Hot Handlers: BMW M3 vs Lotus Evora S vs Nissan GT-R vs Porsche Cayman R

April 13, 2011
It's a tough time for yesterday's heroes. With the current automotive zeitgeist increasingly focused on economy, weight has become more relevant than sheer power, mechanical and electronic advancements have had an increasing effect on driving pleasure, downsizing has grown in importance, and design and engineering are guided not only by performance but by efficiency issues. That's why even the two newest members of this group of four performance coupes -- the Nissan GT-R and the Lotus Evora -- have, for different reasons, already started to show their age. The V-8-engined BMW M3 introduced in 2008 and the Porsche Cayman, which first came to market in 2006, are even longer in the tooth.
Performance Coupe Comparison
The good news is that all four of these cars have recently received a dash of modernity: BMW has developed a competition package for the M3, Lotus has added a supercharged S model to the Evora range, Nissan has refined and upgraded the GT-R, and Porsche has introduced a lighter and slightly more powerful R version of the Cayman. If speed were the sole decider in this matchup of extremely talented high-performance coupes, we would have one clear winner and three runners-up. After all, the Nissan GT-R continues to play in a performance league of its own.
In our testing, the 2012 GT-R hit 60 mph in an incredible 3.2 seconds, a mark that rivals any current Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche. But at 3829 pounds, Godzilla's own tarmac-peeler weighs 919 pounds more than the Cayman R, which explains why speed is not the only quality that matters. Still, the other three contestants had to come out of their shells to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds, according to their manufacturers' estimates.
The Cayman R with a PDK dual-clutch automatic and the Sport Chrono package requires 4.4 seconds to reach the 60-mph checkered flag, the M3 with a DCT dual-clutch automatic takes 4.5 seconds, and the Evora S (which is available only with a six-speed manual gearbox) needs 4.6 seconds. Not surprisingly, the Nissan also dominates the top-speed sweepstakes by hitting a claimed 197 mph against 175 mph for the Porsche, 172 mph for the Lotus, and a governed 155 mph for the BMW.
What about efficiency, you ask? At the fuel pump, the Nissan has improved slightly to an EPA-estimated 16/23 mpg city/highway, a measure that has been known to be cut in half as soon as you give it heavy doses of throttle. The M3 does considerably worse at 14/20 mpg, but the Lotus (17/26 mpg) and the nicely frugal Cayman R (20/29 mpg) generally practice moderation.
Performance Coupe Comparison Front In Motion
Of course, all cars are heavy drinkers when asked to perform, but the GT-R knocks down two or three glasses more than the others. On the credit side, it still could be said to offer good value for the money, even at $90,950. The rather naked M3 and the extremely basic Cayman R -- Porsche has stripped out the radio and air-conditioning -- start at $58,775 and $67,250, respectively, but can easily cost more than the alpha coupe from Japan when well equipped. Pricing for the Evora S hasn't yet been announced, but it should start at about $75,000, with a similar caveat regarding expensive extras.
There are three different engineering layouts among this quartet of sports cars. The Nissan represents the overkill approach, boasting four-wheel drive, a dual-clutch automatic, and a twin-turbo V-6. The M3 is old-school BMW: engine in the front, rear-wheel drive, and a choice of a manual or the DCT. Both the Lotus and the Porsche are mid-engined, but the Cayman is a two-seater while the Evora can be spec'd as a two-plus-two.
The new powers at Lotus don't exactly love the Evora, but they need it to bridge the gap until its next-generation cars are ready to roll off the line sometime in 2013. The Evora S uses a supercharged version of the Toyota-sourced 3.5-liter V-6. It develops 345 hp, up 69 hp from the regular Evora. While the BMW, the Nissan, and the Porsche love high speeds, the Lotus is best on second- and third-gear twisties; on challenging surfaces with camber changes, dips, and crests; and in corners with room to move so it can unleash its 295 lb-ft of torque.
The Elise's bigger brother represents a well-composed mix of pace-setting and sustainable, advanced and down-to-earth, really good and, in detail, strangely flawed. For a start, there are no side air bags. The six-speed automatic offered for the 280-hp model is also conspicuous by its absence, although that should join the fold this year. Climbing behind the wheel is a bit of an act, but once you're buckled, there is an unmistakable fusion between the car and its driver. It is the ensuing fluency of motion that impresses most. Between 4000 and 7000 rpm, up to 70 mph, and in the bottom three gears, the Evora is a hard-core sports car. Below 4500 rpm, beyond 70 mph, and in fourth, fifth, and sixth gears, however, it turns into a punchy GT.
BMW M3 Front End
The M3 lacks the Evora's split personality and is more homogeneous, but the V-8 rests heavily on the front axle, the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is pricey, and the vehicle dynamics are not only masterminded by the driver but also by a host of electronic aids known by acronyms such as ASC, CBC, EDC, and DSC. As long as you don't think of the new competition package as a substitute for the GTS edition (which isn't available in the United States anyway), you probably won't be disappointed. The M3 competition pack doesn't include carbon-ceramic brakes or the dual-clutch transmission as standard.
Instead, you get little tweaks like more lenient stability control, tauter damper settings in sport mode, a ride height that has been lowered by 0.4 inch, and custom nineteen-inch wheels. The BMW weighs 536 pounds more than the Lotus and 794 pounds more than the Porsche, and its high-revving, normally aspirated 4.0-liter V-8, rated at 414 hp and 295 lb-ft, is neither mold-breakingly powerful nor big-block physical. But like many of its predecessors, this M3 rescues itself by being sweet to drive.
With dynamic stability control (DSC) in Achtung! mode, the car from Munich meets all your needs, inducing a full measure of drama but without the slightest trace of trauma. With DSC switched off, you'd better photocopy your driver's license, because you're likely to lose it before the day is over. For maximum attitude and minimum risk, a front-engine/rear-wheel-drive configuration is hard to beat.
Big, bold, bad, blue-in a nutshell, this sums up our GT-R. If you think you know all about Nissan's supercoupe, please think again, because the modifications made for 2012 have taken away the rough edges that made living with the car such a compromise. Nissan has, for instance, fixed the noisy and grinding differentials, the jerky dual-clutch transmission that used to suffer from wind-up and shock, and the overly harsh dampening. Although the GT-R is still not a softie, the previously coarse interaction between its complex ingredients has mellowed quite a bit.
Performance Coupe Comparison
Two things that have not gone away, on the other hand, are the Nissan's considerable girth and weight. The GT-R needs space and gentle topography to excel. Throw in hairpins, narrow pavement, second-gear obstacles, or rapidly changing surfaces, and this grenade will explode in your hands if you don't lay off a little. On the autobahn, however, the mildly face-lifted, xenon-enhanced grille in the other guy's rearview mirror is the old and new king of the road.
Although the GT-R has been famous for its phenomenal grunt and urge from day one, Nissan upped the ante for 2011, from 485 to 530 hp and from 434 to 448 lb-ft. The acceleration between 145 and 190 mph makes your cheeks glow with the same intensity as the two turbochargers, the ultraquick paddleshifted gearbox maintains its seamless urge from the first on-ramp to the final off-ramp, and, between them, the reinforced Brembos and the shaved Bridgestones decelerate the car like a reverse tsunami.
To many Porschephiles, the Cayman is the next best thing to a 911. If the stopwatch is your main yardstick, the new R version makes the 911 Carrera almost obsolete. The Cayman R has shed 121 pounds, gained 10 hp, and received a lowered chassis (by 0.8 inch) and a more dynamic suspension setup, along with an all-black fixed rear wing that looks about as subtle as the huge Porsche decals on the flanks. Costing some $10,000 less than the brand's iconic halo model, the 330-hp two-seater can be perceived as a performance-car bargain, despite the fact that the more versatile Boxster S is arguably an even better buy.
Performance Coupe Comparison Front In Motion
Although the R goodies include lightweight wheels, slimmer seats, and doors made of aluminum, you'll now be charged extra for essentials such as air-conditioning. Like all Porsches, this one exudes solidity. However, the cabin doesn't look or feel particularly special, the ergonomics are outdated, and the packaging is tight even by Evora S standards. With one twist of the ignition key, though, the Porsche spell takes hold. After all, nothing sounds as raw and pure as a boxer engine, and nothing steers better than two front wheels that must neither carry the weight of an engine nor assume propulsion duties.
The Cayman R feels light, is agile, responds immediately, carves around bends like a slalom ace, constantly checks the motions along and around its axes, and is an expert at matching orders with execution. Boot the accelerator in the middle of a damp bend, and you get a wheel-spin warning in first, a kick in the butt in second, a dummy slide in third, and a brief protesting yell in fourth.
Next, we go through the getting-to-know-each-other routine by setting the chassis and transmission modes in Sport, then Sport Plus, and finally turning off stability control. Sport Plus loves high revs but hates gearchanges and is thus irrelevant on public turf. Disabling stability control (PSM off) introduces a looseness that could mean understeer but more likely becomes oversteer, which keeps both the driver's arms and right foot busy. Although the Cayman's front end is light and in some situations a bit wayward, it contains enough nerve endings that the driver can keep the car on course by modulating steering and throttle. This Porsche is a very tactile machine, and it calls for a switched-on wheelman who knows how to time and gauge his inputs.
The most desirable M3s have always been the limited-edition cars: Sport Evo, CSL, GTS. The competition pack makes the car feel sufficiently different from a standard M3, but the small difference in handling and roadholding is more obvious on a track than on a public road. In a way, the BMW is an oddity because it combines the amenities, the cabin space, and the engine of a compact cruiser with the transmission, the suspension, and the aspirations of a proper corner carver. The optional dual-clutch automatic is nice to have, but the stiff, tramlining nineteen-inch wheels are somewhat counterproductive.
BMW M3 Front End
In M Dynamic mode, the M3 can dance across any apex, but for the full tire-smoke program DSC should be deactivated completely. Despite its dynamic talents, the on-demand slidemeister disappoints in the EfficientDynamics department, with less-than-stellar fuel economy. Its message is all about high-performance premium luxury and not so much about contemporary sportiness, and it really would benefit from the turbocharged six-cylinder engine that BMW is readying for the next generation.
The GT-R is a different car but has a similar story. It weighs too much, and it drinks too much. But it would still be my personal choice simply because I happen to be a speed junkie. I've been known to drive the 750 miles from Munich to Dortmund and back just to hear Ludovico Einaudi live, when getting there half an hour quicker matters. Since German roads are among the world's best kept, the twenty-inch wheels and the steely suspension don't bother me much.
What counts instead is the GT-R's enormous passing potential, which allows the driver to make use of small gaps in traffic, soak up every bit of unrestricted terrain as quickly as possible, and keep the momentum building even at 100-plus mph. On dry blacktop, provoking attitude will only triple the tire bill, but in the wet, playing with the diffs and with stability control is a hoot, even if it jeopardizes the silly Nissan warranty. When we drove in convoy through the challenging twisties that spiral up from Fuchstal toward Waal, the GT-R got there more quickly than the rest of the pack, with no shortcuts needed.
The Evora S almost deserves a bonus for being so much better than expected. It rides with exceptional suppleness and compliance, and its supercharged V-6 sounds throaty and vocal and quite distinctive. On top of that, its handling is creamy, its steering is extremely communicative, and its chassis knows all the facets from grip to slide.
BMW M3 Front End
What about the gearbox? Well, it still feels a little stiff and wooden, but the shift action is perfectly acceptable, the ratios have been sped up, and, in the end, one doesn't really miss that automatic option. The Evora S is not as well made as its rivals, its cockpit is a concoction of pseudomodern and pseudoclassic elements, and you still have to spend extra for bigger wheels, xenon headlamps, and navigation.
For those who are willing to accept iffy residuals and a hopeless dealer network, though, the Lotus is the most compelling choice. It has more soul than the BMW and the Porsche but not that much less substance. It guarantees a highly competent, truly entertaining, and totally involving driving experience. It is different with a twist, British without the usual quirkiness, and offers the intriguing promise of a potentially up-and-coming brand. Numerically and factually, the BMW M3 and the Porsche Cayman R have a lot going for them, but right now, I'd rather wait for their follow-ups, which are due in 2013 and 2012, respectively.
BMW M3 coupe with competition package
BASE PRICE: $58,775
ENGINE: 32-valve DOHC V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 4.0 liters (244 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 414 hp @ 8300 rpm
TORQUE: 295 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
DRIVE: Rear-wheel
STEERING: Hydraulically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRE SIZE F, R: 245/35YR-19, 265/35YR-19
L x W x H: 181.8 x 71.0 x 55.8 in
WHEELBASE: 108.7 in
TRACK F/R: 60.6/60.6 in
WEIGHT: 3704 lb
EPA MILEAGE: 14/20 mpg
0-60 MPH: 4.5 sec
TOP SPEED: 155 mph
BASE PRICE: $75,000 (est.)
Performance Coupe Comparison Front End
ENGINE: 24-valve DOHC supercharged V-6
DISPLACEMENT: 3.5 liters (211 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 345 hp @ 7000 rpm
TORQUE: 295 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
DRIVE: Rear-wheel
STEERING: Hydraulically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRE SIZE F, R: 225/40YR-18, 255/35YR-19
L x W x H:: 170.9 x 72.8 x 48.1 in
WHEELBASE 101.4 in
TRACK F/R: 61.7/62.0 in
WEIGHT: 3168 lb
EPA MILEAGE: 17/26 mpg
0-60 MPH: 4.6 sec
TOP SPEED: 172 mph
BASE PRICE: $90,950
ENGINE: 24-valve DOHC twin-turbocharged V-6
DISPLACEMENT: 3.8 liters (232 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 530 hp @ 6400 rpm
TORQUE: 448 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
DRIVE: 4-wheel
STEERING: Hydraulically assisted SUSPENSION, FRONT Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRE SIZE F, R: 255/40YR-20, 285/35YR-20
L x W x H: 183.1 x 74.9 x 54.0 in
WHEELBASE: 109.4 in
TRACK F/R: 62.6/63.0 in
WEIGHT: 3829 lb
EPA MILEAGE: 16/23 mpg
0-60 MPH: 3.2 sec*
TOP SPEED: 197 mph
BASE PRICE: $67,250
ENGINE: 24-valve DOHC flat-6
DISPLACEMENT: 3.4 liters (210 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 330 hp @ 7400 rpm
TORQUE: 273 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
DRIVE: Rear-wheel
STEERING: Hydraulically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Strut-type, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRE SIZE F, R: 235/35YR-19, 265/35YR-19
L x W x H: 171.1 x 76.9 x 50.6 in
WHEELBASE: 95.1 in
TRACK F/R: 58.5/60.2 in
WEIGHT: 2910 lb
EPA MILEAGE: 20/29 mpg
0-60 MPH: 4.4 sec
TOP SPEED: 175 mph


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2015 BMW M3

Base RWD 4-Dr Sedan I6
starting at (MSRP)
3.0L I6
Fuel Economy
17 City 26 Hwy
2015 BMW M3