BBC Autos

Jaguar F-Type v Porsche 911 v Boxster

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Ask the Jaguar marketing types what they consider the main rivals to their F-Type, and they'll proudly tell you their new car is without competitors, a completely unique proposition in the market.

Clearly the “unique proposition” bit is a little daft, not least because Jag itself was doing the whole front-engined, rear-drive, two-seater convertible thing 60 years ago. That said, it's true the pricing of the F-Type range plonks it into a weird, betwixt-and-between hinterland. At the cheapest end, the £58,000, 335bhp V6 looks expensive against the similarly powered BMW Z4 and Audi TT RS, but the £80k V8 offers far more go for far less cash than an Audi R8 or Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Stranger still, the £67k, 375bhp V6S – the sweet spot in the F-Type line-up – occupies a curious wilderness on the price/power scatter graph: no other manufacturer serves up anything even vaguely comparable. A car without rivals: nice place to be.

But the problem with having no head-on competitor means you're susceptible to attack from the flanks. This is a particular issue if the twin-pronged flank attack happens to come from the Porsche 911 and Boxster. In price and performance, the V6S F-Type almost perfectly bisects Porsche's two finest, costing 22 grand more than the Boxster S, but 24 grand less than the 911 Carrera 2S Cabrio. The F makes 64bhp more than the Boxster, and just 20bhp less than the 911. Set the three cars in a race to 62mph and, according to manufacturer stats, the rear-engined 911 will get there first, with the front-engined F-Type two-tenths of a second behind and the mid-engined Boxster two-tenths further back again. So does that make the F-Type a fine-value alternative to the 911, or a seriously pricey Boxster rival? Only Scotland has the answer...

Slip into the 911, and that huge price premium is instantly explained. Our test car boasts a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technology found on only top-end exotica: a manual gearbox. Oh yes. But this isn't just any gearbox: it's a seven-speed shifter, a configuration requiring a little diagram atop the gearshifter that resembles a millipede with a few limbs missing. Seven is at least three ratios too many (especially when third is good for Autobahn speeds), but it only takes a few minutes with the 911 and its clutch pedal to realise what a shame it is that Jag doesn't offer a manual F-Type: not only would it have signalled the sporting intent of its smallest, sharpest model, but also because a three-pedal set-up dials you far closer to the inner workings of the engine.

That said, 80% of you will opt for your 911 with Porsche's double-clutch PDK 'box instead. So, remove the clutch pedal, and, my, the 911 and F-Type are closely matched. The Jag edges it in the noise department: though the 911's flat-six makes a glorious mechanical din when you wind it up past 5,000rpm, it can't quite match the theatre of the F-Type's insane soundscape, a mix of Saving Private Ryan gunshot barrage and the ripping, metallic shriek of a buzz-saw slicing through a mains gas pipe.

Maybe the Porsche steers a fraction – a fraction – better than the F-Type, but there's not much in it, certainly less than there would have been had Porsche not moved to an electric set-up for the 991. Unquestionably, the 911's brakes, throttle and steering all feel a little less frenetic than the F-Type's hyper-quick controls, a placidness that matches the 911's demeanour on the road, which defaults to slight understeer when you really push it. Suits me just fine, that: the F-Type seems set to oversteer at the limit, which is great news if you've a lot of track and a lot of talent, but a bit nervy for the rest of us, especially on slippy roads or an icy morning.

You know what's coming now, and we make no apology for it. It's the elephant in the trunk, the hoary old engine-in-the-boot debate. That old aphorism about Porsche designing a car with an engine in the wrong place and spending the next half-century attempting to rectify the problem, holds as true today as ever. Though moving the rear axle back and its engine forward has certainly quelled the 911's traditional tendency to corkscrew about its tail, the signature 911 bottom-bounce is still there. Drive the C2S hard through a wide, fast bend, and you can feel that mass over the rear axle bumping gently at the outside wheel, like a set of bowling balls rolling around the boot. Unless you encounter a giant mid-corner bump, it's never enough to unsettle the car, but it makes the 911 seem a fraction wayward where the Jag feels locked down. The V6S, with its standard adaptive dampers, has superlative body control, absorbing everything from manhole covers to foot-high crests with barely a shimmer.

Not that the 911 is badly suspended or damped, just that there's no way to overcome the physics of a fair-sized engine sitting atop a constantly jiggling set of rear wheels. It only becomes an issue on the very bumpiest, fastest roads, but there are a whole lot of those in Scotland. On these fast, ice-broken roads, the F-Type really shows its mettle, not to mention its British heritage.

So. The new 991 911 is a fine thing, but the combination of rugged Scottish tarmac plus cabrio guise doesn't show it off in its very best light. In the F-Type, Jaguar has delivered a mighty compelling 911 alternative for 25% less cash, provided you don't need to transport children or luggage bigger than, say, a small packet of crisps. No doubt, too, the Jag is far more of an event, garnering massive attention where the Porsche blends into the background. Great-value alternative to the 911? Job done.

If the F-Type can edge a company's flagship sports car, you'd assume you could declare it the winner against said company's entry-level sports car. If a car's better than an Audi R8, logic says it's also better than a TT RS. Beats an SL63? No need to test it against an SLK. But the World of Porsche doesn't work like that.

Here's the operating procedure when driving a Boxster for the first time. 1) Approach driver's door. 2) Wriggle down into low, low driving seat. 3) Fire up 3.4-litre boxer engine. 4) Drop roof. 5) Press Sport and Noisy Exhaust buttons. 6) Commence driving. 7) Negotiate first corner. 8) Immediately consider what to sell, steal or embezzle to have this in your life permanently.

Really. If you're a driver of middling talent (and I'm as middling as they come), jumping from the F-Type to the Boxster transforms you instantly from slow-witted human to F1 hero. So perfect is its balance, so clearly does it telegraph any loss of grip that you're instantly confident to push the little Porsche to its limits. The steering is slower, a little more confidence-inspiring than the F-Type's quick rack and matched nicely to the Boxster's longer throttle and calmer brakes. Every control is evenly weighted, that six-speed manual shorter and crisper than the 911's.

It fits Scotland's tight roads far more neatly than the big-hipped Jag. The Boxster is a masterwork of packaging, smaller yet more practical than the space-deficient F-Type. Want a few entertaining minutes? Find a friend who's not into cars, show them a Boxster and ask them to find the engine. Chances are they'll probably check the front boot first, but under that bonnet is just a decent-sized luggage space. The rear boot? Nope, another modest hole for more luggage. The Boxster's flat-six is tucked way down below the roof mechanism, somewhere just behind your buttocks.

Indeed, when you drive the Boxster, it's almost impossible to discern where the mass of the engine lies. So perfectly sorted is that chassis that you simply don't notice the suspension doing its thing. However hard you lean on the Boxster, there's no sensation of weight transferring anywhere, just perfect poise and neutrality. On quick bumpy stuff, it hops far less than the 911, tiptoeing over bumps where the F-Type smooths through them.

And, damn, the Boxster wears its 311bhp lightly. That's a chunk more power than the Vauxhall Astra VXR – albeit reaching the road through the correct axle – but dished out in such a metered fashion that you never feel it's going to bite. No, the Boxster's boxer isn't as feverish in its acceleration as the F-Type's V6, nor as muscular in its mid-range as the 911, but that just means you have to rev it harder and higher – hardly a problem.

Sorry, got a bit starry-eyed there. We know there's much more to a sports car than its ability to barrel around the many corners of Scotland's deserted Highlands, and, away from Loch Carron, there is much to recommend the F-Type over the Boxster. Though it coughs out a healthy dose of booms, crackles and growls, the Porsche doesn't sound quite so good as the bonkers F-Type, while its cabin takes the whole “understated class” thing to its point of intersection with “a bit boring actually”. There's not much obvious flair on show here: certainly nothing to rival the F-Type's pop-up air vents and coppery gearshift paddles.

The F-Type is quieter on the road than the Porsche: big news on a 500-mile motorway cruise. And beside the extravagant Jag, the Boxster isn't much cop to look at. But probably the main reason you won't buy a Boxster is because, yeah... it's a Boxster. A car beloved of Cheshire's Ladies Who Lunch, a car for latte-sipping luvvies rather than real Oversteer Enthusiasts.

Forget the image. If all you want to do is barrel around the many corners of Scotland's beautifully deserted Highlands, the Boxster S – the £45,000 Boxster S – remains untouchable. No shame on Jaguar for failing to land the killer punch here, though it gets mighty close: at least until the Cayman lands in the UK (not long, folks!), the Boxster is the best sub-£60k sports car you can buy. In fact, scrap that. This might just be the best sports car you can buy, full stop.

"Jaguar benchmarked the 911 for performance," noted the sage-like Paul Horrell at the end of our day testing the F-Type against the two Porsches. "And I'd say it's succeeded in that. Problem is, it benchmarked the wrong Porsche..."

So, that question again. The F-Type: great-value alternative to the 911, or a seriously pricey Boxster rival? Erm, it's both. And if you think that's a headache for anyone considering an F-Type, imagine what it's like for the poor Porsche salesmen...

This story originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of TopGear magazine.