Adrenalin junkies

When it comes to having fun, one of these sports cars wins by a smile

WORDS ALEX INWOOD PHOTOS CRISTIAN BRUNELLI

SKY pregnant with rain makes climbing into the track-focused Caterham CSR175, with its semi-slick tyres, no ABS and no traction control, a daunting experience.

Iím so preoccupied Ė maybe even a little scared Ė that I burn my right leg on its exposed side exhaust as I flop into the driverís seat. My skin only kisses the hot metal for a millisecond, but itís enough to blister. Never have I wanted to swap cars so much. And a Cayman GTS and Jag F-Type R coupe are parked tantalisingly close.

This gathering of exotica couldnít be more different.

Red, white and green; huge, sleek and impossibly tiny Ė this trioís aesthetic differences mirror the disparity of their oily bits. Thereís a choice of four, six or eight cylinders, aspirated or forced induction, a manual, automatic or dual-clutch gearbox, and, unusually, two with a roof and doors and one without. Joyously, the one constant of these cars is rear-wheel drive.

Normal Wheels comparison rules donít apply here.

These three sports cars donít have much in common and there are the wildly different price tags: $89,000 for the Caterham, $160,900 for the Porsche, and $219,130 for the Jaguar, before options are fitted.

How can we compare them? The answer is simple: at their core, each of this trio is designed and created to be exciting. So forget numbers and figures, this test will be judged in smiles, laughter and adrenalin.

A Happily, few places have the ability to pump the adrenalin like the Bryant Park track, also known as Haunted Hills. Nestled in the rolling landscape of south-east Victoria, itís a plunging complex of sweepers and hairpins draped in the shadow of a coal mineís smoke stack. Itís not a playground for the weak-hearted, heavy-footed or stupidly brave.

Haunted Hills can bite. ďSee that left-hander?Ē says the track manager as we roll through the gates. ďGet it wrong there and it has a nine-foot drop. Just ask the bloke who completely destroyed his 911...Ē

Imposing as Haunted Hills may be, particularly given its slippery surface is now glistening with rain, each of this trio is well armed with track-honed engineering.

The F-Type R, with its beautiful styling and earbleedingly loud exhaust, is not only the hardest and fastest Jaguar you can buy right now but, thanks to a tauter suspension tune and trick electronic rear differential, it promises to be just as quick through the corners as it is in a straight line. This particular car is also fitted with Jaguarís monstrous carbon-ceramic brakes Ė a $20K option Ė meaning we can slam the middle pedal all day and theyíll never fade.

The GTS is similarly the fastest Cayman on sale (at least until the hardcore GT4 arrives later this year) and brings more than its modest 10kW/11Nm bump in power over the already brisk Cayman S. Thereís tweaked styling, new smoked headlights, black 20-inch

Overlook its flaws and the Caterham is driving heaven Ė raw and grippy

Between apexes, the Cayman is almost telepathic in its responses

wheels from the 911 Carrera S and a 10mm lower ride height. Small changes, yes, but even on the cruisy drive from Melbourne, the differences are tangible.

Compared to the Cayman S, the GTS feels tighter, sharper and more exciting, like a bodybuilder on competition day.

Itís the Caterham, though, that should suit Haunted Hills best. The CSR175 variant we have here is the track-focused version of the British companyís iconic Seven and rides on Caterhamís bigger (110mm longer, 80mm wider) SV chassis. Itís a machine built to go fast, which means that, while it should impress at the circuit, on the road there have been someÖ issues.

The cabin is so cramped I canít turn the small leather steering wheel without hitting my legs, the dash is an unfathomable mix of buttons and non-cancelling Ďmissileí switches, and the pedals are so tiny and grouped so tightly they feel like postage stamps. Drive with the removable roof and door flaps off and stones flick up from the front tyres and hit you in the face, and at freeway speeds the wind buffeting is so intense Iím forced to buy ear plugs. But this physical grind is only half the battle; the rest is mental. Because you sit so low and the cabin is so small and exposed, Iím hyperaware that, should I make a mistake, or another car fails to see me, my legs will be the crumple zones.

Caterham ownership may be challenging, but the silver lining is how the CSR175 performs when its lowslung nose is aimed at a racetrack. Even on a damp surface the Caterham is so responsive, so raw and grippy, I almost forget about the dodgy ergonomics and lack of refinement. The steering, which I had dismissed as heavy and clumsy on the road, becomes laser-beam direct. That hard and unintuitive brake pedal gets better the harder I mash it. And because I can see the front wheels, I never miss an apex.

Then thereís the 2.0-litre Ford Duratec naturally aspirated four, which, despite its modest 127kW/177Nm outputs, feels like an angry hornetsí nest. The clutch is heavy, the gear stick comically short and the ratios grouped so tightly I hit the 7300rpm limiter through the first three gears. Itís as raw and visceral as driving can get, which not only makes the Jaguar seem fat and lazy by comparison, but absolutely enormous.

Thereís such a staggering difference in size, connection and visibility that initially the F-Type feels intimidating. Thereís none of the Caterhamís steering feel or front axle bite, but what the Coupe R lacks in dynamic finesse, it makes up for in brute force. Its colossal 404kW/680Nm supercharged V8 means itís easily the quickest car here, easily matching Jagís 4.2sec 0-100km/h claim during performance testing. The Porsche, courtesy of its robotically consistent launch control system, clocks three identical runs of 4.7sec, while the Caterham struggles in the heat and can only manage 5.3sec.

But wait, thereís more

AS HARDCORE and performancedriven as this trio is, each has a faster, more expensive version waiting in the wings.

Porscheís top trump is the new Cayman GT4, which will arrive Down Under later this year in a storm of track-day tyre smoke priced at $190,300. Upgrades over the GTS are palpable: outputs jump 33kW/40Nm to 283kW/420Nm thanks to a bigger 3.8-litre flat-six nicked from the 911 Carrera S, weight drops 35kg to 1340kg, the brakes and front end are from the 911 GT3, and the sole transmission is a six-speed manual.

F-Type buyers looking for more straight-line speed will love the all-wheel-drive version, which at $242,670 will not only be the most expensive hardtop variant on sale but also the fastest with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.1sec.

If youíre an acceleration junkie, though, look no further than Caterhamís flagship Ė the Seven 485 Ė which does 0-100km/h in just 3.9sec thanks to an extra 50kW/29Nm (to 177kW/206Nm) and 25kg less weight. Yours for $117,416.

Whopper stoppers

BRAKE tragics will know the bright yellow calipers shining through the F-Typeís 20-inch rims mean itís fitted with Jaguarís optional $20,250 carbon-ceramics. Jag claims theyíre the most powerful picks it has fitted to a production car and of course theyíre enormous: 398mm discs with six-piston monobloc calipers up front, and 380mm discs with four pots at the rear.

Whatís surprising is, unless youíre planning on track-bashing your Jag every weekend, weíd recommend saving your cash and sticking with the standard stoppers.

Yes, the carbon-ceramics are 21kg lighter and more resistant to wear, but the Coupe Rís regular ĎSuper Performanceí brakes (380mm front, 376mm rear) are superb.

TRIPLE TREAT

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The Jag revels in braking hard and exiting corners in a flurry of rubber

But donít dismiss the F-Type as a one-trick pony.

Push through the woolly steering and the Coupe R turns in crisply and offers a surprising amount of mid-corner adjustability. Itís an easy car to drive quickly, though fast, straight laps arenít the F-Typeís speciality; the real fun starts when I let the rear move around on corner exit. Here, the torque-vectoring electronic rear differential, colossal grunt and stiffer suspension tune means I can simply choose how much angle (or tyre smoke) I want.

Itís a technique poles apart from the one required in the Porsche. Where the Jag revels in stopping hard, turning in slowly and exiting in a flurry of squirming rubber and V8 bass, the Porsche prefers a more measured, more precise touch. It will drift, but while the Jag loves destroying its rear tyres, the Cayman never feels as comfortable with a handful of opposite lock. Instead, you flow the Cayman from apex to apex, its chassis so poised and balanced itís almost telepathic in its responses. The steering is crisp and perfectly weighted and, as much as I find myself longing for the Caymanís standard six-speed manual gearbox, Porscheís sharp and intuitive seven-speed PDK (a $6290 option) is easily one of the best self-shifters around.

What I donít expect is the Caymanís gorgeous spinetingling exhaust note. Aurally, I was sure the Jaguar would be the pick of the three with its quad pipes, V8 growl and rich, crackly overrun. But spin the Caymanís 3.8-litre flat-six past 4500rpm and its high-pitched wail is more than a match for the F-Typeís V8 bellow.

Try as they might, though, neither the Jag nor the Porsche can match the Caterham for sheer on-track thrills. At Haunted Hills, the Caterham offers a level of performance, fun and connection that almost makes up for its usability shortcomings.

With the sun sinking and the track at last dry, itís the Caterham I take for one final lash. Twenty minutes later I clamber out, biceps bulging like a boxing kangaroo and my hair so full of wildlife that National Parks wants to investigate, but honestly, I donít care.

The size of my smile is matched only by the number of marks on my face and arms from flying stones, each a badge of honour to the realisation Iíve just experienced driving heaven. If the Caterham is tiresome, cramped and uncomfortable on the road, on the track itís a refreshing reminder of what can be achieved with passion and simple bare-bones engineering.

Yet this brilliance canít overcome the Caterhamís everyday issues. As a track tool, the Caterham is the best car here, but as a car to drive on public roads, itís easily the worst. The smiles and excitement it creates at the track just canít make up for the tiring grind real-world ownership would bring.

Then thereís the question of price. In this spec, with an optional limited-slip diff, close-ratio six-speed manual and F1-inspired livery, the Caterham costs a whopping $106,361. Thatís only $290 less than an entrylevel manual Porsche Cayman.

Which brings us to the GTS. In many ways the Porsche is the pick of the trio. Its interior is virtually faultless (only a lack of storage lets it down) and its dynamics are so polished and refined, both on and off the track, it begs the question of what more you could want from a sports car. Even its as-tested price of $185,540 doesnít seem unreasonable, especially compared to the F-Typeís lofty $257,415 (with $20K ceramic brakes, remember). If this were a normal Wheels comparison, the Cayman would win, itís that good. But this isnít, so it doesnít. Numbers and figures arenít the currency here, smiles and adrenalin are, and in this department the F-Type is a clear winner.

The big bad Jag is not only the most fun, it has a streak of character and sense of theatre lacking in the others. Itís also a high-end sports car that people love.

Attracting attention is a given in cars like these, but itís often not the fawning admiration youíd expect.

Drive a Ferrari or Lamborghini and you generate love and vitriol in equal measure, yet somehow the F-Type Coupe R pacifies this.

Of this trio, itís the Jag that draws the warmest glow, the most smartphone happy-snaps and, with the active exhaust open, the highest number of bleeding eardrums. The F-Type will not only set your pulse racing every time you drive it, but make you feel special. Exactly what a great sports car should do. @thealexinwood

Put a lid on it

CATERHAM admits the CSR175 is a car ďbest enjoyed on a mild day with the roof offĒ, but that doesnít mean itís unbearable when the weather turns sour.

Standard equipment includes a PVC soft-top and a set of plastic sidescreens, which when clipped into place provide adequate protection against the elements.

When removed, the roof and door flaps stow neatly into the 120-litre boot.

Optional wind deflectors are also available, as are fabric half side-screens, which are designed to stop stones entering the cabin. They also improve the carís aerodynamics.