Comparison Test: BMW 1-Series M vs. Porsche Cayman R vs. Nissan GT-R
By Winding Road Staff
October 19, 2011
A car that you can drive to work, drive to dinner, and drive on the track on a Saturday. That is, in essence, a brief for very high performance sports cars which automakers have been trying to make good on since the very beginning of motoring. We think that we’ve found three modern cars that do a very good job filling the needs of the road/track set, but at three very different price points.
The BMW 1-Series M Coupe, Porsche Cayman R, and Nissan GT-R are all fantastic-handling, powerful, and involving cars that we know you’d love to drive on the road or the circuit. After a full day of wringing the trio out, we can’t proclaim a single one of the three to be anything less than riveting. And yet, there are clearly strong and weak suites for each one of these cars.
To clarify the comparison, and to add structure to our three-price-point setup, we’ve used the scoring categories for the Winding Road Involvement Index to describe each of our test cars. In this way, we hope that you’ll see how three great driver’s cars stack up, but absolutely and on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
BMW 1-Series M Coupe – The $50,000 Option
Highway stability is a strongpoint for the BMW. It feels smoother, better planted, and more comfortable on the interstate than either of our other two cars. It falls behind rather quickly in other areas though.
First, let’s establish that the 1M is a seriously good car in its own right. But when thrown into the company of a purebred sportscar and a near-supercar, it quickly loses pace. On tight, twisting roads, it can’t stand up to the extremely communicative and grippy Porsche Cayman R. There just isn’t enough road feel or handling prowess to tackle the road the way the better balanced Cayman can. It can stand up to the larger GT-R, simply because its smaller size makes it easier to place during aggressive cornering, but it still lacks the outrageous levels of grip afforded by the Nissan.
Things aren’t much better on flowing roads, as the BMW doesn’t seem to like slalom-type scenarios. Body roll is more evident in the 1M than in either the Nissan or Porsche.
Climbing into the 1M, we were greeted with all the things we love about sporty BMWs: nicely bolstered and highly adjustable seats, a padded M-spec steering wheel, and a chunky gearshift. As with the M3, all of these items work together in unison to deliver a truly enjoyable experience. The seats weren’t as supportive as the one-piece racing buckets of the Cayman, but were at least on par with the GT-R. Their real trump card came in the level of adjustability. It was easier to get comfortable in the Bimmer than either of our other two cars, simply due to the number of ways you can adjust things.
Once adjusted, you’ll find that all the important parts of the BMW’s cabin are arranged as they should be. The somewhat notchy six-speed manual falls naturally into your right hand, and the three-pedal arrangement (the only one in this test) felt natural and encouraged some fancy footwork.
That nicely padded, leather-wrapped wheel and the tiller that sits forward of it have a pleasant, if uncommunicative, weight to them. The BMW’s steering is one of those things that always feels good in your hands, yet doesn’t deliver the sort of communication you crave during aggressive driving. Of course, let’s keep the context in mind here; when not sitting next to the manic Cayman, the BMW’s steering is pretty good. Still, plan on getting the majority of feedback through the seat of the pants.
The larger brakes of the 1M (.9 inches larger in front, and a full inch larger in back than the 135i) were easy to modulate, and inspired confidence even under the harder braking demanded by our drive route.
The drivetrain of the 1M can be efficiently communicated with one word: torque. With peak torque coming on between 1500 and 4500 rpm, the driver is well catered to at most engine speeds. Power delivery is quite linear, once you get past a very slight amount of turbo lag from the biturbo six-cylinder. Once spooled up, low- and mid-range thrust are excellent. The 1M feels quite eager and willing until you get past 6000 rpm, at which point the power seems to taper off. It isn’t an abrupt drop-off, but the urgency that accompanied the engine up until that point just isn’t quite there.
Of course, by the time you’re at those sorts of engine speeds, you are moving along quite briskly. BMW cites a 0-60 time of 4.7 seconds. While that isn’t as fast on paper as our PDK-equipped Cayman R (4.4 seconds), it feels decidedly quicker on the road, thanks to the oodles of torque and the karate-chop like power delivery. In fact, going from the explosive Nissan GT-R to the 1M, we couldn’t find much fault with the sheer amount of power in the 1M or the way that it was delivered.
The sound from the 1M’s quad pipes is classic, evocative BMW. Unlike past Bimmers, though, that six-cylinder howl is accompanied by the whoosh of a pair of turbochargers. The entire medley makes for a thrilling sound when behind the wheel, especially at the higher parts of the rev range. Still, the whole system isn’t obtrusive when you are just driving about. We never really noticed much in the way of drone, regardless of engine speed.
Though it lacks the sort of steering feedback we enjoy, the BMW more than makes up for this fault with plenty of suspension communication This car is all about seat-of-the-pants feedback, and it shows when run through a set of corners. It’s one of those cars where you can just kind of feel the suspension working at all four corners. Turn-in is sharp, although it lacks the crispness or speed of either of our other two cars. In fact, as it relates to the Porsche and Nissan, the BMW is a bit of a letdown.
The entire handling package is truly good in the greater new-car market, but when tossed to the wolves like this, it really can’t deal with it. Grip was one of the big letdowns in the BMW, as it felt more likely to get loose under hard cornering and exiting maneuvers. When it did step out though, it was quite easy to recover. Thanks in large part to all that turbo thrust, sending the weight to the rear was quite easy, allowing us to straighten out the Bimmer without much trouble.
Lateral weight transfer was also an issue, as the BMW lacked the sort of feedback that the Porsche had, while at the same time delivering more body roll than the rock-solid GT-R. This didn’t do much to inspire confidence. Cornering balance at the front and rear also lacked the progression of the Cayman, although it was, admittedly, on par with the Nissan. On some level, the 1M seemed to overwhelm its underpinnings with the sheer power of its engine, which wasn’t the case in our other two competitors.
If you want to define character in the 1M, you need look no further than that very same, beastly powerplant. The 3.0-liter, biturbocharged six is an absolute riot. There is so little turbo lag, and so much torque that it is truly a joy to run through the gears. Even in such esteemed company, the 1M’s engine stands out as a truly excellent item. We already said that the Bimmer feels as fast as the Cayman (and more brutal in acceleration), but what’s surprising is that it still feels brisk after a trip in the GT-R. That highlights just how much power is packed into this package.
The problem is that the potency of the motor is never quite enough to fully draw the car together as a whole, at least not in this storied company. The 1M Coupe is, at its base, the best version of the fit-for-public-consumption BMW 1-Series. That pedigree makes it a very fine small coupe, and certainly a massively quick one, but it isn’t quite up to the bloodlines of the mid-engined Porsche (simply one of the best-handling non-racecars in existence), and the engineered-for-dominance GT-R.
And yet, at $50,000, we have a hard time dismissing the 1M Coupe outright. If you’re merely looking for fun, the $20K or $40K you’ll save versus the competition is far from insignificant. Think of it this way: if most enthusiast buyers were to buy the 1M, without sampling the Cayman or the GT-R, we’d bet good money that many of them would end up calling the BMW the best car they’d ever driven.
Porsche Cayman R – The $70,000 Option
The Cayman R is fun to drive fast in a straight line, sure. It tracks well enough on the highway, and feels more stable at just above highway speeds than some of the 911s we’ve driven. It cruises along just fine, cuts in and out of traffic with ease, and looks damned good doing so (we never feel so fresh as when we see that curved hood with the bulges for the headlights out in front of us). But that’s not where this car truly impresses.
This Porsche is simply fantastic on all manner of curvy roads. It feels more at home with the steering wheel turned and the pedal mashed than it does cruising on the freeway. Large, swooping curves are dispatched with ease and oodles of speed. Tight corners and quick transitions are no problem for the Cayman R; it is, in fact unflinching. It handles terrifically, but we’ll go into more in depth on that momentarily.
A nice surprise, too, was how well the car handled rough roads, broken pavement, and even foul weather. It doesn’t get too upset over potholes, maintaining a good amount of stability despite its low weight. This is extra impressive when you consider that the car doesn’t offer any sort of adaptable suspension, making do with a (well-considered) set of fixed shocks. While not superbly conforming compared to, say, your standard crossover, we were still pleasantly surprised. In the rain, it proved grippy and confident, even at higher speeds and under cornering loads. Considering the weather during our time with the car, this was a particular blessing.
The Cayman’s steering was among some of the best we’ve had the pleasure of using. The weight of it felt very natural, and it fell right into our hands upon finding our seating position. It’s very direct, pointing the car in the exact direction we wanted it to go, every time. There was virtually no play in the steering wheel, but it still wasn’t overanimated or twitchy, like that of the GT-R. We were able to pilot the car very smoothly, with the steering feeling alive even on center. The steering also communicated well, letting us know what was going on between tire and pavement.
Also within easy reach were the wheel-mounted paddle shifters. We found that they are nicely tactile, and easy to find. Being mounted on the wheel, they were always right at hand, even in a corner.
The pedals offered good control, as well. The accelerator coaxes power out of the engine with a good amount of urgency, yet we had no problem driving the Cayman R very smoothly, whether trying to afford comfort for a passenger or trying to maintain stability powering out of a turn. The brakes feel nicely firm, and the relationship between the pedal and what happens at the wheels feels very appropriate. We also found the braking to be progressive, making it feel natural, especially when we had to drop speed quickly.
Other controls, however, weren’t quite as intuitive. The Sport and Sport Plus buttons are pretty self-explanatory, but they are small and tucked away at the bottom of the center stack, along with the button modulation exhaust noise. Temperature control was pretty much a guessing game, and not just because there was no air conditioning on board. We don’t usually consider door handles “controls,” but this still feels like the right place to tell you that the Cayman R’s nylon “pulls” are, to put it simply, rad.
The 3.4-liter 6-cylinder engine offers 330 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Sitting in the middle of the car, the weight of the engine offers the back wheels a bit more grip than if the power were coming from up front. It also helps that the 273 pound-feet of torque isn’t enough to send the rear wheels spinning at every aggressive launch. Instead, the car builds speed very smoothly, without a lot of drama. This may be a slight disappointment to eager muscle freaks hoping for full-blown, tire-smoking, rear-drive antics, but for the thinking driver who doesn’t mind staying attached to the road, it feels just about right. And, there’s no denying that, despite its composure, this sucker’s fast.
Our tester came equipped with the seven-speed Porsche Doppelkupplung transmission. Even with a dual-clutch as fine as this one, we’d still prefer to be rowing the gears on our own with the six-speed manual (and save a bit of coin, while we’re at it). That said, this trans is still very capable. When using the paddles on the wheel, it upshifted and downshifted with only a tick of delay. It readily knocked off double downshifts, too, which is something we really appreciate when braking hard into a sharp corner. Left to its own devices, the PDK changed gears quickly, smoothly, and accurately, and was willing to linger high in the rev range with either of the Sport modes poked on.
The sounds produced through the exhaust were quite lovely. With the exhaust button set for full sound, it offered up an urgent howl that would turn heads, and it sounded great echoing off the trees as we wound through the wooded roads with the windows down (no A/C, remember?).
Handling is at the Cayman R’s very essence.
This car turns in with gusto, holds on tight to the road, and isn’t shy about laying the sauce on thick upon exit, especially with the engine revving freely. We found that the grip was really good, and high amounts of lateral g-forces weren’t a problem for the rubber on the road. Though a rear-drive car, it offered confidence and stability on par with an all-wheel-drive vehicle. This allowed us to really carry a lot of speed through the bends, more than making up for any gripes about not feeling insanely accelerative.
We mentioned the steering earlier, as well as the stability of the Cayman R. We loved how this thing pointed right where we aimed it, and in the rare instances where we did actually have to make substantial adjustments mind-corner, the car was not hesitant to comply without theatrics. The handling almost felt telepathic in that way, and we found ourselves pushing the car a little harder in every corner without ever feeling overwhelmed.
We almost want to say that the suspension tuning is a great asset to this car’s handling prowess, but that would be a little misleading. It’s not the “tuning” as much as it is the fundamental aspects of the Cayman that make it so good. Namely, its engine placement (weight), center of gravity, height, width, and wheelbase are what give it such incredible poise. It’s not so much that the suspension adds to the quality of handling as it is that the suspension does nothing to harm the basic handling properties inherent in the car’s structure. Handling was built into this car when it was just a deign on paper, and Porsche was cautious and diligent enough in the building of the Cayman R as not to compromise that, or throw too many variables into the car that would.
When we define character in the Involvement Index, we ask ourselves, “Does this work?” We think that not only is it safe to say yes, it would be downright ignorant of us not to say, “You’re damned right it works!” From the basic design, to the excellent sport seats, to the great steering and great sound, everything goes together to create an encompassing driving experience. We especially like the details like the red straps in lieu of proper door handles (it’s a weight savings). Even the lack of air conditioning gives it character.
If the BMW is smoking a cigarette, the Cayman R is smoking a pipe, wearing a scarf and driving gloves and old-timey racing goggles. It’s a no-bologna sports car whose every aspect is focused toward creating a credible driving experience. Forget the smoking tires and ambient interior lighting. This car is for drivers who are looking for a confident, capable dancing partner that will challenge you to be your best every time you get behind the wheel.
What’s more, we like it twenty grand more than the BMW (assuming of course that we have the twenty grand to spare). Truth be told, we like it more than the more expensive Nissan, as well. But you’ll have to keep reading to find out why.
Nissan GT-R – The $90,000 Option
Here’s a peek behind the curtain: for variety scoring we look at a vehicle’s behavior in terms of stability at speed, stability over less-than-ideal surfaces, fluidity, and agility. In many ways the variety score is the most interesting portion of the Involvement Index to score, because it’s so hard for any one car to get all of those things just right.
The GT-R is a case in point here, and as tricky to nail down as any car we’ve tested (for Variety and much of the rest of the Index, too). For instance; the car certainly doesn’t go down the highway, at 80 mph, with the same sort of docile stability as, say, a BMW 7-Series. It hunts around the surface of the road on those massive tires, feels a bit twitchier than you’d like if you were a hard-core commuter, and generally makes life more difficult than it should be for that kind of banal driving. But (big one here), turn the speeds up to triple digits and the Nissan enters a realm of very high-speed stability that few cars can match. That same Bimmer, for instance, would likely feel pretty squirrelly at 150 mph, where the GT-R eats its breakfast.
The point here, which is indicative of the car as a whole, we’d say, is that this is a car that is happy when being driven at the very edge of the envelope, which is commendable. But, considering most people’s skills only allow them to glimpse that edge, while standing well back at a safe distance, it’s a bit hard to get the GT-R into that happy zone.
There’s no getting around the fact that the GT-R’s steering experience is a bit bizarre. At most times it feels way more detached from the road than we’d like for a car this fast. And yet, the tiller does offer some feedback in the form of mild tugging and vibration—it’s just that none of that information seems to have much to do with either the surface under the tires, or the tires themselves. Clearly there’s a lot going on that’s difficult for a driver to process in real time.
Action of the paddle shifters is smooth enough, but the transmission is really pretty slow to react, especially when being compared directly with Porsche’s PDK. Pedal feel, meanwhile, from both the brakes (which are heroic) and the throttle, is really good and easy to modulate.
The massive amount of information available from the fully customizable display (braking force, steering angle, g-force meters, etc) adds a huge dose of techy cool to the GT-R. It’s fair to say, though, that when you’re driving at speeds that make most of those readouts interesting, you’d damn well better be looking at the road and not the central display screen. Consider this your warning.
Here’s one strange and cool note on controls that we haven’t ever commented on, nor read about anyone else commenting on as yet (though we might have missed a review or 30, to be sure): the powered seat controls on the GT-R are amazing. One big multi-directional knob on the left of the driver’s seat controls all of the important adjustments (up/down, forward/back, angle, etc.), and it works so intuitively well that we wonder why no one else has adopted this system. Almost like the first iPod mono-wheel controller, this seat mover feels like the standard by which such systems should be judged.
Faster feeling when underway than even its impressive stats would lead you to believe, the GT-R’s turbocharged punch is almost supernatural to experience. Acceleration is brutal, and loud, and fast enough to feel scary despite the amazing grip that the GT-R offers to counter/complement its speed. What’s more, most of this thrust is available at any speed you choose to call it up. With the exception of a bit of a turbo-laggy section under 3000 rpm, the 3.8-liter V-6 is willing to rocket the car forward whenever you like—the GT-R pulls as hard from 100 mph as many fast cars do from 30. There are a few cars in the world that crush our chests harder under full throttle—various and sundry turbo’d Porsche 911s, Veyron, etc—but we can’t think of a one that costs less than Nissan’s $90K asking price. Here, and here alone, the GT-R shows real value versus its BMW and Porsche test mates, despite being more expensive than both of them.
The sound of all those fireworks detonating under the hood can’t be ignored, either, though opinion varies as to whether or not you’d want to turn down the volume. The GT-R is loud at all times—there’s a small section in the manual explaining that this is a car that makes a lot of unusual noises, ostensibly to keep owners from harrying their dealers with nervous phone calls—but the sound of the engine and the exhaust dominate the sonic profile. The song is brutal and unrelenting, which causes some driver’s to go gaga, and others to pull into the nearest parking spot. Do you like to listen to racecars? Ask yourself that, seriously, before you jump into GT-R ownership.
There’s no question that the GT-R is the most technically capable hander of this bunch. The Cayman R may be subtler and, frankly, more fun to pilot over a good road, but the GT-R will win against the stopwatch every time. If you are tracking the car, that’s a serious consideration.
Go beyond mere proficiency though, and you’ll find that Godzilla cares less about keeping his pilot attuned to the driving experience, and more about simply destroying every corner he encounters. The GT-R offers a far more punishing ride that either the BMW or the Porsche, but does it while offering less feedback most of the time, too. Cornering is completely flat, and there’s such overwhelming grip that one never feels as though even tight bends offer much of a challenge. Turn-in is really interesting here, as the GT-R proved willing to rotate with great speed in very tight stuff—90-degree turns and near-hairpins—while feeling much more lazy on obtuse angles.
Intense, overwhelming, dominating, unforgiving—the GT-R can be described by your choice of hard-edged adjectives. The Nissan is far more challenging to drive in a completely satisfying manner than either of our other cars, because its limits are so much higher, and less attention has been paid to driver/machine interaction at low or medium speeds.
For some, those who love superlative things, the GT-R is an unmatched value. It offers supercar performance for less than six-figures, cuts an unmissable form wherever it goes, and is 99.98-percent likely to be the fastest car at any given stoplight. For other drivers, those who want to feel as responsible for a perfectly executed corner as the vehicle they pilot, the GT-R is too single-minded and robotic in its execution to satisfy.
For us, the thrill of the GT-R and the pugnaciousness of the 1M can’t match the total, sublime package of the Cayman R. The middle child of our group in terms of prices proves also to be the best balanced car with regards to competency, emotion, and, most critically, involvement. You won’t make a regrettable choice here, whether you spend fifty large or ninety, but you’ll find the most subtle and soulful choice at your local Porsche dealership.