In late summer 2005, after an overnight flight from Detroit to London, I collected a silver 997 Porsche 911 Carrera and drove it to Germany via the Eurotunnel. I rendezvoused with Automobile contributing writer Michael Jordan, who was on the launch of the new mid-engine Porsche Cayman S. The meeting spot was the Nürburgring, where we used the legendary Nordschleife circuit and challenging local roads to see how the new addition to the German company’s sports car lineup stacked up against the iconic rear-engined 911.
Jordan summed it up thusly: “The 911’s mystique will always make it the dominant car in this equation for Porsche traditionalists. But for everyone, the Cayman S represents a radical realignment of the planets in the Porsche solar system, as this is an ‘entry-level’ car that delivers the serious performance that Porsche enthusiasts have always demanded.” Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that’s still the case. The current 982-generation Cayman has a serious flaw that didn’t afflict the mid-engined Porsche in 2005: an unimpressive engine.
This powertrain came along as part of a refresh for the 2017 model year, when the Cayman also gained the 718 prefix as a throwback to the 1950s/1960s Porsche race car. The sonorous, naturally aspirated flat-six was shelved, replaced with either a 2.0- or 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four. Power—especially torque—increased. The performance looks impressive on paper, and it is impressive at a test track. But numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to performance.
Each iteration of the 718 Cayman may be quicker and able to achieve a higher top speed than the equivalent version of the previous 981 model, but fuel economy dropped slightly and, more important, the character of the engines took a serious step back. While there’s little turbo lag with the new four-cylinders, they don’t pull to redline in the same rewarding, visceral way as the old six-pot engine. The powerband is just too flat and it lacks the crescendo of power as the revs rise. And the smaller engines don’t sound nice. Their voices carry Subaru undertones and are far too throbby and flatulent for a Porsche sports car. It’s not simply that the engine is turbocharged or that it only carries four cylinders, it’s that the powertrains aren’t very good turbo-fours.
I’m sad, as I’ve been a Cayman advocate for ages. I’d regularly push 911 die-hard toward the Cayman, especially if they had little use for the rear jump seats of the bigger model. There was little logical reason to spend extra on the 911 unless you needed those seats or felt the optional all-wheel drive was an essential feature. Plus, when the Porsche made the decision to fit the cumbersome seven-speed manual to the 911 with launch of the 991, the Cayman kept the superior six-speed manual. And while I’m not a big convertible fan, I’ve long preferred the Cayman’s soft-top sibling, the Boxster, to a 911 cabriolet. It’s every bit a proper roadster instead of simply feeling like a coupe with the roof cut off. (It surely helps that the fixed-roof Cayman came after the Boxster.)
But my mid-engined Porsche love has waned, or at least put on hold. Yet outside of my qualms with the engine, the latest Cayman is fantastic to drive. The chassis tweaks performed at the same time made the two-seater even more balanced and even sweeter to steer. But before the arrival of the 718 badge, I’d regularly spend time on the Porsche online configurator trying to figure out the best specification for a Cayman without spending a ton of money. Now I can’t remember the last time I hopped online to do so. And when I recently tried to configure a 911, I quickly saw the price soar well into six-digit territory. I walked away from my computer deflated.
I remember reading an article about Ferrari some years back. The gist of the story was that the Italian company had no plans to make an entry-level model; if you want a lower-priced Ferrari, then buy a used Ferrari. It may be that that is becoming the case at Porsche, at least for me, since I just can’t connect with the current entry model. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been hunting for a used 2012–2016 981 Cayman or Cayman S with a six-speed manual and—ideally—a limited-slip differential and sport suspension. That’s the type of mid-engined Porsche that I vividly remember driving in Germany more than a decade ago.