Lotus Elise SC vs Porsche Cayman S vs BMW 135i

Stripped out cabins, light-weight body shells and unforgiving bucket seats are not the sole realm of the circuit-based race car. To extract the ultimate level of performance by removing all but the very bare essentials has long been the ethos of one manufacturer, Lotus. It’s a clever trick.

Top marques have recently cottoned onto this fact, emulating it with great success by adorning their performance saloons in the glorious criss-crossing weave of carbon fibre as though it were the automotive equivalent of Luis Vuitton, and taking their exteriors back to the drawing board to further tweak their designs for the slightest gains in aerodynamics. Gone now are the creature comforts and modern conveniences enjoyed by the executive dicer, but are so detrimental to sub 5 second 0-100km/h acceleration.

CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON

In a world where the supercharged Lotus Elise SC prowls the street in a guise most kindly referred to as hardcore, the similarly priced Porsche Cayman S seems a friendlier prospect. Both cars are rear wheel drive and both seat two adults with varying degrees of comfort. In each car your ears are assaulted by an engine where the rear seats should be, but apart from also sharing the same amount of wheels and doors, that’s where the similarities end. The list of differences however is a big one. Most notably however, is living with them. In the Porsche you feel spoilt; the cabin is constructed from a gorgeous array of materials, the exhaust note deep and throaty with just the right amount of induction sound intruding in on the cockpit. The leather seats grip you reassuringly without any hint of the hard-edged that so defines the other car.

The Lotus, once you’ve grappled with the c-pillar and straddled the Elise-branded door sill in an attempt to man the controls, is less opulent. Once your bum’s been planted, you’ll find little more than a tiny unassisted steering wheel and leather bound gear and hand brake lever, to keep you occupied. It’s Spartan to the point of being barren, save for the rudimentary (but charming) air conditioner and aftermarket CD player. As soon as you’ve twisted the engine into life via the old-fashioned steel key and a well flattened throttle, it all begins to make sense. The highly strung 1796cc four cylinder Toyota engine is spurred into life, it’s supercharger wailing like a banshee as the redline is licked by the needle with enough verve to rival a motorcycle.

Sound deadening is minimal, the tuned lump behind you is animal, you begin to feel more and more like the biggest cog in this infernal machine as you pump the throttle to the tune of 161kW. Ergonomics are top-notch, my left hand falls with ease onto the slick-shifting gear knob as, clutch depressed, I shift into first gear. With a resounding click I ease off the clutch and the stiff chassis immediately starts to roll. It’s a knife’s edge I’m balancing on, but still extremely forgivable as I feed her more throttle till I’m well past quarter pedal travel. My left foot is completely removed from the clutch as I feed the last few inches of throttle and wham! Despite it not being a full bore launch, the Elise is effortlessly catapulted at the horizon with just the faintest twitch to signify the sudden transfer of weight and regaining of traction. That’s exhilarating performance inherent of a machine with more in common with a go-kart than its rival from Stuttgart.

Enter stage left then an unlikely hero with a sticker price almost R250 000 less than this dynamic duo but offering the same mad-cap performance and track-focused driving experience with the added bonus of an extra two seats. BMW know a thing or two about Motorsport too, tuning by virtue of shoe-horning a mammoth motor into a small body. This time their much vaunted sequentially turbo-charged straight six famed for rocketing the 335i saloon almost into M3 territory, but now in the miniscule body shell of the 1 series coupe with it’s curb weight 150kgs below it’s 3 series boet. On paper it’s 225kW power output and 400Nm of torque makes it the most powerful engine here, easily competitive with the Cayman S and by that virtue it stands a chance against the seriously quick Elise too. Standing shoulder to shoulder however, the baby Bimmer is looking severely under-equipped and dare we say out if it’s league? Surely on a race track, it would be a case of the Lotus takes it all, game, set and match. But these are road cars, all offering the same promise to its potential owner, ‘serious track toy credentials with real world practicality’. The winner therefore would have to be the most entertaining, yet liveable, for the ultimate Sunday drive. And for that we need the scariest and therefore most thrilling ribbon of tar we could find.

LEGENDARY PLAYING FIELDS

When Colin Chapman built the superbly capable chassis of his first Lotus over 40 years ago, chances are that he was completely unaware that elsewhere; his namesake would be this treacherous stretch of road linking Hout Bay with Noordhoek in the Cape. We pay him homage by revisiting Chapman’s Peak Drive with our trio of tarmac terrorists. Boasting 114 turns along it’s 9 kilometre length, and first carved out of the mountain in 1922, Chapman’s Peak is bang for buck a bargain at R24 per car for both a thrilling drive and a bit of a history lesson. I tackle it first in our underdog challenger.

1 PART DAVID, 2 PARTS GOLIATH

The BMW’s cabin is a breath of fresh air compared to its menacing combatants, immediately recognisable as a BMW with the familiar assortment of gauges and clocks all gloriously covered in faux carbon fibre and aluminium panelling to inject just the right amount of visual performance cues to remind you of what lies beneath the elegantly crafted bonnet. Air-con, a MP3 enabled sound system and power steering, the gang’s all here, but put foot to firewall and the acceleration you crave is there too, albeit form the leathery cocoon of the BMW cabin. First gear is quickly dispatched and you’re lunging for second. The revs are raced to the redline but you’re forced hard onto the brakes as the first set of corners arrive. Speed is scrubbed off with authority thanks to the large diameter BMW brake discs and six pot callipers, massaging the 1 series from 100-0kph in just 2.67 seconds. That’s a figure you’re sure to be grateful for when piloting this close to a sheer drop into the icy sea. Chapman’s is a tight mixture of bends and undulations, slightly banked corners and only occasionally punctuated by an unfortunately short straight. The 1 series takes them all in its stride, barely pushing the nose and tucking in hard on turn in. Almost immediately the biggest difference is made noticeable between it and its peers. Despite setting your driver’s seat to its lowest notch, you still feel as though you’re sitting on top of the car, as opposed to inside it, a feeling so convincingly portrayed in the Porsche and Lotus. As a result, feedback from the road feels somewhat numbed by the higher vantage point. Once you’ve overcome the feeling of disjointedness, you’re able to better exploit the benefits of the BMW’s chassis. It’s divine, allowing you to brake late and dive into bends at a velocity you’d normally consider dangerous in a larger saloon. Steering is weighty but responsive further enhancing the athletic feel of the suspension as it translates each bump and slope through the sports buckets into the driver’s body.

The doubly blown six cylinder engine sounds impressive as it bounces along the walls and tunnels of Chapmans, revving freely all the way to its shift point at 7000rpm. Marvellous, but the best is surely yet to come.

THE PERFECT DRUG

It does come, and it’s wearing the Porsche emblem on its gleaming nose. The seats are magnificent, bolstering you into them so that you may snugly enjoy a cockpit sculpted for the true driver. The power assisted steering enables me to quickly and easily circle the parking lot, before beginning my downhill attack on the mountain. Clutch in, I tease the throttle so that I may better enjoy that throaty exhaust burble from both banks of the 3.4litre flat 6 boxer engine. It’s a provocative sound, goading me, teasing me into action; I can’t imagine a Cayman S owner spending his life merely trundling along in this car. This was a machine that needed its legs stretched to fully wrench out all 217kW, I comply happily.

The clutch is dropped and with a spirited boot to the gas pedal the bruiser is launched down the hill. First gear is nigh on the limiter and I’m clutching at the gear knob. Second, third, brakes! This is no poser wagon, don’t pretend for a second that it’s merely a Boxster with a helmet. What you’ve got under your arse is nine-eleven lite. The steering is flawless, with the heavy rump of the Cayman swinging predictably through the bends, never faulting, allowing you to stay on the power for longer and longer. Two more bends are sent from my windscreen to my rear view mirror in the blink of an eye. Big Porsche brakes ensure that you have a fighting chance in keeping all that power reigned in, but even then only just. The lower stance and centre of gravity means that handling is raw, power undiluted and this translates into a driver experience nigh on perfection. Windy road? Have a Porsche. Try a Lotus.

JUNGLE GYM KHANA

I do, knowing full well that the 5 minutes spent climbing into it would be forgotten after the 5 seconds barrelling up the mountain in the Elise. With the roof removed I manage to board her in a record breaking 2 minutes, but come close to disembowelling myself in the porno leather cup holder. All is forgotten as I’ve buckled in and thumbed the start button. The mechanical whirr from the fuel pump is quickly drowned out as a few jabs at the throttle turn the quiet ambience of the mountain into the start line at your nearest grand prix. It’s loud, scratchy and primitive. But mostly it’s scary as you remind yourself that here, now, in this car the list of mod-cons that have gotten the axe include the ABS, EBD, ESP, TC and other safety aids we’ve come to rely on. You begin to coast up to the first bend, glide through in anticipation of an unpredictable bout of understeer or oversteer, neither come. Instead the Elise remains planted in true go-kart fashion, so we bring on the noise and see what happens. The 17” wheels have been fit with the finest rubber and it’s immediately apparent as you exit the bend. Twitchy, that’s the best way to describe a balls-to-the-wall launch in the Lotus. Sure enough she bites into the tarmac and never lets go. The sound is remarkable filling the space between the floor and where the roof should have been with the most glorious cacophony of piston cum supercharger mayhem. It’s loud, really loud as you keep pushing up the revs. Gear changes are firm but flow from one notch to the next with no effort at all. After 10 seconds you’re in love with this machine, after 20 seconds you’re a part of it. Every dip, every gradient, every embankment is felt, experienced and dispatched by virtue of the driver’s ability to do so. It’s just pure racing pleasure.

VERDICT

The performance figures of the BMW 135i means that for just R431 500 in basic trim you get a tremendously capable track tool that can not only hold it’s own against the heavyweights on these pages, but it also makes a very worthy opponent to BMW’s very own fire-breathing V8-powered M3, and for a whopping R300 000 less. Those are figures you simply cannot ignore and were it based on bargain-buying alone, would win the 135i the trophy.

Climb into an Elise however and your perspective will change. In South Africa today, you can pick up this very model with its clever Lotus engineered supercharger system for R599 000. That’s a lot more expensive than the BMW as opposed to in Europe where the gap is considerably closer. That makes the BMW an even mightier bargain on our roads. In defence of the Elise, for that extra premium you get a ridiculously capable performance car capable of super car acceleration, race car handling and a connection with the road that you simply need to sample first hand before you can appreciate it. It also features leg cramps, charley horses, a portable jungle gym (roof) and a boot capable of transporting a pair of laptops.

The Porsche however, well that’s just golden. Effortlessly incorporating the best of both worlds, the Porsche Cayman S boasts blistering handling and an exhilarating drive, mere inches off the ground but without the compromises so obviously noticeable in the Elise. The leathery confines of the cabin showcase the perfect blend of performance versus luxury, and once it’s all been said and done the Cayman still boasts the biggest trick of them all. It’s a Porsche, which means that after you’ve won the race, got the girl and drank the beer, you won’t need to explain to anybody why it’s cool. As you would have to in the bargain BMW, or the lairy Lotus.