Nearly New Germans Comparo: First Place: Porsche Cayman S

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

It’s difficult to put a price on cynicism in this day and age, but allow me to make a suggestion: $13,900. Four years ago, the newly-introduced Porsche Cayman 3.4S retailed for $58,900. The mechanically similar Boxster 2.7 was $45K flat. That nearly fourteen-grand price difference would have purchased a well-equipped Hyundai Elantra, but at Porsche it got the Cayman buyer a hardtop, which costs less to manufacture than the Boxster’s soft top, and a bored-out engine, which costs exactly the same to make as the small-bore variant.

Although Porsche did condescend to sweeten the crocodile pot with a few extras, such as larger brakes and a more aggressive wheelset, it’s still difficult to not consider the Cayman as the most cynical marketing exercise in history. Of course, Porsche is a company that keeps resetting the bar for cynical exploitation of its overly devoted customers. This mid-engined two-seater is simply another profit-laden reassembly of Stuttgart’s depressingly low-quality watercooled LEGO set, sold for twice what a comparable Japanese or American car would cost.

These are the thoughts that fill my mind as I open the door to PRI’s mildly tuned Cayman S. I’ve just gotten out of their Z4M, a fabulous but flawed roadster that oozes style and enthusiasm from every pore. The Porsche, by contrast, is a boring grey pod with a clattery-sounding frameless door. The old aircooled 911s used to “ting” when the doors closed. It was a solid reminder of the way Porsches used to be built. No longer. The interior is bland, cost-cut, uninteresting. Cynical. Cheap. And then it’s time to drive.

While the Z4 driver sits over the rear axle, looking down the long bonnet in a seating position older than the MG TC, the Cayman’s pilot is cab-forward, with just a mild suggestion of headlamp tunnel visible through the chop-top windshield. It’s not an inspiring view, but it offers uncompromised vision for the driver. Stuff like that matters when you’re pedaling three hundred horsepower down fast roads.

Those ponies, incidentally, are delivered in rather begrudging fashion. There’s nothing even remotely special about the Cayman’s engine. If you want a sensual, exciting Porsche motor, write a check and buy a GT3. The “regular” cars are toneless at low revs and offer just a smidgen of aural excitement as the center-mounted tach passes the italicized “6”. It isn’t a droning Japanese four or hopelessly tacky V-6, but it’s very far from the characterful monster that used to live behind the rear axle of Nine Elevens.

At seventy miles per hour, the BMW has it all over the Porsche. Law-abiding citizens, or the seven-tenths trackday crowd, should feel no regret over purchasing a Z4 over a Cayman, particularly given the solid economic incentives for doing so. In a straight line, the Porsche inevitably slips backwards, and the balky cable shifter doesn’t help matters. It wouldn’t have cost a dime more to make this car a 405-horsepower 3.8, and I find myself repeatedly cursing the name of the now-disgraced Dr. Wendelin Wiedeking as we climb the mountainous roads around upstate New York.

Before I know it, though, the roads start becoming a bit… challenging. Wide sweepers tighten without warning as the short-scale speedometer hovers past the one-half mark. The Z4 is falling out of its element, but the Cayman just keeps getting better. It could use more front tire — every current production Porsche is shipped with a ridiculous amount of “stagger” between the front and rear tread — but the available grip can be accessed right up to the limit. In the midcorner, with the PSM babysitter disconnected, there is a reliable, predictable slide from the tail. I’m adding power at the apex while the BMW is still fidgeting and fussing for grip.

As the miles stretch on, the Cayman maintains a firm brake pedal. Porsche may cut costs everywhere they can, but they have never cut costs when it comes to stopping the car. I’m braking later and later, trusting the car more, and now the Bimmer ahead of me is a fly to be swatted away at my convenience. I can’t do it under power, but at any racetrack I’d show the nose at the next corner and make it stick. The steering is preternaturally good despite power assistance, revealing every line in the pavement but absorbing the worst of the bumps and vibrations before they reach the steering wheel.

As fate would have it, a month after driving PRI’s car I had a chance to drive a nearly identical example at Summit Point’s Main course. In a group filled with M3s, STis, and Evolutions, the Cayman was a subtle superstar, gaining ground in every turn and in every braking zone, never falling too far back, eventually bringing us to the front of the session. A Z4M might have accomplished the same thing, but it would have been a struggle. Like it or not, the Cayman is a truly great car. It isn’t “worth the money” by any scale I can devise, but I’d write a check for one and never think twice.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Oct 05, 2009

    akitadog : My best man got me a manual Cayman S for 24 hours before my wedding. As fun as it was to drive, I just could not get over the extremely annoying vacuum cleaner sucking sound coming from behind me. It was more pronounced in traffic, but I live in DC. That could get tiring VERY easily. akitadog, That wasn't the car. That was NAFTA. And living in DC does get tiring very easily. That's why I left.

  • Anonymous Anonymous on Oct 05, 2009
    The Cayman / Boxster is the only case I can think of where the hardtop costs more than the convertible. Quite ridiculous, especially since they’ve become almost identical in other respects in recent years. Dodge Viper, but only about a $1,000 difference.
  • Dave M. IMO this was the last of the solidly built MBs. Yes, they had the environmentally friendly disintegrating wiring harness, but besides that the mechanicals are pretty solid. I just bought my "forever" car (last new daily driver that'll ease me into retirement), but a 2015-16 E Class sedan is on my bucket list for future purchase. Beautiful design....
  • Rochester After years of self-driving being in the news, I still don't understand the psychology behind it. Not only don't I want this, but I find the idea absurd.
  • Douglas This timeframe of Mercedes has the self-disintegrating engine wiring harness. Not just the W124, but all of them from the early 90's. Only way to properly fix it is to replace it, which I understand to be difficult to find a new one/do it/pay for. Maybe others have actual experience with doing so and can give better hope. On top of that, it's a NH car with "a little bit of rust", which means to about anyone else in the USA it is probably the rustiest W124 they have ever seen. This is probably a $3000 car on a good day.
  • Formula m How many Hyundai and Kia’s do not have the original engine block it left the factory with 10yrs prior?
  • 1995 SC I will say that year 29 has been a little spendy on my car (Motor Mounts, Injectors and a Supercharger Service since it had to come off for the injectors, ABS Pump and the tool to cycle the valves to bleed the system, Front Calipers, rear pinion seal, transmission service with a new pan that has a drain, a gaggle of capacitors to fix the ride control module and a replacement amplifier for the stereo. Still needs an exhaust manifold gasket. The front end got serviced in year 28. On the plus side blank cassettes are increasingly easy to find so I have a solid collection of 90 minute playlists.