Speed Week: Cayman GT4 vs Caterham 420R v Lotus Elise Cup
Three lightweights go to war. Can the plucky Brits stick it to the all-conquering German?
Compared with the Ferrari and Lamborghini collection, this might look like the short-straw group. Especially on a power circuit like this one, where you need all the bhp you can muster to haul up
the long hill from Castrol Edge (Turn 1) to Remus (Turn 2), then fire you out of there and along to Rauch (Turn 3). But that’s not the case. Because this little trio has been designed to wring out as much fun as possible from every mile of road or track you point them at. These are the real-world supercars.
The evergreen – or dog-lipstick pink in this case – Caterham doesn’t need a huge amount of introduction, as it’s been around longer than any of us can remember. But, because they all look the same, what does need clarifying is which one we have here. After bringing the self-bodged, Caterham-fettled 80bhp 160 to last year’s event, we went for the other end of the spectrum this time. Not the faint-inducing 620R, but its slightly tamer 420R brother, the fourth step on the five-rung ladder of Caterham madness.Advertisement - Page continues below
The R denotes it is fitted with the Racing pack, which includes a limited-slip diff, better brakes and suspension among other things. It’s also available as a 420S, which specs it for the road, bringing softy things like carpet, heaters and a roof into the mix. Using a slightly more powerful version of the 2.0-litre Ford Duratec engine borrowed from the last-gen Ford Mondeo, producing 210 horsepowers and 150 torques, it looks like it’s going to get blown away by everything else on the grid. But then you see the weight, just 560kg, and wonder if it being blown away by the wind is a possibility too.
But that’s pretty much the last semi-sensible thought you have once you have levered yourself into the Caterham’s cigar-tube cockpit, tugged on the racing harnesses and fired up the engine. You leave the line sideways in a flurry of wheelspin and then bolt towards the first corner, changing up gears in an overwhelming blur of noise, wind and physics. Trying not to hit all three of the piano-key-spaced pedals at once with your size 10 – although it doesn’t seem to really matter if you do occasionally – you quickly reverse the process up to the first bend then repeat the performance turn after turn.
No time to think ‘What the bloody hell am I doing?’, no time to focus on anything other than getting the absolute most out of the car. Which is quite tricky to do immediately. Because all the controls are so sensitive, and the car’s handling parameters so outside what is normally possible in a car, you find yourself taking odd lines and liberties for the first few laps as you edge your way to the edge of its abilities, which are circus-style spectacular. You want to go sideways? This is your car. But it’s as exhausting as it’s exhilarating.
With the side doors left in the pits, the fury of the wind in the cockpit rises quickly to near tornado levels, ripping your sunglasses from your face and turning the flailing ends of the racing harnesses into stinging bullwhips. A helmet would help this – and the constant reality that you are just seconds away from burying yourself into the Armco at a speed and direction no one other than another Caterham driver would understand. Later forays with the doors in place did calm things down a fraction, but not to any point that you would call civilised.Advertisement - Page continues below
Which, if you are buying a Caterham, is precisely as it should be. It hasn’t changed for years because people like them this way and they aren’t about to change anytime soon. It’s such an age-old outlier that occupies its own place in the automotive spectrum, it seems odd to compare it with anything other than another open-topped roadster. But compare it we must, as this is what we are here to do. So, as the Caterham cools its hot heels, I jump into the relatively tranquil confines of the waiting Lotus and get busy with it on the circuit.
This is the Elise 220 Cup (formerly known as the S Cup), which is the softer road-going version of the Cup R. Highlights of its spec include a supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder Toyota engine that makes 217bhp when pushed to its red line, an all-up weight of 952kg and some comically huge aero bits which combine to squash the car into the track with 100kg of force at 120mph. So it’s almost double the weight of the Caterham with just seven more horses to compensate. That aero had better be good – I’ve got high hopes and expectations for this car.
Which make the next few laps increasingly more disappointing. At first I think it’s the weather – it is not the warmest day so I give the car a couple of laps to heat through – but when the car continues to be unkeen to turn in, all the grip being at the back not the front, I start to wonder. Perfect steering and damping are the touchstones of Lotus’s offer to the world, but this car doesn’t have the first feature by a long way, so I start to lose interest in exploiting the second. On top of that, the gearbox feels strangely aged and imprecise, offset to the right and just not that much fun to use. Which, on a buzz-bomb car you have to stir as often as this one, is a problem.
It’s so odd that I start to think it might be the track, with its many adverse cambers, throwing the Lotus off the scent. But then I have a blast in a couple of other cars, and they are fine, plus I remind myself that this is a Lotus, for heaven’s sake. It, of all things, should be the master of this place, shrugging off anything we can put it through. But this car on this day can’t. I suspect a great deal of its problems were down to the tyres, which never seemed to heat up. But as we didn’t have anything to swap them with, we just had to leave them as they were. I know it can be better, a lot better, than this, so I park it and move onto the Porsche Cayman GT4.
Where the mood of disappointment disappears before I’ve even got into it. In pictures, the GT4 looks a little complicated and fussy with all its extra scoops and wing, but in the metal and carbon fibre, trust me, it looks perfect. And that’s largely because it is. In case you missed the memo, the GT4 is the car we’ve all been asking Porsche to build for years – a Cayman with the bigger 3.8-litre engine from the 911 Carrera S. But it’s also much more than that. As the alphanumerical name suggests, it’s a product of Porsche’s GT division, so it’s special.
That motor gives it 45bhp more than the GTS, the front suspension is lifted almost wholesale from the GT3, and the manual – the only option – gearbox lifted from the GTS has had the gearstick slightly shortened. You can have it with a rear cage fitted – and a front one too, if racing is all you plan to do with it – plus it has the same carbon brakes as its bigger, rear-engined brother. So it’s the real deal on paper – will it be able to master this tricky track?Advertisement - Page continues below
As with most trick and quick cars, it takes about 10 metres to realise you are in the presence of something brilliant. The engine doesn’t have the immediate zing of the GT3’s 9,000rpm red-lined motor, but there are no complaints with the way it shoves the car up the road. The gearchange, while not as exquisitely precise as on the GTS, requiring a fraction more of your time to click home each occasion, is still benchmark good. And the chassis, well, you could write a book about that.
The most impressive thing, though, is the way the GT4 steers. It grips, grips, then grips even more, raising your confidence level to go ever faster. The GT3 front end is surely a good part of that, but bringing that bigger, more powerful engine into the middle of the car also helps, as you can rotate the car and generally get into and through corners faster than you thought possible in any of the other cars in this trio – or most here at Speed Week.
Which is why the Porsche wins this three-way track shoot-out with one wheel tied behind its back. The Caterham thrills in a unique way, but you have to be a very unique individual to want one. The Lotus on a good day should have been a lot closer to the others and more entertaining than this one was. We’ve driven enough good ones to give this Elise a bye this time.Advertisement - Page continues below
But the GT4 requires no excuses to achieve its victory here, only more praise for being a fantastically fun car to drive fast all day – it’s everything a performance car should be. Then a big dollop more. I haven’t driven it on the road yet, but I’ll bet it’s just as good outside the circuit as it’s been here. It’ll take a very special car to beat it and we have a few of those here, so let’s see what happens next. Short straw? Nah.