SOME PEOPLE JUST idealise proper, mid-engine cars in a way they don't those of any other configuration. No big deal – it's okay to know a bit more about the Lotus Espirit or Fiat X1/9 than one probably should; or to never miss an opportunity to rue WRC's stillborn Group S. Maybe, for this person, there’s a Toyota MR2 in their past, the old one that looked like it could split logs if hit with a really big hammer.
While these loveable folks might not be able to afford the cars of their mid-engine fantasies, they secretly aspire to one day get into a Lotus Elise. Or a Porsche Cayman. At least that was the case about 10 years ago, because now they're a bit more spoilt. There’s the Alfa Romeo 4C with all the ’tude of a baby Ferrari; and newer still, the Alpine A110, championing not just Gallic vibes but classic mid-engine dynamics and lower weight with its trick all-aluminium chassis.
Yes, this proliferation of small, two-seat mid-engine sports cars simultaneously excites and overwhelms those who just want to hear an induction grumble, or turbo hiss, aft of their ears instead of fore. So in the interests of science, we’re taking the best circa-$100K mid-engine sports cars for a spin – not on the brakes into a corner, let's hope – in order to name the best.
Of course, the staple of this here comparison has to be the Porsche 718 Cayman. In its base form, our test car is equipped with the brilliant seven-speed dual-clutch Doppelkupplung (PDK) automatic so as to achieve transmission parity with our other contenders. The big news with the 718 is of course the engine. It’s out with the singing, supposedly gas-guzzling free-breathing 2.7-litre flat-six; in with a thrummy turbocharged 2.0-litre flat-four which promises to imbue the compact Porsche with 911 Turbo performance from just a decade or two ago. Meaty outputs of 220kW/380Nm reach the rear wheels via an old-school standard mechanical limited slip diff. And of course the 718 knows all the tricks to use as little petrol as possible, be that coasting, start-stop and lord knows what else.
WIDE AND LOW, AND TRUE TO ITALIAN CAR DESIGN, THE ALFA ROMEO 4C SPIDER OOZES SEX APPEAL
At $137,840 as-tested, this 718 is the most expensive car here, the new Alpine A110 a considerable $34K cheaper. But then it is quite a different car. Alpine pilfered Renault Sport for its best hot hatch engineers (coincidence then that the new generation Clio RS and Megane RS lost their mojo?) to resurrect the famed Alpine brand from the 1960s and '70s. It’s got that all-aluminium chassis helping to bring weight to just 1103kg (versus the 718’s 1335kg) with a Megane RS’s 1.8-litre turbocharged inline-4 amidships, paired with a compact seven-speed dual-clutch sending a perky 185kW/320Nm through an open diff to two double-wishbone-located rear wheels.
Next up is a car that looks like it took the Spider memo a bit too literally. With its compact but slightly gangly proportions the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is actually quite a gorgeous thing the more you look at it. Wide and low, and true to Italian car design, the 4C oozes sex appeal. Open the door and the seduction continues; there are wide sills of exposed, glossy carbon-fibre weave reminding you this is the cheapest new car you can buy with a carbon tub. Bolted between the two rear strut towers is basically the same 1.8-litre turbo inline-4 you’d find in the front of a Giulietta QV hot hatch. A six-speed dual-clutch transmission manages 177kW/320Nm to the rear wheels only.
It’s the Alfa that’s first to line up Heathcote Park Raceway through its windscreen on a cold, dry, sunny morning. Having ducked your head to get under the low, removable cloth roof, while simultaneously folding yourself in order to get over the very wide carbon sills, you feel like you’re sitting in something special in the 4C. The cabin is cosy without much space between occupants and punctuating all the cheap, hard, scratchy plastic are curious splashes of expensive leather. There’s also no avoiding the single-DIN head unit in the middle of the whole shebang, looking as if it's come straight from Supercheap Auto. Bits of wiring loom dangle from under the dash and there is barely anywhere to put a phone or wallet but hey, it looks cool and for an Alfa that's what matters most.
Turning the key summons a loud, unfiltered exhaust burble, and then launch control is engaged by activating Race mode with the ‘DNA’ centre console drive mode switch. Left foot on the brake, right foot flat, the revs build to 3500rpm, off the brake and you’re pushed back into the seat in a frenzy of chattering traction, loud turbo hissing and twin-clutch upchange braps.
It’s exciting. It's an event. And, if we're honest, it's a bit easy. The 4C pips its claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.5sec with a 4.44sec best effort, 400m meanwhile taking 12.76sec at 174.24km/h. It's a slight relief easing off after the 400m mark as things start to feel a bit wild in the ol' 4C the faster you go, especially if there are some bumps on your chosen drag strip.
The other two are pillars of high speed stability in comparison, but thanks to their own launch control programs, equals in terms of skill required. Compared to the 4C the Alpine A110 requires no special contortionism to get into, its light, small aluminium door revealing what is basically a tarted-up Renault interior. But tarted up in a very nice way, everything you touch feeling premium enough, including the outstanding fixed-back bucket seats. Visibility is excellent and Alpine has done well to create a spacious interior for such a small car.
Thumbing the red starter button – the keyfob is like a chunky credit card – reveals a grumbly exhaust note much like that of a Clio RS. To vanish down a drag strip, select the launch control, mash the brake and accelerator with left and right feet and lift off the former after the revs have reached the pre-programmed 2700rpm. The Alpine very noticeably squats into soft rear suspension, wheelspin minimal, intake grumble, turbo whoosh and angry exhaust all mixing together to create a loud and memorable note. Loud beeps indicate time for a new gear, 0-100km/h taking 4.56sec (the claim is 4.5) and the quarter 12.71sec at 178.57km/h. It could have been faster too if you could manually adjust the launch revs, our grippy surface possibly accepting more than the 2700rpm given. But for a little car, the A110 has big acceleration.
Next up, the Porsche. As you get inside the 718, demure, professional, mature are words that come to mind; function clearly got an equal say as form when it came to designing the interior. In that sense the Cayman interior has the least amount of exciting details to discover and is most interested in supplying an effective workspace for the job of driving.
Turn the keyfob and a blindfolded person might guess you just started a Subaru WRX but getting over that, for the cheapest Porsche sports car you can buy, the Cayman is eager to surprise a few cars when it comes to acceleration.
It's the 718 that makes you wonder if the starting end of Porsche's own dragstrip is subsiding into the earth without it realising. Launch control brings up a very high 6100rpm (redline is 7200rpm) hinting at some serious traction. Lift off the brake and the computer expertly slips clutch and rubber for a relatively fuss-free but awesomely punchy 4.38sec to
And it does exactly the same time again, and again, and again, with so much less fuss and more stability than the 4C especially. And while, after testing the A110, the Cayman’s brake pedal feels startlingly long and soft upon the first hit from 100km/h to zero, the Porsche pulls up in a full-ABS stop in just 31.95m – a good four metres less than the 4C which has so much ABS intervention the front tyres could be hard plastic.
Round two takes place at a half wet, half dry Haunted Hills track approximately two hours south east of Melbourne, and it’s on this tight, twisty, undulating and unforgiving hillclimb circuit that our triplet become significantly easier to split.
Driving the Alfa, you first find that fantasies of lovely, old school manual unassisted steering are totally out of whack with the 4C‘s reality. Low-speed heaviness does not equate to on-the-move bliss in terms of rack speed, weighting and feel. It's just permanently too heavy, a little bit too slow and with a surprising lack of feel. We're sorry to say a bad electric power steering system would probably be preferable to the 4C's unassisted set-up – at least it would be lighter.
On the track the 4C flits between being a handful and a challenge. Understeer is everywhere, like the front tyres are half the width of the rears, and it's difficult to drive around it as the grippy rear feels to let go in sudden, 15-degree increments. Power can arrive all at once as the turbo comes on which can translate into more understeer. Power oversteer is wild and tricky to catch with the slow, heavy steering. The first lap or two the 4C feels a bit like a fun riddle to solve, as you try to figure out how it wants to be driven. A few laps later you're out of ideas and ready to park it.
The reverse is true in the brilliant Alpine A110. It’s a total breath of fresh air – and completely different to drive. The steering is beautifully light and deft. The suspension is soft to the point of being a novelty, the chassis reacting to even the slightest input. You’d think this would make it a bit of a handful but ‘tune in’ to what it’s doing and you will not want to get out of the Alpine on a track. And not just because it has a mad predilection for oversteer of every variety, which it does, like something’s broken in the rear suspension.
A tiny invitation on the brakes into a corner? Oversteer. A carefully timed lift mid-corner? Oversteer. Boot it at the start of a corner in second gear with the ESC off? Open diff be damned, sideways you go…
The lack of weight equates to an increased feeling of control as there’s simply less of the A110 moving around. Get comfortable with the grippy, pointy front end and progressively wayward rear and the A110 is, honestly, one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven on a racetrack. The punchy engine and quick-shifting twin-clutch feel great here, too; as do the brakes.
The Cayman feels serious in comparison, cornering a lot flatter on lower, stiffer springs, with a lot more grip. It's much less interested in being silly. There is a heaviness about it compared to the other cars – the way it sits on its springs, its control weights. It would likely be the fastest car here, with its borderline-perfect, precise steering; incredibly well-judged feel through the controls including brake and throttle. Its torque-rich turbocharged engine pulling through the slick-shifting PDK. The rapid Cayman doesn’t do much wrong.
Except the Porsche Stability Management (PSM) doesn’t go all the way off. It says it is, but it’s still on in the background – if you want to back it into corners on the brake and attempt to hold long, lurid powerslides, you might run into trouble. Overcoming its relatively high grip is tricky at the compact Haunted Hills track, but Associate Editor Newman is keen to give it a go. And as such, draws the PSM‘s ire. Me? There feels to be parameters within ‘PSM Off’ I am personally able to have enough fun within, including easily as much corrective lock as one desires driving out of a second-gear corner in the wet.
It’s possible this would be a big deal if you intended to take your 718 to bigger tracks and try to really explore its outstanding chassis – the last thing you want is an ESP intervention and a flashing light when you thought it was off. Philosophically for a Porsche sports car, it somewhat goes against the grain.
It’s less trouble on the road where the sheer speed, stability and seriousness of the 718 mark it against the others. It is by far the best driver’s car here if a twisty back road is more your habitat than a track day. With its precise front end it’s incredibly easy to place, rabidly fast for the 'cheap Porsche' and any rear end attitude is entirely yours to create out of first and second gear corners with the throttle. It’s one of those cars that gives more and more, the deeper you dig and the harder you drive.
For the driver addicted to a bit of tyre slip, confidence is harder to cultivate in the A110 simply because the crazed oversteer that is such a laugh on a track, makes it a bit of a nervous affair on the road unless you know the stretch of blacktop back-to-front. There is no real way of driving the A110 on the road that isn’t just below its limit, enjoying instead the manic acceleration, the pitch and yaw, the way the A110 breathes with the road. It's hard to drive the A110 in anything but a fast touring manner, which might not be what a lot of people are expecting, or want.
Curiously there is a lot more fun to be had in the 4C on the road than track. Enjoyment in the 4C is basically blats of mad acceleration, the turbo very loud behind your head, blow-offvalve flutter on quickly-shut throttles and crisp twin-clutch
But this is a discovery you make of the 4C long after you’ve basically written it off. As a sports car, it’s a carbon tub – and a pretty decent powertrain – wondering what went wrong with its suspension and steering. You buy a 4C for the way it looks, the way it accelerates, the sounds, the way it makes you feel. And if you don’t give a rats about track days or handling, the 4C makes you feel pretty damn good.
The Alpine A110 lives up to the hype. On a tighter track like the one we used for our testing, we honestly struggle to think of cars that are more fun. That you don’t want to get out of, lap after lap after lap. It’s a total bag of laughs. It has a tonne of acceleration, it sounds good, looks funky, it’s a bit different, the interior is pretty good despite some impracticalities. The soft, beautifully judged passive suspension is not just a novelty but a bit of a revelation. But short of flicking the ESC off and putting the brain in the glovebox, it forces us into a driving style on a twisty road that we’re not interested in.
WHERE‘S THE TOYOTA SUPRA?
Why it‘s not here
THE NEW Toyota Supra hadn't been released when we did this comparo, but it has no real place in it anyway. It's the wrong shape, the engine is in the wrong place and it has too many cylinders.
Except, the new Supra is chasing exactly the same buyers as our mid-engined trio. Chief engineer Tetsuya Tada has said publicly that if the Supra has a rival, it's the Cayman.
Against the clock it would‘ve been close, but in the real world the flexibility of the Toyota's turbo six gives it an edge. It mightn't have the purity of a midship layout but the Supra is still a very serious sports car that doesn‘t necessarily care much for the Alpine's antics.
It‘s hard to be definitive without driving them all back-to-back, but factor in the Toyota's price advantage and it's right in the mix.
And so, on balance, the 718 wins. Did you think it wouldn’t? Yeah, this as-tested car might be $137K but unoptioned, $118K buys you essentially the same car. That’s still nearly 20 large over a 4C or A110 and that’s got to be taken into consideration. But it’s worth the extra. On balance, it's not just probably the fastest but it's the best ‘car’ here. Whatever was lost in the switch from flat-six to turbo boxer-four has been compensated with incredible performance. It’s seriously fast, but beyond that, it’s seriously good. The stuff of mid-engine fantasies.