Modern & Affordable

What’s it like to drive a $14,000 987 Cayman S across Europe?

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June 27, 2019

Last year we ran a feature on one of the most under-appreciated models in the Porsche family, the 986 Boxster (“Silly Money. Serious Car.” April 2018, #253). The cheapest running and driving Porsche in all the UK provided six months of happy and trouble-free ownership. It was then sold in Paris to a friend of Raymond Boutinaud of 928 Le Mans fame (“A Sharknose at Le Sarthe, June 2018, #255). But that deal left a Porsche-shaped hole in Robb Pritchard’s life. So he set out to find another bargain entry-level Porsche. Yes, we recommend that you buy the best condition Porsche you can afford. But sometimes it’s fun to explore which Porsches are available at surprisingly low price points.

was a 1998 911 (996) Carrera I wanted first. (Yes, a 1998 model-year 996, although most 996s didn’t arrive in all markets until model year 1999.) The lure of owning not just a Porsche, but a 911, is strong, and there were a few available for under £10,000 ($13,000).

One had stunning photos in its advertisement, so I sent a mechanic friend to check it out, but with some poorly repaired panels and an ill-fitting door, it was best to walk away. The same went for the next one thanks to some good feedback from the “996 Owners” page on Facebook, who pointed out that it was the third time in a year that the same garage had it for sale. Then, a 987 Cayman S caught my eye, as the same price for a ten-year-younger car seemed like a deal worth exploring.

A Cayman is not a 911, but worth three or even four times less than an age and mileage equivalent 911. I decided to find out just how much modern Porsche you can get for $13,000. And it all seemed

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to go to plan as the cheapest one I could find was also

the nearest geographically: a high-mileage, Arctic Silver Metallic 2006 987.1-generation Cayman S on a set of 19-inch ‘Lobster Claw’ wheels. It was love at first sight. No matter which angle you look at this coupe from, as long as you have an ‘it’s OK that it’s not a 911’ mindset, it’s a beautiful car!

Unmistakably a Porsche, and pretty much mechanically identical at the front to a 997, I love how the first-gen Cayman’s rear quarter panels curve around to taper into the flat hatch. Although I loved the bargain 986, I definitely wanted to change some of its styling cues. The 987, on the other hand, doesn’t have any visual aspect I would consider altering.

That it was garaged for its whole life and had its complete service history was just background information at that point, because I was already sold on buying this 987. The tires were a little low on tread, and there were quite a few stone chips on the front, but with 120,000 miles on the odometer, that’s to be expected. I pulled the trigger and made a deal.

A sum of £10,700 ($13,912) plus £300 ($390) for UK road tax was taken off my debit card. I drove away with the slight disbelief that such a car could be sold at such a price…and could be mine. About 20 miles later I found one of Yorkshire’s famous potholes that was so deep that I scraped the front valence. I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed in myself in my life.

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My affordable Boxster was great. It was an absolute joy to drive and was a special car with the top down on sunny days. With just 200 hp from its 2.5 flat six, you could enjoy the 986’s full Porsche-ness on the open road. The 987 Cayman S, on the other hand, has nearly 100 more horsepower on tap.

While taking my brother out for a spin, getting aggressive with the throttle and pushing the car a bit through a couple of roundabouts was enough for him to grab onto the door handle and cry out in fear. It quickly became evident that you can’t really appreciate this car’s limits safely or legally on public roads. A track day was needed to enjoy its full capabilities.

The planned test and a few weekends doing photoshoots on Welsh back roads didn’t really go to plan, though. The few days I thought I was going to spend with a girl in Russia turned out to be a whole month and a whole new life plan with her. When I got back, the Cayman was covered in so many old leaves and bits of moss that it looked like a barn find. Also, as I thought I’d only be gone for a few days, I hadn’t taken any precautions about making sure the front cable was easy to find for getting access to the battery, so I was a bit nervous about it being dead. I opened the door with the key, with my fingers crossed. No need to worry, though, as it started on the second turn over. Amazing.

Driving through the village with a month’s worth of mulch over it didn’t feel so amazing, but after a wash, it scrubbed up perfectly. At this point I had two options: sell the Cayman quickly without really getting to experience it, or feel it out during a long drive across Europe and over the summer in Croatia. I chose the latter.

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The only thing that the car needed was a fresh set of tires. The local garage offered some Pirelli P-Zeros at a rather hefty £900, ($1,170), which was a bit steep, or some Davantis for £300 ($390), a rather significant saving. A Google search brought back plenty of derisory comments about putting cheap things on Porsches but with absolutely nothing close to a direct real-world comparison. So seeing as this is a feature about an affordable Porsche, I chose to put the Davantis on, 265/35R/19 on the rear and 235/35R/19s on the front. Headlight deflectors fitted and a GB sticker in the rear window, I was on the Channel Tunnel crossing to France.

me, there is always something slightly nerve-racking about driving a new (to me) mid-engined car, as I have trouble getting used to the whirrs of the pumps and gizmos behind me. What sounds normal in a Boxster or Cayman sounds pretty similar to imminent failure of something on a front-engined car.

After driving through France and then Germany, I stopped at Kremer Racing so that one of the mechanics there could take it for a quick spin to check out the rather heavy first-gear selection and noises. He pronounced everything to be normal. It was a definite weight off my mind. Even so, the car did still seem to be using a bit too much oil.

There is no dipstick, so the oil level can only be checked with the electronic gauge before starting. As I learned with a few little panic attacks, it’s extremely sensitive to gradients, and the car has to be perfectly level for an accurate reading. It turns out that 1.0 liter per 1,000 km (620 miles) is within Porsche’s operating tolerance. But after not needing to put a single drop in the Boxster, even after 5,000 km (3,107 miles), I was a little concerned. Not even my old Land Rover used that much.

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After a fantastic time in Stuttgart, it was time to pick my girlfriend (now wife), Irina, up in Strasbourg, France, 148 km (92 miles) away. Unused to having a restrictive size for her suitcase, a complaint of me not having a proper car was instantly dispelled with a complimentary “Ooh” when she first saw it in the parking lot. And the suitcase fitted fine. Mine went in the back, along with my camera equipment on the ledge behind the seats. With a picnic bag by her feet, it was a perfectly practical car for a drive through the Alsace region of France. We then drove to Munich, over the Alps into Austria, then to Italy.

Before I bought this car, I read a few owner reviews, but I never came across anything that extolled the Cayman S’s off-roading capabilities. Trying to find an Italian Airbnb house in one of the first villages out of the mountains the, gravel road changed quite quickly into one suitable only for 4×4s. With the ball joints starting to creak on full articulation, the tires kicking up gravel on the insides of tight corners, the grass in the middle rustling against the front bumper, and the occasional rock grinding the underneath, we scrambled up and up, seeing as there was no possibility to turn around.

After accumulating a couple of small glaze scratches from pushing past brambles, this very stressed and sweaty driver was greeted by the house owner, who came out to take a photo because he couldn’t believe we’d got up the hill in a Porsche sports car. But it was worth it, as the vineyard—with the sun setting over the Alps in the background—was a beautiful place to photograph it.

Going down the path was much easier, and Irina took the wheel as I ran ahead to take photos and to kick the biggest off the rocks out of the way. There’s something both very special yet terrifying about watching your girlfriend drive your Porsche at the best of times. Lurching down a rough track added another element, but she did a perfect job. In the summer heat and on Italy’s poor roads, however, the ball joints started to creak again, and they quickly got so bad that people in the city of Udine were looking at us wondering why this stunning looking Porsche sounded like an old clunker.

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At 1.95 euros a liter ($7.38 a gallon), gasoline in Italy is laughably expensive, so we were running almost dry as we trundled into the little medieval town of Buzet in Croatia, just over the Slovenian border. There was no 100 octane at any station, so with 14 miles left on the range gauge, it had to take a tank of 95 octane. I doubted it would be a problem.

Lifted up on ramps at a friend’s garage, there was no excessive movement in the ball joints. To address the clunking, we did something I learned in my off-roading days. To avoid stripping the hub down, we simply filled a syringe with transmission fluid and injected about 200 ml (7.0 ounces) into each ball joint boot. While this may not last as a permanent fix, it’s been as good as new ever since.

With the reassurance that the wheels weren’t about to fall off, it was time to give the Davanti tires a good test. On a winding mountain motorway with it raining so hard that the wipers were struggling to cope, the Cayman was never less than perfectly sure-footed, and the ‘cheap’ tires worked perfectly fine. Of course, if you want to drive your Cayman at the edge of what it’s capable of (hopefully in the safe confines of a race track), it might be a different story.

By this point, though, there seemed to be something wrong with the engine. Heading up over the mountains outside of Rijeka, Croatia, it definitely sounded rough, and I couldn’t help thinking of cylinder bore scoring, a known issue with the 987.1 Cayman S’s M97.21 engine. It also wouldn’t rev smoothly through the range, and there was a dip in power at about the mid-2,000 rpm range. With thoughts of this car’s scrap value, I took it to Porsche Zagreb where they plugged it into their diagnostic computer.

A few faults came up, which had to do with firing issues. Apparently, Croatian 95 octane is the equivalent of European 92, and the engine was struggling to adjust its timing for such poor quality fuel. To my profound relief, the 100 octane I put in straight after had it running practically as good as new. But there was something so surprising about the engine that all the mechanics crowded around the monitor.

One beckoned me over as my stomach sank. I went to see what was so interesting. The ‘engine roughness’ test has a ‘normal’ of 10. But the worst cylinder in mine was just over 1. According to the Porsche Zagreb’s chief engineer, not even new engines give such low readings, never mind ones with 120,000 miles on them. This is a great example of what a difference there is in buying a well-looked-after car, even if it has higher mileage.

are there any downsides to this Porsche? Yes, there are a couple, although they are pretty minor. First, the plastic steering wheel. With sweaty hands on some Welsh mountain roads, the wheel lacked so much grip that it seemed as though its shortcoming was a design fault. Coupled with the fact that I’m 6 foot 3, the wheel was such a snug fit between my knees that it is hard to push the car into corners on full lock. The center display is also quite dated, and with no way to hook up my smartphone, the motorway drives through Europe had no decent background music.

These and the fact that someone hid a coconut air freshener that I still can’t find and still smells after six months are literally the only negatives about this Cayman S. It’s an absolutely awesome car! Anyone who wants a Porsche but can’t afford what prices 911s are these days, buy a well-sorted Cayman. You won’t be sorry.

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