Diverse and eclectic, 2018’s best coupes come in all shapes and sizes
The innocuous title of ‘coupe’ isn’t the most evocative of labels. The name conjures up either sleek dainty little hard-tops used for nipping you and your lap dog to the shops or – if you pronounce it as just one syllable, like coop – long, cumbersome, heavy and mostly American two-doors. Not a hint of aggression, nothing in the slightest bit exciting and certainly not intimidating.
But nothing could be further from the truth, and the selection of hot coupes currently on offer shows the full range and brilliance that make up the performance car world. Any hunt for the best coupes on sale would take-in the hot rod-like Mercedes-AMGs packing ballistic engines whose sole purpose seems to be to destroy rear tyres. Then, in contrast, there are grip-obsessed Audis that are so locked-down and composed they’re practically unbeatable down country B-roads. Yet, unlike Audis of old, there’s real agility and adjustably when you need it.
Scalpel-sharp Lotuses, dedicated to light weight and precision handling at the cost of luxuries, do battle against Porsches with such a wide breadth of ability they’re equally adept at being a sports cars and GTs.
Then there’s the Nissan GT-R. It might seem old compared to many of the cars in this list but its brand of tarmac-shredding, drivetrain-torturing performance is as charismatic and as enticing as any other coupe. Or BMW, which has finally got its act together and after tweaking the M4 Competition Pack, has turned it into the car it always should have been.
If your idea of coupes are Probes, Calibras and Celicas with soft, smooth lines to match their soft and smooth chassis, you’re in for a big shock.
1. BMW M4 Competition Pack
It’s fair to say the BMW M4, the successor to the E92 M3 Coupe, was underwhelming when we first tried it. It had the performance and the looks necessary to outshine its forbears but its spiky turbocharged engine, abrupt dual-clutch transmission and not adequately controlled rear axle made it tricky to drive at the best of times and downright frightening at the worst.
But as time went on the M4 and its close relative, the M3, began to mature and it gradually felt friendlier and more composed with every small increment. A Competition Package released in 2016 felt like a significant leap forward and then the 2018 model year was launched, the most recent changes BMW made to its sports coupe seemed subtle but calmed the chassis significantly. It still feels like a very serious car, buzzing and feeling alive, but you can now drive it with real confidence. We’ve been so impressed with the latest version we declared the 2018 BMW M4 Competition Pack as our coupe of the year 2017.
Arguably, the M4 CS – a more powerful, more focused version of the M4 with lightweight door cards and wheels, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres and a raspy exhaust – is even better. The added grip from the just-about-legal tyres, the more authentic noise from the exhaust and the even more settled chassis make it a very satisfying and exciting car to drive.
2. Porsche 911 Carrera GTS
Like the M4 above, the current 991-generation 911 didn’t immediately impress us. Poor feedback from the electric-power steering, a chassis more suited to GT duties, an awkward seven-speed manual gearbox, and large dimensions making it feel very big on UK roads, meant it was far from our favourite 911.
But time and development has helped the 991. The steering and gear change have improved significantly and different iterations, the GTS version significantly, have sharpened the chassis. Even the Carrera’s switch to turbocharging, doing away with the 3.4 and the S’s 3.8 litre flat-sixes in favour of a twin-turbo 3.0-litre flat-six across the range, certainly didn’t ruin the car’s appeal.
The current pick of the Carrera range – albeit not the entire 911 line-up as GT3s, GT2s and the Turbos really fall into the category of supercars not just coupes – is the GTS. Cynics will see the GTS as just a well-specced Carrera S, and they’d almost be right, but it’s one that bundles all the options you’d want on an S and gives you them in a cost effective package. If you opt for the rear-wheel drive GTS you get the wider body from the four-wheel drive Carrera 4, and that’s not available on the S no matter how pally you are with your dealer.
If you can’t quite stretch to the full GTS, don’t feel too downhearted, as you can’t go too far wrong even with a basic Carrera. Also, an honourable mention goes to the Carrera T – its standard lightweight glass, limited-slip differential, and lower chassis with adaptive dampers don’t turn the car into the perfect purist’s choice Porsche might say it is, but it’s still a very well-rounded and fun car.
3. Audi RS5
The old RS5 was all about its engine; its glorious, revvy, 4163cc naturally aspirated V8 engine. Its gearbox, chassis, steering and its balance, in isolation, were acceptable, but in the presence of that motor they were decidedly disappointing.
Everything has changed for the new car, however. The R8-borrowed V8 has been ditched for a 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 that produces 444bhp. Making the most of its four-wheel drive system the new V6 propelled the RS5 to 60mph in 3.6sec when we tested it. But it’s an effective motor rather than a memorable one; it’s responsive and urgent when you need it to be, yet you don’t long to listen to it as it reaches its redline.
The new car’s chassis on the other hand is remarkable. It’s capable of being supple and cosseting in its Comfort mode, but can produce real bite and traction when you begin to really attack a road, especially in Dynamic mode. As the front axle finds so much grip you can feel the car pivot as you enter a corner, the rear tyres right on the edge of adhesion, even on the road. This is certainly a new generation of Audi.
4. Lotus Exige 380 Cup
Despite being the most extreme car here by quite some margin, our back-of-magazine Knowledge pages still list the Exige as a coupe, so makes it onto this list. Few cars on sale offer such a visceral, exciting, and involving driving experience as the Exige. Just pootling around a town or village makes you feel like you’re piloting a Group C race car to the pre-race Le Mans scrutineering ceremony thanks to the deep front windscreen and tiny steering wheel. The interior is made even more evocative by the exposed manual gear linkage.
The Exige’s Toyota-sourced 3.5-litre supercharged V6 revs with the hyperactive persona of an engine a third of its capacity, like one fitted to a motorbike. Yet, there’s grunt from low down in the rev range and more than enough power to give the Exige 430 supercar-like performance – it’ll accelerate to 100km/h in 3.3sec.
If the prospect of the stripped-out, pared-back Exige is a little too much for you there’s always the Lotus Evora. It shares a lot with its hardcore brother, including the engine, but has far more creature comforts to make it significantly more useable – like carpets and even back seats.
5. Nissan GT-R
There’s a common misconception that the GT-R driving experience is similar to that of a computer game or simulator: easy, clinical and with no real talent required. Anyone who holds that view, quite clearly, has never driven a GT-R. Within the first few metres, after you hear the diffs chunter away, you know driving a GT-R is going to be a very hands-on experience. And once you’ve applied full throttle on the exit of a corner, felt the tyres try to rip up the tarmac and the back-end squirm, you know you’re going to need to be at the top of your game to get the best of it.
The latest version of the base car has become slightly softer and quieter compared to the 2008 original as Nismos and Track Editions have started to occupy the more aggressive quarters of the GT-R range. But that brutal character is still apparent in every iteration of the big Japanese coupe.
6. Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe
The M4 Competition Package didn’t always rule the coupe roost – before BMW improved it for 2018 the M4 was beaten by the Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe in one of our group tests. The AMG’s brawny 4-litre V8 engine, luxurious interior and progressive, fun handling sealed the deal in the Swiss/Italian mountains where the test was conducted. That it took just a few tweaks to the M4 for BMW to take the top spot from the C63 shows just how competitive and close the super coupe sector is.
For some, no matter how much sharper the BMW is, the AMG’s shouty engine, overtly rear-wheel drive characteristics combined with a luxurious interior and muscular movie star looks will always make it more appealing than any of its rivals.
7. Porsche 718 Cayman S
If this were three or four years ago we’d be writing about how exceptional the Cayman’s naturally aspirated flat-six is, how the noise it makes is smooth but has hints of aggression and how lovely it is to have such an exotic-feeling motor in a relatively affordable car.
Well, since the 718 variation was launched, the Cayman has been fitted with a turbocharged flat-four engine; a 2-litre for the regular car and a 2.5-litre for the S. Is the Cayman now fitted with a more appropriate engine for a car with of its price, performance and position in the market? No, not really. Porsche has gone too far, the engine is thrummy and isn’t befitting of a £40k plus sports car. The 2.5 in the S is much the better of the two motors, but there are smoother and more appealing turbocharged four-cylinder engines in much cheaper cars, hot hatches for instance. What makes it even worse, is that we can’t forget the Cayman’s previous engine.
It’s a credit, then, to the car’s chassis that it even makes it onto this list, because the way the Cayman drives, its grip, the well-wrought controls and the way it immerses you from behind the wheel, does make up for its disappointing engine.
8. Lexus RC F
Its shape, proportions and size might be conventional sports coupe, and even the RC F’s V8 engine, rear-wheel drive and automatic gearbox fit the current template. But delve into the RC F’s details and start to experience it from behind the wheel and you find Lexus doesn’t go about things in the same way as its German equivalents.
The most notable difference is the engine. It’s naturally aspirated so there isn’t the abundance of low down torque that we’ve become used to from forced induction motors. But, the way it revs, how it sounds when you break the 4500rpm threshold and how much control you have with the throttle in the upper half of the rev range makes it a delight to use. Ok, so it doesn’t feel as fast or as brutal as an M4 or C63, but it has real charm.
9. BMW M2
The M2 may well be BMW’s baby M-car but there are elements that feel very grown up, with its 3-litre turbocharged straight-six engine, electronically-controlled limited-slip differential and optional dual-clutch transmission. But there’s still enough clear space between it and its big brother, the M4; its engine has only one turbocharger rather than the pair found under its sibling’s bonnet, and there isn’t the same unrelenting front-end grip either. However, given its small dimensions, its passive dampers (it can’t be bought with adaptive dampers) and when equipped with a manual gearbox, there’s a purity and approachability to the way the M2 drives that is incredibly pleasing.
Like the early M4s, the M2 can feel a bit wayward over rough and demanding roads. If the development trajectory of the bigger car is anything to go by, BMW may well improve this over the M2’s lifespan.
10. Nissan 370Z Nismo
Like the other Nissan in this list, the GT-R, the 370Z Nismo is no spring chicken, but a few miles down the road and all thoughts of its age disappear. The steering sends detailed feedback to your hands, the dampers allow enough compliance while keeping the body controlled – impressively so – and the power from its 3.7-litre V6 is enough to allow you to adjust the car’s balance mid-corner, should you wish.
The interior, in Japanese tradition, is formed from swathes of black plastic, but the seats are heavily bolstered and keep you well supported. There’s also a very useful rev match function for down-changes, where the engine automatically blips before you slot in a lower gear. It’s effective and efficient, but if you like to heel-and-toe yourself, don’t worry, as it’s easy to switch off.
Its age may not be an issue, then, but it’s still not perfect. The viscous coupling limited-slip diff is slow to react and the engine feels tortured when you start to rev it. It then seems to take its pain out on your ears by emitting a serrated buzzing sound. If you can endure noise from the engine the 370Z is a very enjoyable car.