First published in the October 2013 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
Three of the world’s most desirable, brilliantly resolved sports cars also happen to come from the one manufacturer. Can you really choose a single winner? We were happy to give it our very best shot…
PIG IN shit. I’m sorry for the farm language, but there are no other words to describe my incandescent joy at taking part in this three-car Porker fest.
I’ve been trying to think of another assignment that could prompt this level of porcine-in-poo pleasure, but short of being given a million dollars in three different currencies and being sent to Vegas to blow it all, I don’t think there is one.
Brotherly Shove - October 2013
View this article in its original format in the archive.
After attending the launch of the latest-gen Boxster in Europe last year, I was overcome by its excellence and declared that no person of sane wallet would ever buy a 911 Cabrio again.
I was similarly excited about the new Porsche Cayman, despite not having driven it yet, because one of our hard-to-impress freelancers, Bill McKinnon, told me it was a 10 out of 10 car. Perfect, in other words, despite its hefty price tag ($107,100 for our base model, or $122,980 as tested). Bill countered that argument by pointing out that, relative to its only known predator in the wild, the 911 ($266,120 for the Porsche 911 Carrera S we’ve got here, although you can get an entry-level Carrera for $229,400) it’s a bargain. In America, where the Cayman can be yours for $56,000, the argument for a perfect score is surely stronger.
And yet, looking at them lined up together on a finger-nipping morning at Sydney Dragway, the 911 – the car I don’t think I need any more, because the Cayman is so great and so much closer to being affordable – is instantly winning me over.
Our base Cayman is a fantastic-looking car, particularly glimpsed in a rear-view mirror, where its wide bonnet, angular nose and blood redness bring to mind a Ferrari. It’s a much tougher looking beast than its predecessor, but its looks still fall away as you walk your eyes towards the tail, and that silly looking centrally mounted exhaust pipe. Over all, it looks like it might grow up to be a 911, or to put it another way, it looks like the teenage daughter in Modern Family, who is surely going to grow up to look like Mila Kunis.
Park the new Boxster next to an old one and it’s like parking Hugh Jackman next to Julia Gillard. The wider track and Porsche Carrera GT front end have damn near given it a sex change, or at very least bigger testicles. And yet, parked next to our white, duck-tailed 911 – the full Mila Kunis – they look like little toy Porsches, made worse in our Boxster S’s case by its Airfix-style pop up rear wing (anyone who presses the button on the console to keep that thing raised should have the finger they use removed with pliers).
The Carrera S is wider, meaner, lower, more classic and simply more desirable. From front on it’s almost a contest, perhaps, but follow them from behind and the 911, with its beautifully integrated rear light cluster and sexy barge arse, simply drives away with it.
I’m hoping the contest on the road will be closer, I want the Cayman to succeed because it gives me hope of ownership, albeit the false kind. Sadly, when we hit the bends on the Jenolan Caves road for some back-to-backing, it takes less than 10 minutes to make me want to retract my stupid claim about the Porsche Boxster vs 911 Cabrio. And that car’s not even here.
What’s great about this exercise is that we always drive one Porsche variant at a time, and on their own, or against just about anything, they shine.
It’s only against each other that you can see gradations of greatness.
The Cayman is instantly everything I’d hoped it would be. Sinuous, talkative and exquisitely balanced. It feels fast, it makes a great metallic barking noise and it instantly gives you the confidence to push it to absurd levels, because there’s just so much grip.
The considerably more expensive Boxster S ($126,500, or $146,110 as tested here), by comparison, might get you to that first bend quicker, but driven right after the Cayman it feels loose, not quite wobbly and far from flawed, but definitely missing the holistic purity and solidity of its roofed brother.
The Cayman feels hewn from a solid block of unobtainium, but then you drive the 911, and the little red rocket suddenly feels like it would better be described as a particularly well-crafted mud brick. The Carrera S isn’t just a better car, it’s a wholly different kind of experience. On the drag strip, the 0-to-100km/h times are significantly far apart, but on the road that difference becomes a yawning chasm.
You are faster in the 911, not just in a straight line, but everywhere, and you feel connected to the road, squashed down onto it, in fact, in a wholly different way. The rear end squats and seems to rip and tear at the very road surface as it fires you towards the next bend, and all the while the sound of the 2.7-litre, 202kW, 290Nm Cayman is disappearing from your mind as your senses are rocked by the screaming 3.8-litre, 297kW/440Nm flat six, which sounds like a giant, rockin’ bass guitar being played by a swarm of angry bees.
In this test, the 911 is also advantaged enormously by offering a seven-speed manual, one of the world’s great gearboxes, and one which rewards heel and toeing so sumptuously that you find yourself downchanging for no good reason, repeatedly.
Both the Boxster and the Cayman are fitted with the admittedly more popular, and quicker, PDK gearbox. There is not a single thing I can say to fault this paddle-shifted gearbox, but I will say I’d rather die in a ditch than own one myself. Porsche manuals are just better, better than any gearbox on the planet.
The contest feels unfair, already, and yet… The thing is, I never complain when I have to get out of the 911 and into the Cayman. I want to drive it more, to explore its limits, because that feels possible in a way that it’s simply not in the big daddy, which is almost too much car for most occasions. The Cayman is less fun in outright, purist terms, but it’s still a lot of fun, more of the time, and that’s what shines over the next few hours of car swapping.
Another showdown looms the next morning as we attack a steep hill of bendy greatness on the Sofala Road. Here, the 911 shines like a supernova, flattening out the sharpest rises, its brutal bellow bouncing off the cliffs and making our photographer giggle uncontrollably. The Cayman does feel slow here, climbing steeply, and for the first time the Boxster S makes its claims with its extra grunt (3.4-litre, 232kW, 360Nm), but on the rushing ride back down the hill, the base Cayman is superb.
Incredibly, in fact, the Cayman was edging my affections on this road, even over the astounding 911. It just feels so sweet, neat and perfectly balanced. And going downhill, mid-corner, all three cars were probably doing very similar speeds.
At that point, in the middle of a corner, with G-forces pushing you and your brain urging you to lift, it’s more about how the car feels, and how it makes you feel, rather than brute force.
Where the 911 wins is on corner exit, when it hunkers down, grips and hurls you towards the next bend with the kind of satisfying punch to your guts that only a truly mega-car can provide.
Where the Cayman wins right back is that moment of perfection when transitioning from a left to a right bend, the kind of purity a boxer probably feels on hitting a perfect one-two combination. It is at that moment that you can feel the whole Porsche pivoting round a point in the middle of the car, just behind your left hip, a feeling that’s as close to perfection as driving can provide. It’s a mid-engine thing, and thus the one area in which the 911 can’t compete.
Throw in the price differential – which is absolutely vast, particularly if you put aside absurd options lists and just look at the base price, and the Cayman really starts to make sense. It’s almost heresy to say, but you really don’t need a 911 any more. The baby Porsche is that good, at least in the tight and twisty stuff.
The next stretch, from Oberon to Taralga was high-speed, open-sweeper stuff, and all three cars were fantastic here. As the sun blinked through grey skies I dared to lower the roof of the Boxster and was reminded of why, for some people, this would be the choice of our three cars.
Once again, in isolation the Boxster is a fantastic and much-improved car, it suffers only in comparison with its cousins. What’s so impressive about the Cayman is that it was, on most occasions, more fun than the S version of its lidless kin.
This was not the case, however, once we hit the track at the tight and treacherous Wakefield Park. Here, finally, the Cayman’s lack of power really cost it, and as much fun as its beautifully balanced chassis was around the tight twists and turns, it felt slow. Painfully so against the 911, and merely a bothersome amount against the Boxster S.
For me, the 911 is too much car for the confines of Wakefield, but it would be magnificent at somewhere more spacious, like Phillip Island, and it has the talent and power to be a brilliant track weapon.
Despite the fact that its brakes were going squidgy, the Boxster was the perfect companion here; fast enough, fantastic handling, chuckable and that brilliant Porsche steering topping it off. It may be comparatively numb at the straight ahead compared to Porsches previous, meaning it’s no longer as much fun to tool around in traffic in a 911 as it was, but Porsche steering, on all three variants, is still damn close to being the world’s best when you’re moving at pace.
So, as I might have predicted at the start, there are no real losers here, it’s not so much a win win, as a win-win-win situation. Interestingly, Ponchard and I both wanted to drive the Cayman home at day’s end, despite the fact that the 911 probably rides a little more plushly. I fear we’d both fallen for it. And we were both thinking similar things about how wonderful a Cayman S must be. In this company, sadly, the Boxster just feels too soft.
I still want a 911, as I have ever since I first drove one, after some five years of begging my boss for the chance (“ready, you are not” he kept squeaking, Yoda-like, no wonder it was built up to be such a big thing in my mind). Instantly and forever smitten, I was.
And having had this one for a few days before the test loop, and managed to squeeze both a baby seat and a six year old into the back seats I know it’s the one that would fit my lifestyle as well.
But the good news is that if you can afford the Cayman, even a base model, it will bring so much pleasure to your life that you almost won’t mind when a 911 roars past you in traffic, looking and sounding better and bigger than yours. Almost.
The only trick to buying a Cayman is to ignore the salesman (the only reason Porsche doesn’t sell more Caymans is that, once they’re optioned up, the helpful Porsche dealer walks you over to a base 911, points out the small price disparity and says “isn’t this what you really want?) and never, ever agree to take a 911 for a test drive.
Yes, I’ll admit my heart – that most illogical of organs – still wants a 911, and it always will, but my head says a Cayman would be good enough. More than good enough. I’d be a particularly noxious smelling pig for the rest of my life, if I could afford one.
Another Cay-man’s opinion
CHOOSING a favourite from three of the greatest Porsches of all time would seem harder than deciding which Sports Illustrated model you’d choose to rub in your tanning lotion, but in the end there can only be one winner. My least favourite was the Boxster S. It’s a brilliant car, no question, but the few gripes I had with it highlight just how crucial the driver/car interface is in making or breaking a vehicle experience.
I genuinely dislike the ‘standard’ PDK steering wheel. Contrary to long-held Porsche tradition, the rim is too thick around the chunky wheel spokes and it just isn’t pleasant to hold, especially when slugged with the flawed gearshift actuators and graced by an unsightly ‘PDK’ bulge that swells above the wheel boss and blocks the digital speedo.
Thankfully, our entry-level Cayman PDK had the optional sports wheel, and it’s bliss. Perfect rim size and tactile paddles (downshift left, upshift right), though you do lose wheel-mounted volume controls and the like. The base Cayman doesn’t have is the Boxster S’s grunt, but you tend to forgive the Cayman for not being super-fast because it’s such a sweetly balanced car. Even on optional 19s, it’s much nicer to drive than the Boxster S on 20s. And extremely close to the 911’s gloriousness.
If I had to create my own 911, this would be it. The colour combo, the bodykit, the sports exhaust – you name it, I want it. The Boxster’s launch control sees it shadow the Carrera S manual in full-bore acceleration, but in reality the 911 is faster, more tuneful and more tactile, blessed with all the great things that only a rear engine can give. But is it what I would buy? Not on my salary. Gimme a base Cayman manual on 18s with a sports steering wheel, Sports Chrono and a sports exhaust. Sound, suppleness and sweetness all rolled into one lovely whole. Drool.
Gimme an ‘s’
It took a month, but it was worth it. I bothered the people at Porsche constantly about driving a Cayman S. Just to be thorough. Sure, the price rises to $139,900, so that whole just-about-affordable lie you tell yourself feels a bit thinner, but you also get 239kW and 370Nm, and that’s just enough to take this car from being nigh on perfect, to right on the mark.This car, the uber Cayman, is so good – so fast, so balanced and so hot-damn enjoyable to drive – that it really does render a 911 redundant, or at least an extravagance.
Big Bill McKinnon’s 10 out of 10 suggested he may have been smoking some Porsche exhaust pipes at first, but having driven this one, I’ll admit it’s as close to perfect as motoring gets.
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