Four-cylinder sports cars | Buy Hard

The Alpine A110 and Supra 2.0 are both great – but they aren't the only way…

By PH Staff / Saturday, January 30, 2021 / Loading comments

Those fortunate enough to be eyeing up a sports car in 2021 have a swathe of brilliant options to choose from. Everything from MX-5 to Mustang is available for anyone after two seats, rear-wheel drive and an emphasis on driving fun. This year should see more join the fold, too, with whatever Lotus is cooking up under the 'Type 131' banner and, hopefully, the arrival of Toyota's GR86 in Europe.

This weekend's Buy Hard is after a very specific type of sports car, however. Both Alpine A110 and Toyota GR Supra, as featured in Dan's latest video, make a virtue of smaller engines. The French flyweight surely wouldn't have the same magical blend of ride and handling with a heavier, more powerful engine behind its seats, and the Supra shows a different side to itself shorn of a couple of cylinders. In their own ways, both are attractive sports car propositions because of their respective four-cylinder statuses, not in spite of them.

They aren't the only ones, either. Recent years have seen a new wave of two-door coupes sporting downsized engines, offering a double whammy of benefits – as well as being more efficient, they're often sharper to drive than more powerful models as well. And anyone who's spent more than 10 minutes driving in the UK will know how much more valuable a dynamically adept car is than one that'll reach 100mph quicker than you can say its name.

So that's what we're after here: two doors, two seats, an entertaining drive, a small, four-cylinder engine, and, naturally, a nice saving on the all-new options discussed in the video. And, yes, a Caterham or an Elise is cheating – these need to be everyday liveable sports cars that may still lure you out of bed on a Sunday morning. Here are the prime contenders…

Porsche 718 Cayman, 2017, 35k, £31,499

Eeek, here we go then. Even five years after their debut, and even after the return of six horizontally opposed cylinders, defending a 718 Boxster or Cayman on PH feels like running a Veganuary campaign outside a smokehouse. It just isn't going to be a receptive crowd – not then, not now, not ever.

And yet, honest to God, the 718 era was not (and is not, because they are still on sale) without merit – that's my hill to die on here. Because, yes, the flat four wasn't the smoothest engine in the world, but it was so much more of a sports car engine than is typically found in the sector. No hot hatch, VW Group hand-me-downs for Porsche – oh no. The 718 2.0 and 2.5-litre units were bespoke engines, and felt every cubic centimetre of them; even the smaller non-S revved with the sort of enthusiasm more humdrum turbos couldn't dream of, which made them so much more rewarding to drive. Just a shame about the noise that came with the revs, I guess.

But there was one other thing, a feature that's included on this smartly specced 2017 Cayman and which won't be found on any Alpine, Toyota, Jaguar or Z4 you care to mention: a manual gearbox. Personally, it's hard to imagine a sports car without one, and that's why a 718 – even with the engine that everyone hates – will be ahead of the rest of the four-cylinder pack for me. The torque of the turbos even made the stupid ratios less of an issue. That Porsche doesn't sell loads of manual cars means it deserves credit, in my opinion, for persevering for what is increasingly enthusiast-focused tech. Maybe one day, in fact, when sports cars have to go a few steps further and ditch combustion entirely, we'll pine for the manual, four-cylinder days. Or the vitriol about why it ever happened in the first place won't have stopped – one or the other… MB

Jaguar F-Type 2.0 R-Dynamic, 2018, 27k, £33,950

I agree with everything Matt says about the 718 Cayman. I distinctly remember thinking it when the car was launched. But would I buy one? No. By any measure, as good as it actually is, it is the lesser Cayman. I suppose one day we'll have to get used to the idea of buying four-cylinder Porsches – but not yet. The latest GTS – while admittedly vastly more expensive – is so much more enjoyable than the 2.5-litre variant, it is on another planet entirely. And then there's all the other, slightly older flat-six Caymans you can buy. Which are also better.

Which brings us to the F-Type, and the slightly thorny hole I've dug for myself in the fact that the F-Type is also a more entertaining car when equipped with a larger engine. The 5.0-litre V8 ideally – specifically in the P450 tune which we recently decreed to be the ideal output for Jaguar's two-seater. The 2.0-litre F-Type does not have 450hp – it has 300hp, and that's quite a lot less even when you factor in the inevitable weight saving. You will not depart the dealership with your hair on fire, let's put it that way.

However, unlike the Cayman – which handles stupendously well whether you have four or six cylinders, because Porsche took the time to mount the engine in the right place – the F-Type's character does change with a smaller cubic capacity. Because you care less for the straight-line savagery and associated bally-hoo, you drive it with more distinction in the corners. And there you discover a purer sort of front-engined, rear-drive sports car. One that can actually be driven enthusiastically everywhere, and not just on a deserted runway. So while it can't mimic the V8 owner's perma-grin, the Ingenium engine makes the F-Type better in a way the 2.0-litre flat-four doesn't in the Cayman. And not for nothing, but you also get the Jaguar's sensational styling as part of the bargain – which makes the humblest Cayman look very humble indeed. NC

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