From the July/August 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
If you’ve ever used a wrench in place of a hammer, you’ll understand what the BMW M2 is about. Engineers took an aging upright compact coupe that normally rides on run-flat all-season tires and transformed it into a great-driving car. Not content with the new tool, BMW has continued to adapt this wrench into the M2 CS. The 3533-pound result nails corners. From its acceleration to the sounds coming from the CS’s 444-hp engine, it has all the sports-car traits that make us warm and tingly. It is the product of clever improvisation and adaptation. But as strong as the M2 CS is, we wondered, can it do just as good a job as a hammer?
Porsche’s 718 Cayman GTS 4.0—our hammer—starts out with the right stuff. It’s a two-seat, mid-engine, 3231-pound smile machine. A sports car at its core, the GTS 4.0 version gets a 394-hp 4.0-liter flat-six that sings to a 7800-rpm redline. Think of it as a poor man’s GT4, if the poor man had $88,150 or, should he want our sparsely optioned, dual-clutch-automatic-equipped test car, $94,200. The Porsche’s base price surpasses the Bimmer’s by $3555, but as for the test cars, our M2 CS, loaded with carbon-ceramic brakes and a dual-clutch transmission, has the higher outlay, at $96,545. No doubt you’re wondering why this tête-à-tête isn’t between the less expensive manual versions. We wanted it to be, but BMW had just shipped its three-pedal M2 CS out east, leaving us with only the automatic to deal with L.A. traffic.
BMW M2 CS
Highs: Power surges, real steering, delightful imperfection.
Lows: Harsher ride than the Porsche, tire roar, squirms under duress.
Porsche 718 Cayman GTS 4.0
Highs: A big flat-six where Newton would want it, capability to handle what you throw at it, a fully dialed-in experience.
Lows: Engine lacks the turbo punch of the BMW, just two seats.
Shifting for yourself is more engaging than letting the car swap gears, even if it is slower. But these aren’t your father’s auto-tragic transmissions. Porsche’s and BMW’s dual-clutch gearboxes shift faster than you can and have software astute enough to call up the same gears you would. For a closer connection, grab the steering-wheel paddles. Both models come with launch control, which makes lining up next to a challenger a little less stressful. Porsche’s system revs the naturally aspirated six to 6600 rpm before perfectly slipping the fluid-bathed clutch to make the most of the traction from the Pirelli P Zero PZ4s. Do it as much as your inner 17-year-old desires. The GTS dutifully returns 3.4-second runs to 60; the manual version adds 0.4 to that.
BMW’s max-acceleration programming isn’t as effective. Try to launch at the default 3000 rpm and the twin-turbo 3.0-liter’s low-end surge will light up the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires as soon as the clutch plates make contact. BMW allows the driver to adjust the launch rpm by tapping the cruise-control toggle. The best practice on regular asphalt is to set it to the 1900-rpm minimum so the tires hook up before the boost arrives. We measured a 3.6-second run to 60—the six-speed does it in 3.9.
To see how well each of these cars can pound curves into submission, we headed north out of L.A. and onto Frazier Park’s empty canyon roads. Jump from the Cayman to the M2 and the BMW seems like a small SUV. But once you adjust to the upright windshield and high seating position, the M2’s handling dazzles. Though the steering-wheel diameter is about an inch and a half too large, actual feel comes through the thick rim. The Cup 2s send barely attenuated jolts, jabs, and noise into the cabin, but the upside is steering feedback and precision and 1.05 g’s of skidpad grip. Caught between the sticky track-spec rubber and the brawny 444-hp engine, the BMW’s rear end squirms in distress under hard acceleration out of corners. That motion doesn’t amount to much, but it moves through the seat and into your body. You get the impression that this little hellion is working hard for you. From the M2’s logbook: “Playful, alive, and devilishly imperfect.”
Inside the Cayman, a small thin-rimmed steering wheel and a butt-on-the-road seating position await. The Porsche’s mise-en-scène—with the raked windshield, low roof, and front-and-center tachometer—reads sports car, and its dynamics live up to the look. The GTS has a better relationship with the laws of physics than the 302-pound-heavier CS. It changes direction with ease and boasts steering that responds to every fing of your fingers. Plus, the GTS nearly matches the M2 in skidpad grip despite wearing milder rubber.
Without turbochargers force-feeding its six cylinders, the Cayman doesn’t overwhelm its rear end on corner exit quite as much as the M2 does, especially when the road rises over 5000 feet. While the Porsche lacks the BMW’s turbo surge, the finely tuned throttle makes it seem possible to mete out each individual horse. That ability to precisely dial in the engine allows the driver to approach and ride the limit without fear of overburdening the chassis or the handling. Keep adding speed; no component appears unduly burdened.
Both cars feature adaptive dampers and steel springs that provide firm but livable ride quality, with a small comfort advantage going to the Cayman. Either will stop hard enough to dislodge any french fries hiding under the seats, yet the Porsche prevails with its 149-foot stop and the firmness and grab of its brakes. The intake chortles and screams of the flat-six are also something the M2 can’t match. There’s a raucousness to the BMW, but the Porsche brings you closer to the machinery, which is literally just a couple of inches behind you.
The Porsche is the better car in nearly every regard, a win earned by being exactly the right tool for the job. Still, the BMW wears its flaws in a way that draws you in. More endearing, sillier, and just a bit less under control than the Cayman, the M2 CS is the one you’ll remember, the one that will inspire gesture-filled stories beginning with “There I was . . .” But while it may be possible, and even fun, to pound a nail with something like a pipe wrench, a hammer is really what you need.