The English have been professionally mining slate from Honister for at least the past 300 years.
To begin with, it was hacked and clawed from the grey hills as it had been since Roman times, the fragile yet impervious stone shuttled precariously down the slopes on pack ponies, or on wooden sledges that were hauled back to the summit on a man’s back once emptied. The methods persisted for centuries, only to be swept aside by the industrial revolution’s preoccupation with scale, muscle and bone supplemented with the indefatigable motion of tram, track, rail and road.
A road reached the summit in 1879, the smooth sinew in a plan to extract 3000 tons of Westmorland Green from a mine that had long since disappeared beneath the earth.
Today, there is still a slate mine at Honister and it’s the last functioning example in England. As is the way with such things, the visitor’s centre is far bigger than the workings now, its exterior dotted ominously with ashen-faced gravestones, solemnly awaiting the engraver’s chisel.
The road persists, too, known to the Department for Transport as part of the B5289 but to everyone else as the Honister Pass. Today, it is wet. No surprise there, as the day in question falls at the end of November, and the surrounding pall encompasses all of Cumbria – but it’s a bind for the kind of cars we’ve chosen to foreground against the garage-sized boulders strewn artistically among about a million gallons of moving water.
The bad luck is emblematic of a bad year for open-top sports cars in general. Summer was short and undeserving of the name. October sizzled briefly, with silly, show-off temperatures that simply served to confuse everyone’s sartorial choices.
Then, in the space of what seemed like nine minutes, the nation’s thermostat plummeted to its catacomb setting. Which is all the more trying because 2015 was actually a brilliant year for fast drop-tops, turning up not only the devilishly brilliant new Mazda MX-5 but also the latest Porsche Boxster Spyder – a slimmer, cooler, quicker version of the best cloth-roofed car in the world.
There was even a convertible version of Jaguar’s obstreperous F-Type R, launched in the spring with the intriguing possibility of all-wheel drive – only for it to be driven into the leaf pile of our to-do list.
Well, with Christmas upon us, the rot stops here. The brief for assembling all three atop Honister is simple: a last push out of the boat; find some fresh air worth sampling before 2015 shuts up shop and decide once and for all which deserves a place under the Autocar tree.
But Cumbria isn’t playing ball. The cloth stays buttoned up all round, lest rain speckle touchscreen.
Except in the Spyder, borrowed from the excellent Porsche Experience Centre in Silverstone, because no touchscreen has been specced. The centre console is home to two giant cubbyholes instead. Saving you a very small dumb-bell in weight is all well and good, but no normal person would rob themselves of the convenience of sat-nav and a stereo (the next two days of walkie-talkie whereabouts chatter providing sufficient evidence of the pitfalls).
Of course, the Spyder has always been about usability compromises in the name of performance. It’s the reason why it has a mostly manual roof, which is far better than the popper-festooned fumble that the previous version’s awning used to be, but it’s still a faff compared with the F-Type’s button or the MX-5’s own brilliant fold-out affair. The Spyder’s resulting weight loss is actually fairly modest. The substantial boost to its power-to-weight ratio comes instead from the 370bhp 3.8-litre flat six pinched from the standard 911 Carrera and shared with the Cayman GT4. Yours for £60,459.
The most expensive Boxster’s diet regime is not shared by the most expensive F-Type. Adding Jaguar’s rear-biased all-wheel drive system to the R-badged convertible doesn’t just inflate the starting price to £97,145. It also contributes to the model’s plentiful waistline.
Jaguar coyly reveals that the car weighs ‘from’ 1750kg – so expect a kitted-out example such as this one, with yours truly aboard, to be getting on for two tonnes. Of course, like a rib shack waiter carrying a pack of Rennies, the six-figure F-Type comes with the remedy to its tonnage built in: namely, 5.0 litres of air-compressing V8 in its 542bhp tune.
With the drive at both ends, the R performs the kind of getaways that would shame a laser pointer. Jaguar boldly claims 3.9sec to 60mph, although, as always, it’s the sheer prodigiousness of it that staggers – the massive noise and thrusting mania now coming with the diabolical nonchalance of superior traction.
I drove the F-Type up from Surrey to Honister, a journey of about 300 miles, most of them spent trapped in a tiny whirlwind of outside-lane impatience. Asking the V8 to do 70mph is like asking a meteorite to match the cruising speed of a butterfly.
The R feels built to do about 250mph, despite being a medley of simmering discombobulation on the motorway. A dearth of rigidity meant the F-Type cabrio never rode faultlessly, and the R inevitably follows suit, often refusing to settle properly. Hold your left hand in front of the touchscreen and it’ll bob about the place like Gordon Tracey’s at the controls of Thunderbird 4. As with the coupé, the experience is better in Dynamic mode, where the adaptive dampers alleviate some of the body’s long-wave bagginess, but progress is more memorable than it is optimal.
The F-Type suits Honister, though. The sodden, gaunt, tumbledown landscape is acutely British, and the thought of such an ancient backdrop birthing the Jaguar’s sleek modernity is as satisfying as knowing the Handley Page Victor, the 4468 Mallard and the Bluebird-Proteus CN7 heralded from these isles, too.
The MX-5 comes from Hiroshima and was drawn by an American, yet honestly it feels more at home on single-track Cumbrian roads than the local boy. Capacious the F-Type isn’t – but it’s a Regency drawing room compared with the closet-sized Mazda. Nevertheless, I defy you not to get comfortable in its dinky interior. There’s a sleeper-cabin snugness to the MX-5, particularly in range-topping Sport Nav trim, and a likeable convenience in the fact that everything – including the roof – is within arm’s reach.
I get in it in sight of Dale Head and don’t get out again until there’s a view of the Aonach Eagach ridge. That’s more than 200 miles up England’s lumpy spine and into Scotland, but the MX-5 has a way of processing even the more gruelling sections into the most amiable R&R.
Despite the fitment of the more sporty optional Bilstein springs, the suspension is enormously accommodating through its initial travel, a characteristic that, along with a palpable lack of mass, makes the car extremely difficult to ruffle from a ride comfort sense. Combine that with the enthusiastic (if vocal) hum of the 158bhp naturally aspirated four-pot engine and the lack of ostentation is irresistible – especially as the honest-to-goodness theme extends to its £23,295 starting price.
As we hit the A82, right on cue, the clouds break. The run up to Glencoe looks striking even through a dreadnought gauze of sheet rain, but under the flaxen light of a frigid sun, it appears ridiculously photogenic, as though the oncoming horizon were being rendered by a water-cooled graphics card in the Mazda’s boot.
Roof down – a five-second, one-armed backstroke manoeuvre – and the breeze fondles compassionately at the fringe. Unlike the Jag, which maintains the under-thigh presence of a four-man hot tub with its hood retracted, the impish MX-5 virtually disappears beneath you when you pay it no mind, leaving me to bob like a cork in the coppery magnificence of the Highlands at dusk.
The next day, having overnighted in Fort William and imagining the soup-for-the-soul moments could get no more flavoursome, I finally exchange the pleasant puffiness of the Mazda’s sports seats for the Spyder’s no-nonsense black buckets. The mindset transition elsewhere is no less tangible; if the MX-5’s inconspicuous and wieldy usability is the Gore-Tex-lined light walking boot of the roadster segment, then the Porsche is the barefoot cross-country trainer. Which sounds stripped out and low to the ground and potentially fraught but isn’t at all. What it is, rather wonderfully, is natural, neutral, mechanical and as sweetly encouraging a car as I’ve driven all year.
Inside, weight-saving gestures aside, it’s mostly just Boxster. It is underneath, too, a toughened anti-roll bar and wider rear tyres being essentially all that separate it from a GTS. But it rides supremely well.
From the shadow of Ben Nevis to the sticker-covered warning sign that marks the beginning of the B-road to Applecross, on passive suspension and 20in wheels, the Spyder treads the line between thick-set and user-friendly about as well as anything not wearing a McLaren badge. Where the F-Type jostles and the MX-5 swishes, the Porsche aims to apprise your glutes of every topographical fluctuation below, without ever making the message overly acute or mean-spirited. It succeeds splendidly, and with no quivering aftershock of the linear motion exiting the body skywards, either.
Instead, we head for the heavens together. The Applecross road, and its ascent to 2053ft, is a picture-book location. It’s essentially a shrunk-wash Alpine pass: short on grandeur or length but big on girth, the valley below spread-eagling into a seemingly massive expanse of scraggy lens candy. It’s not an extraordinary driving road, yet with its pristine control weights and stonking new engine, the Spyder makes it seem like one.
The steep climb makes accessing the 3.8’s extra power all but inevitable, as there’s barely an opportunity to get beyond third gear. Nor will you want to try, given the life-affirming noise bouncing back at you from the rock at the top of second gear and the rivulet of pleasure that passes up the arm from working the short-throw lever between only two ratios.
Like the Cayman GT4, the Spyder is endowed with considerable rear-end traction but, in first gear, it mugs for the camera sublimely because the standard limited-slip rear differential and mid-engined balance provide an ideal foundation for throttle-anchoring the car at 90deg to the apex.
There isn’t really space for the Jaguar to do the same (although later experience confirms that, in the wet, the F-Type can be coaxed sideways with entertaining ease). However, the MX-5 lives up to its front-engined, rear-drive configuration splendidly, its back end more than adept at playing the frisky pendulum to the counterweight in its nose.
It’s easy to get carried away in the Mazda, in fact, but its modest weight, expense and size make doing so about as guiltless as playing football in your mum’s lounge with a helium balloon.
I stay in the MX-5 as we double back on ourselves down the A87. The final leg of the journey involves an all-out sprint onto the Isle of Skye, in order that photographer Luc might be given time to shoot a final hill-top group picture on the northern tip of the island. Trying hard in the Mazda hardly lives up to the description. You don’t try hard at all. There’s no sweaty-palm work rate, just the frivolous contentment of keeping your foot in that bit longer, inclining your head that bit farther over in the corners and being a bit more expeditious with your upshifts on the snappy and utterly lovely six-speed manual gearbox.
Occasionally on the wet tangle of fast A-road bends, the MX-5 calls on the traction control to coax its rear axle straight – but otherwise, via delicate steering, a biddable front end and its calmly composed chassis, the MX-5 churns the same willing ebullience from faster speeds as it does from a dawdle.
With the front axle sharing some of the abundant peak torque, the F-Type doesn’t need its traction control, but after the Mazda’s fleet-footed waltz, it is harder to engage with the super-heavyweight straight away. The steering isn’t as feelsome and it doesn’t seem as confidently plumbed into the distant nose, which leaves you with the sensation of a long-distance relationship over the big bonnet. Nevertheless, as we approach the turning for the Talisker whisky distillery and Skye’s scenery goes from merely very fetching to something apparently torn from Tolkien’s imagination, the R’s own brand of sorcery finally gets under the skin and slower traffic and sighted corners both fall prey to its almighty super-cruise capacity.
But I still waste time pulling over to wait for the Porsche before the last few miles. Beyond Portree, the island’s east coast becomes even more sparsely populated and remote in character. Against this rugged, windswept panorama, the Spyder confirms what I’ve known since dawn: it is 2015’s complete open-top package, matching the Jaguar for the fire and brimstone of its soundtrack and raw pace, and trumping even the MX-5’s winsome ability to remain immersive at any speed.
It does this not by being airy and carefree, but rather by delivering a single-minded, Porsche-branded enthusiasm that labours under almost none of the traditional compromises. Thus the most serious Boxster is suitably resolute and hard-edged, hugely quick and capable, yet never less than contented on a B-road or easily manageable in a town or at home on the motorway. That it is sometimes loud and sometimes galling to have to get out to refit the roof is a good thing. As with a Caterham, a Morgan or an Ariel Atom, it simply confirms that you’ve bought something special – something to look after just as it looks after you.
And make no mistake: the Spyder is seriously good at doing that, using its quickened, toughened yet wonderfully progressive steering and enhanced mid-point poise to swaddle every gleeful input in an overlay of responsiveness and conviction.
The MX-5 is cheaper, the F-Type showier – both, in their own way, entirely fit for purpose when the rain stops and the mood takes you. But the Spyder is something else. In a year when Porsche reconfirmed its superlative reputation with a string of five-star reviews, the costliest Boxster stands alongside the Cayman GT4 and 911 GT3 RS as one of the finest performance cars you can buy.
You won’t need to drive it to Skye and back to discover that fact, but – and believe me on this – you’ll definitely want to. Bravo, Stuttgart, and happy Christmas.