Porsche 911 vs Jag F-Type R vs BMW i8
New turbo Carrera has to beat the young pretenders. Time for a showdown
It's the new 911, promise. What, you were expecting the styling to change? Surely you’ve learned by now, that’s not how the 911 works. But, oddly, how the 911 actually works – how it’s lobbed down a road – is all new. It’s not a facelift. It’s a brain and heart transplant. The new 991’s still flat-six powered – Porsche hasn’t totally lost its mind – but there’s a 3.0-litre, twin-turbo boxer where the last-gen Carrera S had 3.8 litres breathing at atmospheric pressure. It equals more power and torque with lower fuel consumption and emissions (officially...) so we’ve brought a mighty Jaguar F-Type R and artisan BMW i8 along. The £100k sports-car bookends, so far as power and efficiency are concerned.
Photography: Lee Brimble
This feature was originally published in the February 2016 issue of Top Gear magazine.Advertisement - Page continues below
Anyway, welcome to the end of the day. As the TopGear test track was doused in another layer of squally rain and the sun finally gave up on trying to break through the murky squadron of clouds, I flopped into the 911’s carbon bucket and bumbled a couple of miles north to the nearest filling station. I already know the i8 well, and in this maelstrom the F-Type wouldn’t have made it to Monday without me fitting it with a towing eye at some point. The AWD F-Type is the better daily driver, but, hey, when you’ve got a track to play on, RWD is allowable. But the 911 is bugging me. Ollie Marriage arrived at the track in it, wearing the expression of a doctor holding an envelope he’d rather not deliver. Yet all day, it’s been sensational on the rapids where the track used to lie. The haters slam 911s for being too predictable. This new one is an enigma.
Brimmed with super-unleaded, the highly slick new PCM navigation module is aimed at another garage close to a friend’s flat in central Nottingham. It lashes it down the entire way – a pretty gnarly journey, all things considered. I arrive three hours and 41 minutes later, having covered 191.1 miles of congested town centre, fast-flowing A-road, some blissfully clear motorway and the predictable stretches of camera-infested roadworks with not a high-vis jacket in sight.
In other words, exactly the sort of multi-tasking the 911 takes in its stride, making it the go-to everyday sports car. I have driven it like you would a Porsche, using the performance (where the law allows, officer). And, tanked to bursting again, the maths reveals it’d averaged 25.9mpg. The on-board readout protests 27.9mpg.
There’s method in the madness of starting a sports-car test with fuel figures. It proves Porsche has not fitted the facelifted 991 with a downsized, twin-turbocharged engine in the interests of efficiency. Not really. It’s not like it was either this, or no more 911. Like all 911s, the 2015 Carrera S still does ‘about 30mpg’. Even on the combined cycle lab test, the new 3.0-litre Porker is only 4.2mpg more efficient than the outgoing, nat-asp 3.8-litre car. Was it worth the personality transplant?Advertisement - Page continues below
It’s about 10mpg worse off than the i8, when driven at the same pace (or as close as the BMW can manage), but because the BMW’s figures are fluffed by the flaws of the official test cycle (it claims 59g/km of CO2; the Porsche, a relatively incredible but comparatively poor 174g/km), it’s around 100mpg worse off in the real world. You get your Congestion Charge exemption and free road tax, but it’s probably not the saint among sports cars its holier-than-thou reputation would have you believe.
The Jag is swinging on its chair at the back of the class while the German swots revise fuel consumption. It consumes fuel at a claimed rate of 25.0mpg – though how much of that goes near the engine as opposed to the clouds of vapour excreted through the rear artillery pieces is anyone’s guess. In practice, that’s ironically the most realistic claim here. And it’s also the most fruity-sounding emission of 269g/km of CO2 you’ll hear. The cheapest, most powerful car here is therefore the most wallet-shrivelling to run. Seems fair.
How does the Porsche compare to the non-turbo 911? Well, I took a GTS version of the old 991 (complete with fuel-sapping all-wheel drive and a manual gearbox) to the Nürburgring and back last summer. Dazzling car, that. It hit an unstressed 170mph on the autobahn, ran the aircon for hours on end, and averaged 29.8mpg over the longer, more relaxed jaunt. I hope I’ve made my point.
So, the turbos are here obviously for performance, and they do that job tremendously. This boggo Carrera S, the quintessential heartland of the Porsche range, is bloody outrageous. So, so fast. Supercar fast. And not just on the road, where it demolishes distance with clinical pace. Even on a big, open circuit like the TopGear test track, the S feels massively quick. You’re probably not even surprised to learn it recorded 3.9 seconds to 60mph on the puddle-strewn runway. That’s bang on what Porsche claims it’ll do 0–62mph in. In the dry.
Certainly, it’s faster than the AWD BMW i8. Savagely so. It is also a superior outright sports car (in certain measurable parameters, at least). The Porsche, with these optional ceramics, has not only the most powerful but also the most feelsome brakes I’ve ever used in a road car. They’re so accurate, and ideally modulated, you can play with the car’s balance just by trail-braking. And because that new blown engine is 30kg heavier, there’s more mass trying to follow you around into a corner. Combine that with a shunt from the PDK ’box on high-rev upshifts, as the torque wave is moderately interrupted, and you’ve got to be on the ball.
This makes life eye-opening in the wet, especially as the plug-in-and-play torque will unstick the wider rear tyres sooner than the zingy 3.8 used to. Throttle response? The best I’ve ever got from a turbo motor. Porsche powertrain engineers are alchemists. I reckon you can play with the new 911, get it moving around under you, a tad earlier than the non-turbo one, because it’s just that bit livelier with the heftier backside and surge of boost. I hadn’t expected that. I thought the 911 was all grown up. It’s a pleasant surprise.
The electric steering too is transformed from its first appearance, with sumptuous weighting and pinpoint precision just off-centre. This car has rear-wheel steering (£1,530) and the optional sports chassis, which drops the adaptive suspension by 20mm. I sneered at this on the spec sheet and expected to find it overkill, but it’s actually not. It’s sensational. You have incredible agility and body control – everything just feels so tight, so in-hand – yet there’s tolerable comfort, and no sullying of the handling, no sense it’s been corrupted by this onslaught of GT3-esque tech. It does what a 911 should. It just works. Everywhere. Stupendously.Advertisement - Page continues below
Now, you’ve got to dismiss the idea the i8 is here as some sort of token eco wild card. I know – you can’t ignore its spindly stance on those spacesaver tyres, the Mini Cooper engine and electric motor, but in spite of – because of, even – all the gubbins it uses to achieve 134mpg on the NEDC (New European Driving Cycle), it’s just a good drive. You have to accept the fact its electric steering is light and lacking in delicacy and connection, the brakes are fine in isolation but the least impressive here, and that it can’t smother compressions and surface changes with the aplomb of the Porsche. It’ll cover ground at an antisocially fast rate, but unlike its compatriot, you don’t have to if you want titillating.
See, the 911 has no music to its soundtrack below 6,000rpm. This one has the sports exhaust, which you can spend £1,773 on to treat bystanders. You won’t hear the best stuff inside. It’s not as breathy as a 911 Turbo, but it’s inevitably lost some of the 3.8’s invigorating induction crescendo. Whether you go for it or not depends on how generous you’re feeling to fellow motorists, or if you fancy winding up the trackday noise police.
A circuit isn’t the i8’s forte, and a wet, sweeping one is almost a two-fingered salute to its talents, but it’s still staggering how an i8 can meld itself into any situation. By a country mile, it’s the friendliest chassis here, the most foolproof. I’m right at home, then. Plus, time back beneath its butterfly door reminds me it’s a great city car, and on challenging roads it’ll change direction absurdly well, pivoting around a deliciously low centre of gravity. Even the dubbed soundtrack is decently judged. Its cabin ergonomics and token rear seats are as plausible as the Porsche’s, but the cabin is, well, it’s what you’d hope it’d be like inside an arch-modern car. Oh, and it does about 36mpg everywhere, if you’re asking.Advertisement - Page continues below
And here’s where the case for the 911’s defence starts to stumble. It, like so many of the new, turbo-gen performance greats (M4, 488, Civic Type-R…), is at its most intoxicating when you’re driving the nuts off it. Between 6,000rpm and 7,000rpm, there’s a mood swing in the engine’s delivery – a ripping, mechanical howl not dissimilar to how a GT3 sings as it locks on to 9,000rpm. But you can’t get up there nearly as often as you’d like. Porsche’s engineers are obsessed with obscenely long gearing, and now they’ve got an extra 44lb ft to play with, the PDK’s ratios have been stretched yet further. So, aim for top of second gear and you’re into law-breaking, licence-busting territory. Or, short-shift, and never hear the flat-six sing. You’re in a constant quandary of restraint and frustration. You’ve got more power, which you can rarely exploit, and less noise, which you used to constantly enjoy.
No such lack of fireworks in the Jaguar. This F-Type R isn’t a gentlemanly villain – it’s a burly henchman. Spirit of the E-type? Not really. TVR, more like. I’ll freely admit this is probably too much car for me. It just isn’t rewarding to tiptoe around it all the time. The 542bhp Jag is hilariously overendowed for a small, RWD, short-wheelbase two-seater, and when you’ve got throttle responses sharp enough to make David Mitchell’s retorts seem laboured, and similarly edgy steering, it’s awfully fraught. Around the track, it was snatching and grabbing for grip, fighting the surface, the traction control and the driver. The Stig set a new personal best for mid-drift gearchanges making no difference to his wayward trajectory. I think it was second to sixth round the shimmering Hammerhead.
The F-Type is here to appeal to you as a person, not as a driver (if that’s not too BBC Four The Culture Show for you). I think it presents a really inviting prospect to the sort of person who’s already done The 911 Thing – maybe you’ve had a couple of Porsches, and are ready to present a less serious face to the world. Let’s be honest: wonderful though the revised 911’s central sports exhaust pipes and retro engine cover are, the impossibly perfect proportions of the F-Type kill it dead in the water. And there’s no contest on noise. Again, for me the F-Type is OTT – the gargling staccato V8 isn’t particularly tuneful – but you can’t accuse it of not offering a sense of occasion. And sense of humour.
Manhandling it around Dunsfold reminds me of nights out with a lad I went to uni with. Cracking chap but a bit overbearing. Everything you’ve done, he’s done while more drunk, in Malia, with half the England rugby team. We all agreed that this RWD F-Type isn’t as enjoyable as the AWD version. Otherwise, why have 542bhp when the net total of deployable poke at any given moment is, ooh, 250bhp? A sports car should offer its driver confidence, not trash-talk your ability like Tyson Fury then smack you on the nose when you simply fancied a friendly sparring. As it is, the F-Type R is the world’s most beautiful muscle car. It looks great, sounds ridiculous and goes fast. That’s the top three boxes on the sports-car checklist ticked, but what lies beneath isn’t up there with these Germans.
Which wins? Well, you can’t flatly dismiss the new 991 as a retrograde step, since the nature of engineering as an industry means that quantifiable progress is made. Of all the controversial calls Porsche has made to improve the 911 breed, what with water-cooling, automatic GT3s, electric steering and what have you, the only admission of defeat has been bolting round headlights back in.
Thing is, it’s sitting outside my house, ticking cool. I could go for another drive, but I don’t reckon I’ll learn much new, so I’m not going to. I know it handles better than the old car, charges harder through the gears, and will land me in the nick before it will the scenery. Objectively, it’s stellar.
Maybe it’ll age better. 911s tend to. Right now, the new Carrera’s a faster but hollower sum-up of its exquisitely developed parts. Porsche itself states the turbos are needed to keep pace with rivals’ power outputs while maintaining the everyday refinement and drivability of a great sporting GT, and that’s spot on. But it proves that after a half century, the 911 must conform, not light the way. It’s the BMW that’s at the shockwave ahead of the cutting edge.