Payne: Which sports car for Christmas?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Making my Christmas list was tough this year, Santa. I’m not asking for too much. No exotic, $300K Lambos or McLarens. Just the usual, humble request: The best two-seater sports car under six-figures.

But this year’s choice was more difficult.

Porsche’s Boxster/Cayman boasts knife-edge handling.

To the perennial World War struggle between Germany’s Porsche Boxster/Cayman GTS and America’s Corvette Z06 for best sub-$100,000 sports car, add a Brit: The 2016 Jaguar F-Type S Coupe. Like the 1940s battle for aerial superiority between Messerschmitt, Mustang, and Spitfire, the threesome pits superior engineering from three distinct automotive cultures.

Yet while the Porsche (knife-edge handling) and the Corvette (shock-and-awe power) conform to national stereotypes, the Englishman is decidedly at odds with the proper London gentleman.

This is not the tea-and-crumpets Jag of recent decades, but a howling, ripping good ride worthy of a James Bond car chase.

We boys love our toys, but don’t put a Jaguar F-Type on your list if you be the shy type. Under new, Indian ownership, the cat is back as a world-class performance car and Jaguar wants the whole world to know it.

Push the starter button and the Jag explodes with a growl, its supercharged V-6 pulse racing. Back off after a prolonged sprint and the F will cackle and fart under deceleration. A farting Brit? Don’t tell the queen. Granted, this coupe is no window-rattling Corvette V-8 which will wake up the neighborhood if lit off in the early AM. But when the Jag clears its throat it does make you look around to apologize. It’s all very over the top, but that’s the intent. An announcement that Jaguar means business again. Like the obnoxious roar of the Porsche 911-fighting, $103,225 F-Type R’s 550-horsepower V-8, the $96,245 S wants to pick a fight.

Dollar-for-dollar, turn-for-turn, uppercut-for-uppercut, this cat goes toe-to-toe with the segment legends. The Jag’s calling card is slinky good looks.

Its behind will stop grown men in their tracks. Like its namesake, the F’s muscular haunches are crouched, ready to strike. A tapered greenhouse is its spine. Many before it have penned the look — Chrysler Crossfire, Stingray, Mustang — but none has done it better. Jags are by definition pretty, but this carnivore is more cut, more purposeful.

Like its American rival, the Jaguar’s headlights are slit, menacing and laced with glowing LEDs. The front-engine cars share tilt-forward hoods, big hinged rear decks that could hold Santa’s bag, center-mounted pipes the size of frigate cannons and shark-like mouths.

But from smiling muzzle to rounded haunches, the Brit is more feline — more organic — than Chevy’s sharp-edged Terminator. The Jaguar’s hips are rounded, muscular — uninterrupted by the ’Vette’s cyborg inlets. And the Detroit muscle car’s hood bulge betrays the 6.2-liter monster that lies beneath.

The Brit’s interior is also strikingly like the American. Unlike the Boxster/Cayman and its long console sleeve of buttons, the Jag/’Vette maximize console space with a balanced mix of shifter, buttons and storage. Both cabins are festooned with huge OH, CRAP! handles so that passengers can hang on when the demon red-mist seizes the pilot. The Porsche’s interior, by contrast, hints at no such drama. The lines are simple, functional. Emotion is for weak, English-speaking types.

As pleasing as they are ergonomically, the Jag and ’Vette gearshifts can be maddening. The Jaguar’s eight-speed automatic unit, like the Corvette’s seven-speed manual, is compact — no long shift gates here. But that requires always pressing a button to operate, meaning you are constantly looking at the shifter to make sure you snatch FORWARD and not REVERSE lest you vault backward through traffic at 60 mph.

The Corvette’s hood bulge betrays its 6.2-liter, 650 horsepower engine, a performance league the Jag and Porsche don’t play in.

At least the gearbox is an appropriately named “Quickshift” wonder so addictive I routinely selected sport mode to sprint up and down Telegraph Road, squeezing off upshifts like rifle shots. The ’Vette’s seven-speed box will make even the purest motorhead question manuals. It’s too-short gates mean routine mis-shifts or, worse, buckets of neutrals.

The Vette also betrays its working-class Chevy roots with an oily interior odor and floor mats that often snagged my brake-foot heel. Still, the Jaguar makes fauxpas surprising for its lineage. Like no voice recognition system, a head-scratching oversight when you consider even a Honda Civic compact — at one third the F-Type’s price — has one. And consider the Jaguar’s gorgeous, full-length moon roof, which can’t even be cracked open for air.

The most conservatively tailored of the three, the Boxster/Cayman GTS saves its emotion for the asphalt. On the Autobahn race track outside Chicago, this mid-engine athlete put on a handling clinic. Lighter than the ’Vette by 400 pounds and 700 pounds less than the Jaguar, the Cayman’s balance (though a convertible, the Boxster GTS is just 55 pounds heavier) allows for high grip in the corners and early throttle on exit, its flat-6 mill wailing with joy.

To be sure the Jaguar is no slouch in the handling department. Part of its porkiness is due to an AWD system that delivers planted handling (and winter-time capability that would put reindeer to shame). Despite its girth, the F-Type feels much smaller than it is. Like the 325-horse Cayman S I sampled, its 380 horsepower is plenty on tight, rural Michigan roads.

That cackling sound you hear is the Z06 laughing. Just 300-something ponies?

Jaguar’s coupe offers a ride worthy of a Bond film cameo.

With 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque, and gargantuan grip from Michelin Super Sports, the Z06 plays in a different performance league. The ’Vette will eat the Cayman and Jaguar for lunch on track, then get back in the buffet line for a McLaren or Lamborghini. If you haven’t heard, the Z06 destroyed both Euro-exotics in Car & Driver’s 2015 Lightning Lap competition.

Yet, the Z06’s supercar performance at the raceway makes it feel like a tornado in a tea pot on the street. I could explore the envelope of the 6-cylinder Cayman and F-Type on Southeast Michigan’s curvier roads, while the Z06 never felt happy unless it was on a track. Like a lion in the Detroit Zoo, the Z06 is a caged creature — a predator that dreams of returning to GM’s vast Milford proving grounds where it was raised.

Three extraordinary predators for different tastes.

Corvette, the King of the Beasts. The Boxster/Cayman a cheetah cutting through a herd of sedans. And for those who tire of the more common American and German, there is the elegant Englishman.

My choice? The Boxster GTS. And in your favorite color, Santa: Red.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com.

’15 Porsche Boxster/Cayman S or GTS

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $74,495 ($79,855 Boxster GTS/$97,890 Cayman S as tested)

Power plant: 3.4-liter, boxer 6-cylinder

Power: 330 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque (Boxster GTS); 325 horsepower, 272 pound-feet of torque (Boxster GTS);

Transmission: 6-speed manual (Boxster GTS); 7-speed PDK automatic (Cayman S)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,965 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/26 highway/22 combined (manual)

Report card

Highs: Precise handling; most affordable on the list

Lows: Won’t fit in my stocking; flimsy cup-holders for egg nog


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

’16 Jaguar F-Type S AWD Coupe

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $85,795 ($96,245 as tested)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, supercharged V-6

Power: 380 horsepower, 339 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,691 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy 18 city/26 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: AWD grip; could stare at her all day

Lows: Voice recognition, please; won’t fit down the chimney


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

’15 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $78,000 base ($85,565 removable hardtop as tested)

Power plant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Seven-speed manual (as tested); Eight-speed automatic with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph: 2.95 seconds with automatic; 3.2 seconds with manual (manufacturer).

Weight: 3,524 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 13 mpg city/23 mpg highway (automatic); 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway (manual as tested)

Report card

Highs: The torque of 650 reindeer; exotic supercar-slayer

Lows: Manual (shifter) labor; awesome power will get you arrested on Christmas


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★