You have to search long and hard to find fault with the Porsche Cayman S. There may be faster and more powerful sports cars on the market, but there are few cars in existence that are as deeply satisfying to drive. Just one thing made me raise my eyebrows after a week in one — the price tag.
(Full disclosure: Porsche needed me to drive a Cayman S so badly they dropped one off at my house and told me to go gorillas for a week. It was a week I would describe as “not bad.”)
Not enough people understand just how good the Cayman is. They think of it as just a Boxster with a roof, and the Boxster is a sorry-ass hairdresser’s car, so what’s the point? Not even a real Porsche, they say, as if there is such a thing. Those people are dead wrong about both cars, but especially the Cayman.
The Cayman has been around since 2006, but it was redesigned for the 2013 model year and re-christened the 981 in Porsche parlance. More than ever it handles so razor-sharply, revs its flat six so fantastically, provides so much balance and looks so sexy that it truly makes you wonder what more you could want from any sports car.
Problem is, all that amazeballs-ness doesn’t come cheap. That blue 2014 Cayman S you see above stickers in at $88,625. That’s not even fully loaded — some of the cars loaned to journalists have topped $100,000.
A base Cayman starts at a reasonable enough $52,600, and the S starts at $63,800, but if you pile on the options you start to think that maybe your kids will turn out just fine if they went to a state school. Or clown college.
Many of you will realize that nearly $89,000 will get you into a base 911. But would you want to be in one? We could sit here and debate all day long whether the lighter, purer, mid-engined Cayman is really a better driver’s car than a comparable 911. It very well might be, but it will always live in its famous big brother’s shadow, whether it deserves to or not.
There is a shining ray of hope if you decide the Cayman is the car you simply must own and don’t want to leave your children starving, destitute and ridden with fleas like in some fucked-up Dickensian nightmare: Have you seen how cheap they are used?
A recent search on Carmax, your destination for potentially unreliable luxury vehicles, revealed no less than eight Cayman models between $29,000 and $40,000. That strikes me as a pretty good deal.
Of course, at those prices you’re going to have to go with the current Cayman’s predecessor, the 987. (Yes, 987. Porsches haven’t been advancing in numerical order lately. I don’t get it either.) Are you missing out on much by going that route — or is the 987 actually the better car in the end?
That was the question I sought to answer after getting a generous offer to drive an older Cayman owned by Jalopnik reader Neal Norman. Neal is relatively new to the Porsche game, having swapped an E36 M3 for his 50,000-mile 2008 Cayman in February. He paid just about $26,000 for his. Twenty-six grand! For a newer-ish Porsche! That’s a steal, man.
Neal’s a big fan of all German cars, Porsches in particular, and he says he was drawn to the Cayman for its affordability, driving prowess and surprising competence as an everyday car.
“I love it,” he told me before the two of us went to hoon our Caymans on some Virginia backroads. “I think a used Cayman is THE bargain right now. It’s astonishing.”
It’s important to note that this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples test. Besides the age of the cars and the difference in mileage, Neal’s car is a base Cayman with 245 horsepower and a five-speed manual. My 2014 Cayman S tester was much more loaded in terms of features, and packed a larger motor with 325 horsepower mated to a six-speed manual.
But the Cayman has never been about straight-line acceleration — corner carving has always been its raison d’être, and so this test was more about evaluating each car’s character and overall driving experience, as well as which one ends up as the better value.
So how does the 981 really stack up against the 987? Let’s find out in this Jalopnik comparison test. Commence the Cayman-off!
Step inside the Cayman S. Let the 18-way sport seats hug your torso tight. Plug the bulky car-shaped key fob into its hole left of the steering wheel, push in the clutch, and turn the fob to the right. Let the throaty growl of that 3.4-liter flat six fill the cabin. Right then and there you’ll know you’re in for something special.
It’s true that 325 horsepower may not seem all that impressive these days, but the numbers don’t do this motor justice. It’s a real peach, and one that will gleefully rev to its 7,800 RPM redline all day, every day. Down low it doesn’t have a ton of grunt, but it’s got plenty of midrange and top-end power. On twisty back roads you can basically leave it in third gear and let the revs do most of the work. Remember, those 325 horses only have 2,900 pounds to move. (The base 981 Cayman, in case you’re curious, puts out 275 horsepower.)
When I first drove the Cayman S I thought more power would make it more “competitive.” But the more I drove it, the more I realized doing so runs the risk of upsetting the incredible balance and controllability it has.
You can flog this engine as hard as you want, and you’ll have all the passing power on the highway you’ll need, but it never feels like something that can get away from you, something that can overwhelm you and put you into a ditch if you make a mistake. More on paper doesn’t always equate to better in real life.
The real star here is the chassis, though. The Cayman S stays completely flat and neutral in every corner, now matter how fast and hard you fling it. It tends to stick rather than slide, staying glued to the road with a degree of confidence that will surprise even the most hardened sports car buffs.
The 981 has electric steering, and that’s something I bitch about a lot on this website. But the system in this car is the best one I have yet encountered. It’s incredibly tight and heavy, and it’s so direct it makes everything from hard cornering to lane changes feel like an act of telepathy. It even gives you a fairly decent amount of road feel.
I also have to talk about the six-speed manual. It’s fantastic, among the best out there. Shifts are short and tight and buttery smooth, and gears are easy to locate. It’s hard to imagine any factory gearbox being better than this.
My only gripe with the transmission was the clutch — it’s rather high, rather heavy and not terribly linear, and proved consistently awkward getting out of the gate in first gear. I haven’t driven a PDK-equipped car, but it has a long way to go to beat the manual gearbox. It would be my choice, hands down.
As for the inside, you feel like you get what you’ve paid for, for the most part. My white leather-equipped tester felt extremely premium, with buttons and switches laid out in an intuitive and easy-to-use function. The Cayman’s interior keeps the focus on the drive, which is appreciated.
You know what the Cayman S is? It’s an enabler. It’s always daring you to go harder, pushing you to sweep faster into the corners, to dart between other cars on the freeway in ultimate Porsche jerkface driver style just because you can. It’s that crazy friend who tells your 12-step program is bullshit. It brings out the best and worst in you at the same time.
Compared to the 981, Neal’s 987 feels delightfully old-school right off the bat. Why do I say that? Because it’s started with an actual key, not a fob, and it has a physical parking brake, not a sometimes-confusing electric switch like its newer brother. Enjoy that stuff while you can, kids!
Neal’s Cayman is lighter on features than my tester in every way possible. At 2.7 liters, its engine is quite a bit smaller than mine, and produces 245 horsepower and just 201 pound-feet of torque. Its manual transmission has one fewer gear than mine as well. His car’s interior isn’t quite as loaded down with leather like mine is, and the radio is an actual radio, not a touch screen.
But you know what? I don’t mean any of that in a bad way. I really like the idea of a basic, affordable, almost stripped-out modern Porsche. Their cars weren’t always the leather-lined cruise missiles they are today, and the base 987 kind of harkens back to those days. This car gives you what you want — the drive — and not a lot of stuff you don’t.
The drive. That’s what’s important, and this Cayman does not disappoint at all. Perhaps what surprised me most was just how very similar the two are in terms of dynamics and character.
Opt for an older 987 and you get hydraulic steering, another technology we’re in the process of saying goodbye to. Compared to the 981's electric rack, it’s not as tight and heavy, but it’s every bit as direct, and it provides miles more feedback. As great as the new car’s steering is, it just feels artificial compared to this.
The smaller engine gives off less of an angry baritone than the newer car, but it’s still every bit as satisfying to hear. It’s just as willing to rev long and hard, too, which is good because you’ll find yourself doing that a lot. Like the VTEC Hondas or E30 M3s of yore, the Cayman is at its best in the upper part of the RPM range. With less low- and especially mid-level torque, I found myself working through the gearbox a lot more on these same backroads than I did in the 981.
That’s fine, because the gearbox on this car is also very good. The five-speed isn’t quite as click-click precise or direct, but it’s in the same ballpark, with throws being light and short. You know what I really liked better about this car? The clutch. It’s much lighter and the catch point is far lower than the 981, making it considerably easier to use.
The 987 has something of a size advantage on the new car, but not by much. Neal’s Cayman weighed in at 2,866 pounds to my car’s 2,910. The old Cayman is also not as tall or long. These differences, while minor, do make the 987 feel more nimble than the 981; it drives like a smaller car because it is, although just barely.
At the same time, the added heft and weighty steering of the 981 makes it feel more confident to drive. The 987 is a bit looser overall, but also more dependent on the skill of its driver.
But just like the newer car, this Cayman pushes you all the time to drive at your best, to misbehave, to take the next corner faster than the previous one. Don’t think for a second that this car’s more basic specs and relatively modest power numbers make it any less of an enabler. You just have to work for it more, but you’ll want to.
Do I really have to pick a winner here? Even a few days after driving both, I’m not sure I can. They’re both so good and so similar that I may have to chalk this one up as a draw, although that’s kind of a cop-out.
I have no doubt in my mind that the 981 Cayman is a better car than the one it replaces. It offers superior performance, looks sharper, feels more premium, and has become more like a legitimate 911 competitor than its younger brother. It’s grown up compared to the 987, but it hasn’t lost anything in the transition, and kudos to Porsche for that. Of the two it’s the one I would rather own.
Is the Cayman is worth nearly $89,000 like my tester? There were times during my week with this car when I thought to myself, “This drive is worth whatever they want to charge me for it.”
But the 981 doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s the Corvette Stingray, Jaguar F-Type, the 911, and a host of other competitors who may represent a better overall value since they offer more power, if that is what you desire. I say keep your Cayman S as close to to its entry price as you can and you’re better off. Whatever you pay for it, it won’t be a purchase you regret.
As for the 987: that this car is becoming increasingly affordable is a huge boon to enthusiasts everywhere. I walked away thinking that Neal’s Cayman — which cost him as much as a new Toyota Camry — was an insane deal. I have driven new Miatas and BRZs that are more expensive than his car, and between those three, there’s no contest which is the best choice.
Who wins this test? I say we all do, since it’s impossible to go wrong either way. And in a few years, maybe the 981 will sink down to normal-human price levels too. Get excited.