get that. You soon work out that you can vary your cornering technique to discover different things about the car, and no matter what you do, the A110S excels.

And that engine: only four cylinders and 1.8 litres, but a power to weight ratio of 259bhp/tonne is way ahead of the Cayman T’s 219. It’s a nicer engine to use as well. Certainly not free from lag low down, but cleaner and smoother, and above 5,000rpm it’s detectably faster than the standard A110 as well as the Cayman T. And with a raspier top end soundtrack as well as the extra pace, there’s now a reason to let it rev out – not that a cut-out below 7,000rpm is much to boast about. The Porsche is good for another 500rpm if that matters to you. It shouldn’t.

Neither has a particularly memorable engine. Porsche recently confirmed that the Cayman GTS is now available with a detuned version of the GT4’s 4.0-litre flat six. It should bring excitement back to the Cayman, but will also serve to remind those who can’t afford its £64k price that the flat four continues to cheapen the Cayman experience.

But at least it has a manual gearbox – and a very good one at that. In the Alpine you’re limited to the seven speed twin clutch. It’s not bad, and if you press the Sport button on the steering wheel it not only changes the dash graphics, but usefully tautens the drivetrain. Resist the press-and-hold for Track mode – the arcade game dash graphics are plain off-putting.

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Cruising around? The Porsche suffers from more tyre noise, but is otherwise the more mature and easy-going. In the Alpine you feel the texture of the road surface, it gets buffeted by lumpy tarmac and cross winds, generally feels busier.

If this was only about the driving, the Alpine would have it. But back to where we came in: the question of sacrifices. The Alpine’s two boots offer about half the Porsche’s carrying capacity. Inside it’s more cramped and the infotainment is hugely frustrating to operate. The driving position might fit you fine, but personally I’d like the wheel to be less tilted away at the top and the seat to extend further under my thighs. And although the materials are reasonable, look at what it’s up against here… The Porsche is hard to fault inside – you get in, it works how you want and feels right for a car costing £51,145. Just don’t expect much in the way of niceties. A Fiesta Zetec comes with more toys and trinkets.

The Alpine is £56,810. That’s almost exactly ten grand more than the base one. It’s a more fundamentally altered car than the Cayman T (a seven grand lift), but loses some of what makes the standard Alpine so beguiling. In short as a daily coupe, this is only the second best Alpine. And here it’s up against the best Cayman. And for the first time, the Alpine loses.

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