Friday, 2 November 2007

Porsche Cayman S

Ambition is a troubling and incendiary attribute. Defined as ‘an earnest desire for achievement or distinction’, it can also be interpreted as self-involvement, one-upmanship, arrogance and contempt for one’s rivals; a list that effectively reads as a mission statement for Porsche. In general, ambition is the defining notion of all that the company has achieved over the years… or at least it was until the Cayman came along.

Realistically, this is a car that is wholly lacking in any sort of ambition to fulfil its potential, which is disappointing coming from a company renowned for turning their designs up a notch, stripping away the chaff, replacing that sprocket with a carbon-fibre one, then turning it up once more. It’s little more than a mundane, moribund hatchback (sorry, coupe), and there’s something rather unsettling about that.

Perhaps I’m being a tad unfair. Taken as a stand-alone creation, I’ll concede that it is pretty impressive. The mid-engined layout adds, by its very nature, a sublime and perfectly poised set of handling characteristics that are a world apart from the tricksy, rebellious pendulum swing of the little Cayman’s big brother. The engine itself is a peach – the S variant (we won’t talk about the bog-standard base model Cayman, there’s no point) shares the Boxster’s 3.4-litre flat-six which, as you’d expect from Porsche, is strong, durable, tractable, rev-happy and delivers epic usable power in spades. Being the smartarses they are, the spec sheet brims over with impenetrable and improbable sounding devices and developments; VarioCam Plus, Porsche Active Suspension Management, Sport Chrono, resonance intake, ceramic composite brakes, stability management, blah blah, whatever. There’s a very strong feeling throughout the car that every single component, every nut, every flange, every switch has been analysed to an absurd degree by a Stuttgart boffin with a sonic screwdriver, an empty social diary and a particularly limited concept of reality. Whether or not you admire or deride this overly obsessive engineering is, I’m sure, determined by the size of your offshore Cayman Islands bank account.

The biggest problem that the Cayman suffers lies in grappling with its own identity. Is it a hardtop Boxster? Well no, the pricing would suggest that there should be rather more to it than that. Is it a baby 911? Hmm, it’s not quite as quick and the engine’s in a sensible place. So is it just a slightly reworked Boxster that they’re cynically positioning in an ill-conceived and probably fictional gap in an already bloated market? Oh, surely not. They’d research it a little better than that, wouldn’t they…?

You see, the positioning is a paradox in itself. Porsche are loathe to admit it, but the reason that the Cayman is not available with a limited-slip differential (for ‘not available’, read ‘definitely, categorically, 100% never will be available and if you ask again we’ll follow you home and batter your family’) is that it would be faster than a 911. No ifs, no buts – believe me, it would. In testing, the Cayman S has already proved to be several seconds quicker around the Nürburgring than a 911 Carrera – imagine the potential of a fully sorted lightweight Cayman S Turbo with a trick diff. Actually, you don’t need to imagine this – countless racing teams are building cars of this description for competition use. Why? You get all the trademark power, engineering excellence and tractability that you’d expect from Porsche, but with much more predictable handling. Because the engine’s not hanging off the arse end like a giant boil.

Now this is where the question of ambition comes in. As consumers, enthusiasts or (internally at least) just dribbling, lusting schoolboys, we take our reference points from the pantheon of performance pioneers. At the top of the scale we find such names as Pagani, Koenigsegg and Bugatti, moving down through Ferrari, Mosler, Lamborghini and Aston Martin, past Maserati and Ascari and on to Porsche, who seem to be increasingly aligning themselves with BMW and Mercedes-Benz. (I ask you, a Porsche off-roader? Puh-lease, what’s next? A diesel 911?) These are names we trust to relentlessly pursue automotive perfection, whether it be in terms of beautiful design, revolutionary handling or balls-out grunt. Porsche, however, have lost their way. The Cayman is nothing more than a cash cow. Rather than stay true to the core values that the company has held dear since old man Ferdinand made friends with Hitler and built him a nice little runaround to mobilise his iffy regime, they’ve decided that they don’t want to make the best car that they possibly can. Not this time. Good enough is just about good enough; as long as they can make a few more deutschmarks to cram into their already over-stuffed coffers then it’s a lovely green light for an early lunch. For shame.

Thinking about buying one? Don’t. They’re entirely anonymous on the road – people who don’t know what it is will barely notice, people who do will think you’re a prat. Trust me, buy a Nissan 350Z instead. It’s much prettier, significantly more powerful, far cheaper and no-one will spit on it. Unless you feel you need the cachet of the Porsche badge, of course… in which case you’re exactly the customer they seem to be going for.

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