2020 BMW M2 CS vs. 2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: Surprise, Surprise

Make a list. Write down every sports car that still offers a manual transmission. Now, cross out each one that doesn’t offer it on the highest-performance trim. Next, cross out each one with an automatic option that isn’t good enough to make you choose it over the manual. How many cars are you left with? You can count them on two hands, can’t you? Drop anything with more than two doors, and you’re down to one hand; two of the protagonists still standing are the 2020 BMW M2 CS and the 2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4.

The door is closing on a unique time in sports car history: There was a period between the early 2000s and the late teens when we had an underappreciated cornucopia of transmission choice. Manual transmissions were as good as they’d ever been, single-clutch automated manuals offered enough of a performance advantage to make track-day enthusiasts and racers take notice, and the advent of dual-clutch automated manuals sealed the deal. For a relatively brief time, you really could choose either a traditional manual or a modern dual-clutch automatic and make the right decision either way.

Where Are We Now?

The 2020 BMW M2 CS and 2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 are the last two competitors for which that is true, and not for long, as the sun sets on this generation of 2 Series and its dual-clutch. Before it goes, BMW sends it off with the CS, a special edition with an extra helping of horsepower, active dampers, and tree-sap tires. It is the best sports car BMW has built in decades, if not ever.

The Cayman GT4, conversely, continues its slow ascendancy. Every generation gets another step closer to the immortal 911, and this one will become even more extreme with the birth of the first GT4 RS. Not that this car isn’t something special with its 911 GT3 front suspension, special-built naturally aspirated engine, and cheater tires of its own. No Cayman has ever been this good.

With manual and automatic versions of each car in our possession, we line all four up like a very niche edition of our World’s Greatest Drag Race franchise. The BMWs tower over the Porsches. It isn’t just visual weight, either. Manual or dual-clutch, the M2 CS weighs hundreds of pounds more than the Cayman GT4. The dual-clutch Porsche would win the drag race on account of its incredible launch control and lower weight, followed by the dual-clutch BMW and then the manual versions of both cars immediately behind, tied for third.

Send all four around our signature figure-eight test course at once, were that possible, and even the manual Porsche would overtake the dual-clutch BMW. Although all four cars brake from 60 mph in about the same distance and three of the four accelerate similarly, there’s no fighting physics in the corners. The lighter Porsches carry less mass and are simply capable of more grip and higher cornering speeds.

Testing, Testing

Despite entirely different layouts, weight balances, and power deliveries, the Porsches and BMWs behaved remarkably similarly in our performance exercises. Testing director Chris Walton reported all four cars exhibited tremendous braking and sharp turn-in, then tended toward mild midcorner understeer and as much on-throttle oversteer as you like during corner exit. Interestingly, the BMWs struggled more than the Porsches on cold tires, while the Porsches lost their composure more on overheated tires. Still, the end result was the same from the driver’s perspective, even if the lap times weren’t.

Our figure-eight layout isn’t a racetrack, though, so we took the dual-clutch cars to a real circuit—the Streets of Willow Springs—and got a race car driver to flog them. Each of these models is ostensibly a track-day special, and in that sense the dual-clutch transmission’s purpose is to shorten lap times by reducing momentum and time lost to gear changes.

“The Porsche was the all-around best to drive, except for the annoying midcorner understeer, but it just seems so tied down in every other way,” racer Randy Pobst said. “The Caymans always say ‘race car’ to me when I drive them. They have that mid-engine quick steering response. It has the mid-engine advantages without the disadvantage of getting too tail happy, especially off-throttle. The rear stays behind you, and the car stays balanced, even through the high-speed kink and the bumpy brake zone right after. The thing was so planted, I couldn’t even really tell you if we had all the computer nannies off or not, but we did.

“The shift program was a real downer on the BMW,” Pobst continued. “It was disappointing because several times it shifted up when I didn’t need to, so it wasn’t in the right gear when I was getting ready to leave the corner. That happened several times. It would be in too high a gear, in third, but then it would kick down. And when it kicks down to second, it blows the back tires off the car, and you get the power oversteer.

“It is not smooth, and it kicks sideways, and that messed up its laps. So I had to feed the power out gently. Coming off the long increasing-radius corner, I have a little power oversteer almost the whole way off, and it was a little tricky trying to decide how much was just right. It was kind of fun using the throttle and a little bit of countersteer. It was very nice on the way into a corner, very stable, balanced; entering the corner off-throttle is not a problem. The high-speed stability is good, almost like it has downforce, but it doesn’t. There is no wing; there is a little, teeny spoiler not doing anything real.”

As different as their cornering behavior was, Pobst found similarities in the cars’ braking. Although he praised the BMW and the Porsche for the effectiveness of their optional carbon-ceramic brakes, he reported both ABS systems struggled with bumpy braking zones. “I could feel the ABS when it came on, and it reduced the braking g,” he said.

The Streets of Willow is a bumpy track, but that wasn’t an equalizer. The lighter Porsche, with its superior shift programming, laid waste. Its time of 1 minute, 19.40 seconds is the fourth-quickest lap we’ve ever measured at Streets and 2.32 seconds quicker than the BMW M2 CS’ lap of 1:21.72. If you want to win races, or at least track-day bragging rights, you absolutely want the 718 Cayman GT4.

But Wait, There’s More to It

Case closed, then? Not at all. Even amazing sports cars like this are almost universally guaranteed to spend more time on actual streets than on racetracks. As such, how they behave on a great driving road will matter as much as or more than their outright racetrack abilities to most people. Sometimes, it’s a distinction without a difference—but not this time. Every editor who drove the cars said the same thing: They wouldn’t kick the Porsche out of bed, but they’d rather have the BMW.

“The confidence I had in this M2 is unparalleled in any previous M2,” Walton said. “It’s the best BMW in years.”

Associate editor Nick Yekikian was sure the Cayman would the more enjoyable of the two, but things changed once he drove the BMW. “Now that I’ve driven the M2 CS, I think the CS is more fun,” he said. “Maybe the Cayman is more accomplished and a better, sharper machine, but the CS has a punchy and pugnacious nature the GT4 can’t match. It doesn’t take itself anywhere near as seriously and just wants you to have a good time. One thing I am absolutely sure of is the CS is simply more fun and more fulfilling when you get it right. I’d rather have it in my driveway because it makes me giggle with delight in a way nothing else can.”

Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman agreed: “Special. This is a special car, a rare car. It’s for drivers. The M2 CS is quite obviously the end of the current 2 Series story. The frontier, the western edge, the uncharted territory—you know, the car built away from the accountants and the product planners, out of the reach of the marketers. It’s the rare production car, the one that doesn’t make any sense. The one that speeds up your heart, sends your pulse racing and your brain spinning. Porsche GT3s have this effect. As does the Mustang Shelby GT350R. Compromise isn’t on the menu. This is why it costs so damn much.

“The GT4 is not as out on a limb as the M2 CS,” Lieberman continued. “It’s not as—I hate this word, but it fits—extreme. The Porsche is great; the BMW is greater.”

Feel and Fun Matter, Big Time

The delivery is the defining difference. The Cayman’s strength is also its (relative) Achilles’ heel: It belongs on a racetrack, and it just doesn’t find its magic on the street until you’re on the bleeding edge. Problem is, that’s really asking for trouble considering how fast it is. You just can’t get into a cosmic groove with this car until you’re driving right to the absolute limit of the road; it feels like a dance on the very edge of sanity with no margin left before catastrophe. You just wish you could enjoy the GT4 more before you extend yourself to such a hair-raising level.

We’re not saying whatsoever the car isn’t enjoyable before the last tenth. Rather, this 718 is so good and so precise and so isolating that it doesn’t feel like you’re really challenging it until the last bit, and that makes it less exciting to drive in most realistic circumstances than it should be. A lower-spec Cayman isn’t as quick, but it tends to feel more emotional, more engaging, and more fun on the road. Again, though: If track work is your bag, the 2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 is your lunch.

The ABS issue Pobst reported is part of the problem. American roads are even bumpier than the Streets of Willow, and often in braking zones. It’s one thing to feel the pedal momentarily go wooden and the braking g-forces drop when you’re staring down a wide-open runoff area on a track; it’s another entirely on a mountain road. The thing is, the Porsche will stop. The feeling only lasts a split second, but it shakes your confidence. It takes at least a half dozen of these “oh crap” moments before your brain accepts the car will stop regardless of what the pedal tells you in the moment.

Rear damping is also an issue Pobst reported during our last Best Driver’s Car competition. Although the Streets of Willow’s small, high-frequency bumps didn’t trigger it, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca’s few big bumps better approximate real-world mountain roads. Driving on California’s famed Angeles Crest Highway, it felt as if the front and rear ends weren’t working in sync. Just as Pobst said, the rear is underdamped, leaping off of bumps after using up all of its short suspension travel on the compression stroke. It just never feels fully settled, even if it hangs on like a rusted vice grip.

“The GT4 feels like the two ends are tuned differently,” Lieberman agreed. “But that’s just all nitpicky nonsense—even positive nitpicking is petty when it comes to this car.”

No one had any nitpicky complaints about the BMW M2 CS, other than to say the tires are like hockey pucks when they’re cold, so let ’em warm up before you get wild. It does have a blemish or two, though.

Neither the steering nor the manual shifter feel nearly as positive and direct as the Porsche’s, and the girth of BMW M steering wheel is out of control. That you still have to turn off the stability control entirely to deactivate the auto rev-matching feature is absolutely ridiculous. (We’ve noted the same gripe about some Porsches, too, but thankfully the GT4 doesn’t feature this trait.) It was and remains stupid, and it betrays a total misunderstanding of why anyone would still want to buy a manual transmission sports car today while exposing any driver who wishes to shift their own gears to needless risk. The dual-clutch transmission, for all it lacked on track during Pobst’s lapping, performed as well as Porsche’s on the street. Similarly, any issue the BMW had with bumpy braking zones on the track failed to materialize as anything more than a slightly dull pedal feel on the street.

Cold tires aside, all of our drivers’ notes gushed with praise for the M2 CS. This car has the moves at every speed to engage you, and the way it sashays through corners really encourages you to push it. You don’t have to go all out to get the magic feeling; it’s there all the time. The massive midrange turbo thrust of the juiced-up motor is intoxicating, and although you do have to be a little careful with it, it makes the car much more exciting at every corner exit. Then you feel the active differential pushing you out of the corner with the outside tire every time you so much as breathe on the throttle, and it comes across like the car is straining at the harness, always demanding more speed.

Put another way, when you catch slower-moving cars in the Porsche, you don’t entirely mind because you feel a bit guilty about how insanely hard you were driving to get the most out of the Cayman up to that point. But come upon the same traffic in the M2 CS, and you’re deeply disappointed—and desperate for a passing zone.

Drive all four of these cars, manuals together and dual-clutches together, and the head and heart collide. We like being quicker and faster than the other guy. We like winning. But we also like cars that speak to our souls, that remind us why we love driving in the first place. The Porsche is quicker and faster. The BMW is, in the majority of situations, more fun.

Or, as Lieberman honed in: “Look, I can make the argument the 718 Cayman GT4 is the third or fourth best-driving Porsche on sale. I can also say the M2 CS is the best-driving BMW ever made.”

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