As racetracks go, windswept, patchy Llandow is not one of the world’s greats. But it is somewhere we can cut loose. As driving roads go, Llandudno’s jogger-heavy Marine Drive is not one of the world’s greats. But it does look very pretty in photographs. These are our bookends. And they’re handily distant from one another.
I might have almost planned it that way. What am I saying? I did. Because it’s what happens in between that’s important. On the B4268 and A470, the A494 and B4391, plus the B4501 that I desperately wanted to have time to do that day as we drove from morning in south Wales to a stunning sunset in the north, but didn’t. So we went there the next day instead.
The Toyota Supra is a sports car. Not a track car, so Llandow is chiefly a distraction, a chance to capture some drama and see what happens at the limit. Nor, says Toyota, is the Supra a GT. What it is, is a £50,000 alternative to the Porsche Cayman. An everyday-usable upwardly aspirational sports coupe. Like the BMW M2 Competition, or the Alpine A110. What a cracking line-up of cars. Seriously, I mean that – there’s not a duffer here. And each brings something different and exciting to the party: The Cayman brings mid-engined professionalism, the M2 brings boisterous manners, the Alpine brings flow and lightness and the Supra brings, well, another BMW actually. It’s a Z4 underneath.
You’ll have read this before, so I’ll keep it brief. BMW and Toyota co-developed the platform, and then because Toyota went cap-in-hand to BMW (it needed the Munich marque’s straight-six engine to give the new Supra some sort of connection to the old A80), BMW had the upper hand and negotiated hard. Very hard.
No, Toyota couldn’t have an M division engine. And yes, it does have to be built in Austria. Toyota came away pushing a BMW-branded trolley filled to the brim with every component needed to build its new car. Apart from a rev-counter.
The needle of which is making rapid progress around the dial. I doubt very much whether the average Supra owner will ever take their car on track, but they should because the Supra likes tracks. The rear end is well supported, so it doesn’t sag, squat or squirm when you’re hard on the power out of tight corners. And the rear works harmoniously with the precise, confidence-inspiring front axle. It’s not the last word in steering feel, but you know where you are with it because the chassis communicates. It’s biddable, rarely understeers, readily oversteers, but after a few laps the brakes start to go (only the M2 is heavier) and you realise the gearbox and engine aren’t the sharpest.
That’s because just before the Supra you drove the M2 and it reminded you just how much more impactful and exciting a twin-clutch gearbox and twin-turbo M engine are than the Toyota’s auto/single-turbo set-up. It’s not slow, the Toyota, and it makes a nice enough noise, but the M2’s powertrain gets under your collar in a way nothing else here does.
The M2 is the most pure hooligan fun at Llandow. The brief wheelbase, snappy gearbox and hard-edged, hard-hitting engine make it a hoot even though it feels like you’re mounted on a booster seat after any of the others. Later it will prove to have easily the best visibility. The Alpine isn’t as immediately engaging and amusing, but the more laps you do, the more you shake your head and marvel at it. Sure, the engine sounds a bit cheap, but the deftness and finesse, the speed you can carry – it makes the Porsche feel heavy-handed. Which it is, the next lightest, but still approaching 300kg weightier than the A110 and not as dextrous. You can’t play with the balance through corners in the same way, can’t recover slip without losing momentum. It’s the next best, but not quite as sweet. And it makes a cheap noise. Still, it’s got a great manual gearbox, and we forgive a lot for one of those.
It’s the Porsche I choose to take for the first road stint after Llandow. Chiefly because on my 120-mile drive to the circuit that morning, the Supra’s refinement and comfort had impressed me and I want to see how the Cayman compares. There’s more road noise – a surprising amount of intrusion, in fact – but the suspension is compliant, the steering undistracted. Yes, the manual gearbox keeps you busier, but after no more than a few minutes it becomes part of the routine, as simple to integrate into the driving as a glance in the mirror, and far more satisfying.
What I love about the Cayman is just using it. There’s an oily precision to every control, where everything operates so harmoniously that you’re not sure where gearbox ends and clutch begins, where suspension ends and steering begins. This sense of oneness, of mechanical completeness, sets the Cayman apart. It’s tactile and engaging at any speed, and on the busy valley roads south of the Brecon Beacons it’s a content companion.
Wales, freshly washed by rain, is radiantly green as we convoy up past Builth Wells and Rhayader.
But then we climb and the engines are put to work and, I’m sorry, but I still can’t forgive Porsche for this four-cylinder. It sounds flaccid, coarse… a square peg to the Cayman’s round hole mechanical make-up. And this is the GTS, an almost £60,000 car. It’s only 15bhp fruitier than the £8,000 cheaper S, which Porsche justifies by fitting a whole host of niceties: adaptive dampers, torque vectoring, 10mm lower springs, dynamic transmission mounts, a driving-mode dial and Sport Chrono with launch control. You’d imagine that would be it for options. But no, as tested, this is a £76,000 car.
I can’t see what it has that the others – all over £20,000 less – are missing. I switch back to the Supra. It’s a £54,000 Pro model and comes with heated and cooled seats, rear camera, wireless charging and a kick-arse JBL sound system (a second not-BMW part). It’s not lacking for stuff. More importantly, constant exposure to the Zupra’s cabin is softening my attitude to it. There’s not even an attempt at disguising the BMW typefaces and switchgear, but the surfaces are nice to touch, the control interfaces logical and CarPlay works – that puts it ahead of any other Toyota. But, like the Porsche, I have an issue with the engine sound. That noise, right at the heart of the car, is pure BMW. And it sounds wrong.
As with the Cayman, I try to ignore it, even though it plays a much richer tune. Once again, this is a smooth car to operate. It’s best in Sport mode, which sharpens the throttle for pulling away, and, with torque peaking at only 1,600rpm, it’s effortlessly rapid. The others all have to work harder for their speed – not that they’re any slower. Timed to 100mph (161kph) in 9.6secs, there was nothing in it between Toyota and Porsche. The Alpine, making do with 100bhp less, was only 0.7secs behind, the BMW a similar margin ahead. All fast cars with more than enough speed to whip past slower traffic.
Wales, freshly washed by rain, is radiantly green as we convoy up past Builth Wells and Rhayader. I swap from Supra to M2 Comp and it’s fascinating. Similar cabin vibe, but entirely different demeanour. Now, the standard M2 used to be a great car, broad-shouldered and amusing, but this Competition (the only M2 you can buy now) with the 404bhp twin-turbo engine nabbed from the M3, is the one to have. It’s stiff and aggressive and direct and connected. I really enjoy the way it goes down the road, properly energetic, a bit stroppy and hurled along by easily the best motor of the bunch. The others are basically one-trick ponies: turbos blow, force arrives, then they tail off. The M2 has more range, more bite, more charisma. Good torque low down, rasping soundtrack, a hard kick at four-and-a-bit, a mighty lunge to the 8,000rpm limiter, and a whipcrack upshift. Stick that in your pipe, Cayman.
It’s so much more special than anything else here – and it makes the Supra’s powertrain feel limp. It’s got some attitude, the M2, a forceful personality which makes you overlook the lack of brake feel and abrupt suspension. This is a sports car, and it’s the one that’s based on a run-of-the-mill hatch and has four seats and a boot. Happy days.
Its polar opposite is the Alpine. Half a tonne lighter with half the seating, half the boot capacity and rear tyres skinnier than anything else wears at the front. And for the last half an hour, it’s been making a nuisance of itself in the M2’s mirrors. It won’t go away. And as the BMW stomps, twitches and roars along the A470, I keep catching sight of it in the mirrors, looking dainty, alert and completely at ease. Time for the B4391, and the Alpine’s the only one I want to drive along it because my mind has painted a picture of what the French coupe will feel like on it.
This is what the A110 does. It tempts, surreptitiously and from a distance. It puts markers in your mind because it drives like nothing else. So you want to know what it’ll feel like on any given road. And on the B4391 it’s utter bliss. This is a difficult, tight road and it makes breezy mincemeat of it. The steering lacks crispness and bite just off centre, but if you like light, nimble, small cars this doesn’t put a foot wrong anywhere else. The others flounder along in its wake, able to keep up, but clumsy by comparison, visibly working harder. Like the Porsche there’s a harmony to the Alpine, stemming from the suspension and steering. It rides beautifully on roads like this, flows along without effort, feels completely natural in your hands, almost organic. Plus it uses barely any fuel. 38.7mpg it did on the drive up through Wales. None of the others go within 10mpg of it. Next was the Porsche on 27.4mpg, then the Supra (26.8mpg) and BMW (25.2mpg).
I swap back to the Supra for the final run up to Llandudno, because I find it the hardest to nail down. The others all have strong character traits, elements that make them unique here, but the Supra, whether because of its complex genealogy or slick tuning, is tough to pin down. It does very little wrong indeed – it’s important to bear this in mind. It’s much better than a Z4 to drive, body control is excellent, it’s fast, punchy and if you like the long-bonnet, short-tail layout (so the nose swivels into corners a long way ahead and you’re following behind, sat atop the rear axle like a charioteer) you’ll love the Supra. It’s good-looking, you know it won’t miss a beat, the boot is the best here and I reckon it’ll be the easiest of these four to live with.
But don’t we want our sports cars to have a bit more oomph than that? More engagement and personality? Because that’s what the Toyota lacks. We park up on Llandudno’s Great Orme that evening and I look at the Supra alongside the Alpine A110 and it makes me sad. If Renault could create a business case for Alpine’s in-house resurrection, you’d have thought Toyota could have managed the same. The Alpine is so pure, so true to its cause – I hugely admire Renault for making it happen. If you like driving – not necessarily fast, if you just enjoy the actions and inputs, the flow etc – you’ll adore the A110. We do. It’s the winner of this test.
But it’s not for everyone. We’ve been bred on German coupes for 20 years or more, and that’s hard to wean ourselves off. The Alpine is divisive due to its lack of luggage space, waywardness in crosswinds, infotainment, compactness even. I’d get it if you wanted to go Deutsch – either BMW or Porsche. I still haven’t forgiven Porsche for ditching the flat-six. The rest of the Cayman (even if the A110 does make it feel heavy-handed) is superb, but the M2 Comp beats it. It’s a barrel-chested, boisterous ripper.
The Supra is last. That it’s a swift, secure, handsome sports GT is beyond doubt. But the best sports car here? I’m afraid not.
- Ollie Marriage