I almost miss it at first. Parked up on the side of the road, the Type R’s engine ticking and pinging as it cools, I lean against the door and settle in for the Porsche to arrive.
It’s early in the mountains, the roads freshly washed by rain, and the cold valley below is cloaked in mist that sparkles as it catches the first rays of sun.
Sound carries out here but it’s still a few minutes before I catch it. The shriek of six cylinders is soft to begin with, its metallic harmony rising and falling as it ranges in and out of earshot, making it tricky to gauge its distance.
Then, suddenly, it swoops into focus, a flash of red that glints in the sun. It screams as it rips past; he’s missed our meeting place, the black edge of the Cayman’s huge rear wing cleaving the thin morning air as it whips around the next bend, but I don’t mind.
A 718 Cayman armed with the same 4.0-litre flat six as the mighty GT3? This is the car we thought Porsche would never make
It’s a few kays until he can turn around and I can hear every application of the throttle, every staccato downshift, every rush of revs as it soars towards 9000rpm. A 718 Cayman armed with the same 4.0-litre flat-six as the mighty GT3? This is the car we never thought Porsche would make.
When he eventually returns, former Wheels editor Dylan Campbell is grinning like a kid who’s hijacked Santa’s sleigh. It’s easy to see why. Cuts quite a figure, this GT4 RS, doesn’t it? All jutting front splitter, expensive-looking carbon gills and enormous swan-necked rear wing.
It’s a visual riot, the kind of car you make involuntary sounds around as you find yet another fiendishly complex detail to gawk over. It makes the Civic I’ve brought along suddenly feel a sniff plain…
Now devoid of the attention-seeking flics, wings and haphazard character lines that defined its predecessor, the fresh FL5 Type R is the very image of newfound restraint.
Still looks tough, mind, and the white paint of our particular car highlights its aggro stance, flashy red seats and tasteful aero additions nicely. The best hot hatch of 2023? You’re looking at it.
But what, you must be thinking, does a $72,000 hatchback have to do with a $312,000 Porsche? Allow us to explain. This issue is all about pitching new contenders against our segment benchmarks and in the performance car world, few fresh additions have impressed us as much as the seventh-generation Type R.
As for our yardstick in the attainable (we won’t say affordable) end of the performance car world? It’s long been the 718 Cayman. But why drag along an entry-level four-cylinder model when the zenith of the range has just arrived in the country?
It’s undoubtedly sketchy logic but stay with us because while this pair is unlikely to be cross-shopped, they have more in common than you might think.
Both put the driver squarely and resolutely first. Both are wonderfully analog.
And when we drove the new Type R for the first time, we felt there was more than a whiff of Porsche DNA in how it steered, handled and stopped. So this is our chance to tease out those similarities and to put the law of diminishing returns under the microscope. Can a GT4 RS really be worth five Type Rs?
To achieve all this, we need a road. And we’ve chosen a doozy. The Great Alpine Road is Australia’s highest year-round accessible sealed road and it’s a treasure trove of hairpins, sweepers and smooth tarmac, complimented by a sensibly high speed limit.
Our target is the serpentine stretch from Harrietville to Danny’s Lookout which, although a three-hour schlep from our current spot, might just be the best section of sinuous tarmac in the country.
But first, time to try the Porsche. Good lord. If I thought it sounded savage from the outside that’s nothing to the eardrum-popping theatrics you get from the driver’s seat. Loud? A rock concert is loud. This is like wedging yourself inside Spinal Tap’s amplifier just as it’s wound around to 11.
The key to the feral acoustics are the twin air inlets mounted where the rear quarter glass normally is. These carbon monkey ears feed air directly into the top of the flat-six and with no glass separating the cabin from the engine bay, the result is one of the loudest and aurally engaging road cars we’ve ever driven.
It chunters at idle, the 4.0-litre flat-six vibrating and tinkling metallically – and then, at full noise, it S C R E A M S.
My first run into the valley is exploratory but it’s not long before I start to dive into the engine’s upper reaches. At 7000rpm the sonic assault is so surprising that I fill the cabin with a riot of spontaneous swearing.
By 8000rpm I’m shifting up early, mostly because there is so much noise and vibration that it feels as though the engine is bolted directly to my spine, but also because it seems genuinely naughty to go all the way to the 9000rpm redline. As though, in doing so, I’d be harming the engine’s exotic titanium internals.
It’s just so… momentous. Think modern performance cars are too heavy, too complex and too choked by emissions regs? Have a go in one of these. It has the emotional connection dialled.
To regain my composure, I swap into the Civic. Its soundtrack can’t match the Cayman’s deep-lunged orchestra (no surprises there) but the Type R’s charm is equally bewitching.
It just nails the fundamentals. The seating position, although comparably high after the Porsche’s low-slung fixed-back bucket, is spot-on.
Lovely seat, too. And then there are the ergonomics. The location of the metal shifter is only an outstretched hand from the Alcantara-clad steering wheel, the weighting of the short-throw lever is perfect, there’s no slack in the steering, the brakes breed confidence. It’s mega.
The Type R piles on its power with such energetic potency that it feels decidedly more lusty than the claimed 235kW
Strong engine, too. The 2.0-litre turbo-petrol is an evolution of the K20C1 fitted to the previous Type R but Honda’s engineers have redesigned the turbo and worked hard to dispense with as much inertia as possible to make it feel livelier, more eager.
There are fewer turbine blades, the crankshaft is lighter, the intake has been redesigned, and once past 3000rpm, the Type R piles on its power with such energetic potency that it feels decidedly more lusty than the claimed 235kW.
The Honda’s also the obvious pick for the long highway leg from Melbourne to Bright. Its seats are more forgiving, the ride on its 19in alloys is more compliant and after the claustrophobic and singularly focused cabin of the Cayman, it’s less taxing to eat up the miles in.
Both of these cars are loud – tyre and road noise are the unavoidable trade-offs of focused rubber and meagre sound deadening – but it’s the Honda that does the better job of keeping you feeling fresh after a lengthy stint behind the wheel.
It’s not long before I’m itching for another crack in the Cayman, though. After Bright, the Great Alpine Road gradually gathers steam but it’s only when you exit Harrietville that it turns suddenly and savagely twisty. The Porsche devours it.
Thick with hairpins and short, third-gear sweepers that offer excellent sight lines, the GT4 RS races up the road, it sense of connection and composure goading me to brake later, to turn harder, to accelerate earlier.
There’s no short-shifting this time around. Inadvertently I’ve left my window down and the first time I run the 4.0-litre unit right to the redline the noise ricochets back so violently off the nearby rock face that it’s actually painful. Worth it, though.
If it’s orchestral lower in the rev range then the 4.0-litre takes on an almost unhinged metallic edge as it rips and soars between 8000 and 9000rpm.
What a wonder this engine is. Nicked directly from the GT3 the only changes required to fit the unit into the Cayman were the need to rotate the throttle bodies through 90 degrees and for the exhaust to take a more circuitous route to circumvent the 718’s rear driveshafts and diffuser.
The latter change is the reason the GT4 RS makes 7kW/20Nm less than the GT3 but short gearing for the Cayman’s seven-speed PDK mean the pair’s 0-100km/h sprints are identical at 3.4 seconds.
As for that other arbiter of speed, the Nürburgring, the GT4 RS is just 9.4 seconds slower than a GT3 and a whopping 23.6 seconds quicker than the standard Cayman GT4. That’s an eternity at the ’Ring.
The shorter gear ratios makes an enormous difference. The last car I drove on this road was a manual Cayman GT4 and its infamously long ratios meant this entire stretch of road was driven solely in second gear.
The RS is noticeably more urgent, its extra grunt and punchier ratios (top of second is now around 110km/h instead of 140) meaning I have the full use of second and third this time around.
Did I find myself longing for the tactility of a manual ’box? Not once.
Porsche makes the best dual-clutch gearboxes in the world and the way the GT4 RS wallops home up-shifts and bangs through downshifts – the latter combined with an audible hiss of air that sounds like a GT3 car’s pneumatic actuator – is deeply addictive.
In fact, this engine and PDK-combo is such an event that is almost overshadows the chassis. Almost.
The transformation from regular GT4 to RS is extensive. Specific spring and damper rates, bigger brakes, thinner rear glass, stainless steel exhaust, more aero addenda than an F16 fighter jet and, of course, a strict weight saving regime that, thanks mostly to the extensive use of carbon-reinforced plastic for the bonnet, front quarter panels, rear wing and side air takes, makes the RS 35kg lighter than a PDK-equipped GT4.
Our car also has the optional, and wincingly expensive, Weissach Pack fitted which shaves away even more kilograms by using titanium for the roll cage and exhaust tips and adding even more exposed carbon on the bonnet.
The corners come thick and fast as we climb towards Hotham but the GT4 RS bats them away with such disdain that it’s quickly apparent I’m the weak link in this scenario. Time to lift my game. I shimmy my hips lower into the carbon seat, nestle my thumbs deeper into the nips of the perfectly sized steering wheel and strive to be fast, smooth and accurate.
What follows are 30 of the most momentous minutes of my driving life. The Cayman, as if sensing my mental shift, quickly settles into an eager rhythm.
Balance and accuracy are the overriding sensations as I lean on the chassis more and more, my confidence spiking as I discover an almost telepathic connection through the key controls.
Grip, poise, an innate sense of where the limit is, that you’re somehow enmeshed in the car… it’s all there in spades.
Our car is fitted with Pirelli P Zero rubber, not the grippier Michelin Cup 2 tyres that are available as an option, but my fear the Pirellis might make the GT4 RS feel under-tyred doesn’t arrive. With some heat in them, the P Zeros feels more like four gelatinous globs of chewing gum than all-weather summer tyres. This is joyous.
And then, suddenly, it’s over.
I burst out of the trees to our meeting place at Damm Hut so abruptly that I realise I had tunnel vision, my focus so keyed into the sensation of driving that I’d completely filtered out my surroundings. Yeah, this car is like that.
Waiting for the Honda to arrive gives me pause to drink in the view. At 1861m above sea level Mount Hotham isn’t Australia’s highest mountain (that honour goes to the 2228m Mt Kosciuszko) but here, with a weak sun shining and the rippling mountain ranges stacked in the distance like overlapping pieces of indigo cardboard, it’s hard to shake the sense that we’re perched near the nation’s ceiling.
Dylan’s not far behind in the Type R and as he emerges, his grin is back. “I love this car!” he enthuses. “It has so much depth; so many layers. You give it an input and it just says ‘what else you got?’”. Sounds familiar.
While their RWD vs FWD layouts require different driving styles, both cars demand that you’re on your game in order to extract their best
We spend the next few hours dicing, me in the Honda and Dylan in the Porsche as photographer Dewar blasts away with her Canon.
Driving doesn’t get much better than this, I decide, as I hurl the Civic at yet another deeply cambered corner and shake my head at the similarities between this pair.
The steering could be a product of the same department, so positive are they off centre, so natural in how they gain weight. The connection and confidence you get through the brake pedal is eerily similar, too, but it’s the singularity of focus that ties these cars together the most.
They reward a driver who values accuracy and precision and while their RWD vs FWD layouts require different driving styles, both cars almost demand that you’re on your game in order to extract their best. I like that.
Eventually it’s the weather the curtails our fun. The clouds are quickly closing in and they rise up like giant white waves that break over the top of the road before whisking away into the valley below.
We’re soon enveloped in thick fog, the whiteout dashing a crestfallen Dewar’s hopes of a speccy sunset shot. Me? I’m buzzing. And we’re only halfway through our two-day trip. Nice.
Day two, though, isn’t wet, it’s biblical. Our plan is to head back to Melbourne via the Mansfield-Whitfield road, which is faster and more open than the run up to Hotham, but the weather isn’t playing ball. If this was F1, they’d red flag it. Impromptu rivers run obliquely across the road and the deluge is so heavy that Dewar is soon soaked to the skin after she unwisely decides to nab some cornering shots.
The rain does provide one useful insight, however. You can see, plain as day, just how hard the Cayman works the air over its melange of wings, gills and aero rakes.
Porsche says the RS makes 25 percent more downforce than a regular GT4, and it sends huge plumes of spray into the ether, the low nose vacuuming up the water before dumping it, spectacularly, through the rear diffuser and over that enormous rear wing.
Doubt we’re reaping much reward from the downforce today, though. The Porsche is proving to be tricky to trust on a wet road. Gone is yesterday’s telepathic sense of where the grip level is and it’s hard to know if you’re belting along at nine tenths or are embarrassingly below the car’s limit.
Mostly it feels like the latter but then you’ll hit a puddle or a bump in a braking zone and the nose will wash wide so alarmingly that part of the seat base disappears into your backside.
The suspension isn’t helping. Yesterday, on Hotham’s smooth alpine tarmac, I’d pegged the RS’s ride as being firm but beautifully damped but here, on a choppier road littered with bumps and potholes, it’s verging on unyielding.
The damping is still superb, especially at speed, but there’s so little travel in the springs that the tyres skip over bumps, the rears occasionally bucking free and spinning up when they land. I shudder to think what it’d feel like on Cup 2 rubber.
Bravely, I switch to the Honda. This is more like it. After three corners I’m convinced the Honda is actually the quicker car in these conditions, at least in my hands.
Part of that is the risk/reward ratio of hurling a $300k Porsche down an Armco-lined road but the Honda oozes confidence, even in the wet.
It does a better job of keeping its wheels in contact with the road, too, and there’s so much grip and confidence from the front Michelins that you can pile into turns at obscene speeds and then use the throttle to trim your line or drag you out the other side.
It’s locked down, razor sharp and responsive, the diff and clever dual-axle front suspension combining to quell torque steer and corruption, the multi-link rear end following the nose into bends with reassuring steadfastness. It’s a hoot.
With the twisty roads behind us, the cruise into Melbourne gives me time to reflect. Was it folly to pitch these two cars together? Absolutely not.
For all their differences in price and layout, the philosophy of this pair is remarkably similar. Both are crushingly quick and rewarding but they also have layers.
A complete novice could jump into either and have their brain fried but there’s so much dynamic depth here that properly talented drivers will spend years enjoying them.
So is there a winner?
Definitely. It’s all of us.
That we still have cars that speak to the thrill of driving in such an analogue way is joyous. We need to savour them. It’s a finality you can almost sense in the cars.
They feel like the pinnacle of their respective niches, with the Cayman in particular seeming like a car Porsche wanted to make while it still could. Soon the recipe of what makes these machines so memorable will change and while the future will undoubtedly be exciting, will it speak to us in the same way?
I guess, in some ways, that makes us all losers too.
In the cabin: Cayman GT4 RS
Entire cabin feels like it’s made of three ingredients: carbon, leather and Alcantara.
Build quality is bomb proof, ergonomics pretty much perfect. Storage is at a premium, though.
Lightweight fixed-back bucket seats look like torture devices but are comfortable enough to sit in all day. Racing harness part of the Clubsport pack, which is a no-cost option. Apple CarPlay is standard but there’s no Android Auto.
In the cabin: Civic Type R
FL5 is the biggest Type R yet but still only has seats for four.
Cabin storage is plentiful, digital instruments/centre touchscreen are clear and easy to navigate.
Type R’s red buckets rival the Porsche for support but take the win for comfort thanks to their additional padding. Cabin is a tactile delight. Wheel is thin-rimmed and trimmed in suede. Metal gear stick is perfectly placed, as are the metal pedals for those who enjoy a bit of heel-and-toe.
|Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS||Honda Civic Type R|
|$311,900||$72,600 (drive away)|
|Engine||Flat 6, dohc, 24v||inline 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo|
|Layout||mid engine (north-south), RWD||front-engine (east-west), FWD|
|Power||368kW @ 8400rpm||235kW @ 6500rpm|
|Torque||450Nm @ 6750rpm||420Nm @ 2600-4000rpm|
|Gearbox||7-speed dual-clutch||6-speed manual|
|Body||steel/aluminium, 2 doors, 2 seats||steel/aluminium, 5 doors, 4 seats|
|Economy||12.7L/100km (ADR combined)||8.9L/100km ((ADR combined)|
|Fuel/tank||95 RON/64 litres||95 RON/47 litres|
|Suspension||Front: struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar Rear: struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar||Front: struts, adaptive dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, adaptive dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Steering||electrically assisted rack-and-pinion||electrically assisted rack-and-pinion|
|Front brakes||Ventilated discs (408mm) six-piston calipers||Ventilated discs (350mm) four-piston calipers|
|Rear brakes||ventilated discs (380mm) four-piston calipers||solid discs (305mm) single-piston calipers|
|Tyres||Pirelli P Zero||Michelin Pilot Sport 4S|
|Tyre size||245/35 ZR19 (f); 295/30 ZR20 (r)||265/30 ZR19 (f); 265/30 ZR19 (r)|
|ANCAP rating||not rated||not rated (EuroNCAP 5 stars)|
|0-100km/h||3.4sec (claimed)||5.4sec (claimed)|