We have here two very interesting performance cars. A Porsche Cayman that’s been lightened and given an R, the letter traditionally reserved for the most hardcore of models. And released at virtually the same time is a 1 Series with the M seal of approval, BMW’s own ultimate alphabetical focus. This makes for an intriguing comparison. How will this most focused of mid-engined Porsches fare against what many have hailed as the baby M3, a car that more closely fits the mold of the original E30 car than the current V8-powered behemoth?
First, a quick run down. The Cayman R adds just 9bhp to the Cayman S’ output, but it also sheds 40kg by using lightweight doors, alloys and seats (it could be more, but the Middle East spec car keeps the air conditioning). That takes the weight down to hatchback levels.
It’s considerably lighter than the 1 Series M Coupe, which tips the scales at more than 1.5 tonnes. But the BMW has more power at 340bhp, squeaking more grunt out of the same engine found in the 335i. The rear track has been widened and the looks beefed up for what is an entry into the legendary M club.
Before battle commences, I pick up the Cayman R at Porsche’s Middle East HQ outside Dubai. It’s green. Very green, with the traditional Porsche graphics down the side and lots of piano black appendages. Wheels, wing mirrors, headlight surrounds and most notably the fixed rear spoiler are all a deep, shiny black, but that’s about it for visual changes over the S. If the front bumper’s different, I haven’t noticed. Bar the colour, the changes for this hardcore Cayman aren’t that noticeable.
There’s more of a hint inside though. The doorcards are flat and the open handle is replaced with a loop of material. The seats are thin, fixed buckets that luckily fit me really well. The only adjustment is forward or backwards, although if I were to buy the car then it could be fine tuned with a screwdriver. Perhaps not a car to share. There’s a nod to the weight-saving measures by way of pull-tab door release handles, and the button-free steering wheel shows the Cayman’s pure driving intent, but the luxuries expected of a modern Porsche are all still present – Bose stereo speakers, a touchscreen interface and cruise control operation via a stalk on the steering column.
The engine starts with a surprisingly old-school key, twisting in the dashboard to the left of the wheel, as is traditional at Porsche. The flat-six fires up and settles to a coarse idle, appropriately loud in the cabin thanks to a relative lack of sound insulation. I ease the car out onto the motorway and already the Cayman R feels every inch the sports car; solid, stable, meaty even at these low manoeuvring speeds.
We head out of Dubai and across the peninsula, towards the town of Hatta where we’ve arranged to meet up with 1M owner Ryan Trutch. I was mildly concerned that an hour of straight motorway cruising on the way would be taxing in such a hardcore iteration of the Cayman, but although it’s considerably noisier than other models it’s more than comfortable enough. The bucket seat offers a perfect driving position, planting my posterior right down by the floor. While the suspension is stiff, all the road imperfections are damped well enough to avoid spinal damage. I wouldn’t want to take any speed bumps at high velocity, SUV-style, but they’re not as traumatic as in some other sports cars.
The road to Hatta is uneventful, and with snapper Moe taking shots on the way I don’t really get a chance to lean on the Cayman’s abilities. That time will soon be upon us though. We reach the Hatta Fort Hotel, where Ryan is already waiting with his shiny white 1M. It’s my first time seeing the car in the metal, and it looks more muscular than I expect; the flare wheel arches are more pronounced than they look in photos, and a few subtle modifications by Ryan have given it serious presence. A black kidney grille, black painted side repeater surrounds and a boot-lip spoiler, combined with small spacers on the back wheels make it look more threatening than the Cayman; brawny rather than sleek like the Porsche’s.
We decide to get some photos out of the way first, so after Moe has worked his magic and run off to scout some more locations, Ryan and I get a chance to play on the deserted roads near to the Omani border. A drag race to start with, and things couldn’t be more even. I confess to being mildly disappointed with the Cayman’s efforts; although the delivery from the 325bhp flat-six is beautifully linear, and the gearshifts from the seven-speed PDK lightning fast, it doesn’t have the scintillating pull I expected when you really stretch its legs. I’m in full Sport+ mode with my foot to the floor, and even though Ryan’s 1M has a manual ‘box I can’t open up an advantage, thanks to his 15bhp power advantage. We approach 200kph before we lift off, the gap between us staying virtual identical. So far, so even.
A hack up the mountain roads comes next, with Ryan taking the lead and myself following. He’s pressing on, but I have no issues keeping up with him. These tighter, twisting passes are where the Cayman R really comes into its own, feeling absolutely rock solid beneath me. The steering is one of the best modern systems I’ve used, with a real feel of connection to the front wheels, and the balance of the car is beautifully neutral – just a hint of understeer to warn you that the limit of adhesion is approaching, and a gentle wiggle of the back end only when you really provoke it. There’s no Porsche Active Suspension Management system here, just traditional springs and dampers, but they’re beautifully set up. Rear end grip is really impressive, and I’m brimming with confidence as we hammer up the hill between concrete barriers. However, once again I have to push pretty hard to keep up with the BMW.
Ryan has, admittedly, had a while to get used to his car, but he’s really shifting, carrying speed through the corners and powering away when the road opens up. Having said that though, the Beemer’s tail end looks more nervous from the driver’s seat of the Cayman than the Porsche feels.
After a couple of runs we swap over and I settle into a much higher, more upright seat in the BMW. It’s an environment completely different to the Cayman, which feels wrapped around me. Although it’s the smallest BMW, the 1M feels much roomier and more spacious than the Porsche, more like the saloon that it is rather than a sports car. It’s a little disconcerting to start with; I was instantly comfortable sitting on the floorpan of the Cayman and the BMW feels almost SUV-like in comparison.
The engine’s already running, so we set off. Again, the BMW is very different in character, its twin-turbocharged, 3.0-litre inline six bringing in the power in a big swell rather than the linear presentation of the Cayman. It’s not laggy and throttle is responsive throughout the rev range, but stretch its legs and the power suddenly arrives as the bigger turbo kicks in. It’s a rush, like cresting a drop on a rollercoaster, but it’s initially rather hard to predict.
Consequently I have to have my wits about me much more as Ryan looks immediately comfortable in the Porsche. Although 340bhp rockets me along and turn in is excellent, the 1M feels very loose, and I’m cautious on the throttle as I exit corners as a result. That swelling of power – the arrival of which I’ve yet to accurately second guess – can very quickly overwhelm the rear tyres if the front wheels aren’t facing front.
I’m quickly getting used to the driving position, and enjoying the Middle Eastern novelty of a manual gearbox. The clutch is light without being flimsy, and the shift is satisfying, if a little rubbery in its feel. I’d hoped for something a bit more solid to the touch. The steering wheel is fatter than the Porsche’s and the brakes are far more immediate. Into the first tight bend I almost headbutt the windscreen as the callipers grab at the slightest touch of the pedal. Indeed, it takes me most of the rest of the run to get used to the sensitivity. The Cayman’s brakes are more more progressive, but once I school my right foot to caress, rather than stomp on the middle pedal, the BMW stops far quicker.
It’s not as I expected, the 1M. I expected a very similar experience to the Cayman, but it’s a world apart, and rather schizophrenic in its character. In many ways it’s an ideal everyday car – decent-sized back seats, a spacious boot, good visibility. But it’s also a monster, with savage delivery of power and braking, and a keeness to wiggle. I really have to concentrate hard when we push on and I’m loathe to explore the car’s limits with concrete walls either side of us. The electronic stability control switch stays resolutely untouched.
Even Ryan admits that he won’t be switching the reigns off until he’s had some serious track time in it, and he too felt instantly at home in the Cayman. The Porsche is pure class, excellent in all areas, although I wish it had a fraction more grunt (I suspect the Cayman’s power is hampered by the existance of the 911 – it could easily cope with 400bhp+, but then it would clash with the flagship product range). It’s mild-mannered around town and so focused, adjustable and confident at a lick. The 1M, on the other hand, is a complete hooligan, disguised as a commuter car; a riot to drive but not a machine you’d want to take lightly.
Both are great. The Porsche would be the one for me – I feel so comfortable straight away, which lets me get on with the task of honing my driving skills and enjoying it. The BMW is more of a project, a wild stallion; I reckon I’d need to invest considerable time in taming and understanding its character before I could really let loose. Whether you’d side with Munich or Stuttgart in this match up really depends on which of those traits appeals to you the best.
Either way, you’ll have a lot of fun.