Owning a sports car is a compromise: on the one hand, it doesn’t have the space of a family estate, and for some it is slightly less practical as a daily run around. On the other hand, it has superior performance and in most cases, better looks, so, it is horses for courses. If you can live with the lack of space and the impractical nature of a sports car, then you have a winning combination because the increased performance and striking looks will always turn heads and make you feel better.
Fifteen years ago, I bought a 911: it was an emotional rather than a rational choice, because, as the old adage goes, nobody needs a Porsche. However, after thirty years of driving around in boxes on four wheels I realised how boring they could be and I also admit to being slightly envious of the fun my son was evidently having souping up his Vauxhall Astra.
However, I soon discovered that you can spend a considerable sum of money tuning a standard box, in my case a Vauxhall Vectra whose V6 engine was its best feature, without in reality having much effect – you can go a bit faster and make more noise, but boxes will never go around corners like a proper sports car. So, I began to think that that ‘proper sports’ car might be an oldish Porsche. I had admired Porsches in the 1970s when second hand they seemed to cost about £4000, equal to my annual salary, and so I had to settle for a six-year old BMW 1602, which cost about a quarter of that.
Three decades on and I found myself looking at a variety of 911s – then 3.2s all seemed rather old for £15,000, and the more recent 964s all appeared rather down at the heel (times change!). So, I stretched my budget and found myself staring at a nine-year-old 993. Dealer Jonathan Leach whisked me up and down five miles of the busy A3 with it and I was completely sold. Although my heart was clearly ruling my head I had none the less purchased a car with a warranty from a reputable source as I knew little about these cars. Later, as I came to know Porsches better, I realised I could have bought more cheaply. On the other hand, this 993 never went wrong or even off song. These cars are though a learning curve, the steep, first part of which was discovering the accelerative potential of a vehicle with almost twice as many horsepower as I had ever driven, and brakes which made you gasp at their effectiveness.
The 993 was mostly immense fun: my black, narrow bodied car was relatively discreet which suited me and even then, tended to evoke the sympathetic reaction you get to a classic car rather than the frowns which will often greet your passage in one of today’s (and the choice gets ever wider) bling-mobiles. I had read all about the 911’s handling, but only once did I lose adhesion when I must have driven through diesel spillage in a roundabout. Otherwise at my sorts of speeds the 255-profile rear tyres simply stuck to the tarmac. They lasted about 16,000 miles in contrast to the fronts which gave almost 40,000 miles.
The 993 was an exciting travelling companion, perhaps its most memorable outing being a run around northern Spain in early 2013 where the Pyrenean foothills were still snowy, but the main roads both empty and magnificently surfaced and whose sight lines made high speed cruising both safe and easy. In the summer though I regretted the lack of a/c – indeed the 993 became simply too tiring to use for longer trips on the Continent. It was also unhappy in heavy traffic: the gearshift and clutch, meaty and authoritative at speed, became heavy in crawling traffic and I used to watch the oil temperature gauge climbing and worry about 13 litres of expensive lubricant quietly cooking itself.
Oil leak repairs were indeed the main non-service item on my annual visits to Northway Porsche which always included an underside inspection with the technician and discussion of what was worth replacing now and what would last another year. An intelligent relationship with one’s (specialist) garage man offers something I have always appreciated about Porsche ownership, though you cannot expect this degree of intimacy with Official Porsche Centres which are subject to the usual numbing health and safety codes of practice. I had understood even before I bought the 911 though, that the independent dealer network, less expensive and often more knowledgeable, was the route to go for service and my subsequent experience confirmed this.
Over nearly ten years, insurance costs fell from £700 pa initially to half that by the time I sold the 993. I averaged £800 per annum on maintaining what was by the end almost a 20-year old 115,000-mile car. Indeed, I had no intention of changing it until I saw a 2.9 Cayman at Northway and realised this really was a Porsche I could afford (unlike a four-year old Carrera), and use every day. I could park it outside and hose it down to get the salt off – by then my 993 had become an appreciating classic and I was avoiding using it in the winter months. On a cold morning, you could waste ten minutes waiting for the 993’s cabin to de-mist – this was after all a car designed in the early 1960s; the Cayman had proper ventilation and a/c…the test drive was conclusive, £500 changed hands and I drove home in a four-year-old Cayman. Black, like its predecessor, it was interesting how many neighbours failed to notice the difference.
In parting with the 993, I essentially traded a car with a wonderful soundtrack and the unmatched sense of occasion: it was always a challenge to drive properly yet it urged you to do just that, while succeeding wonderfully in being a vintage sports car and modern at the same time. But not modern enough: the Cayman’s greater flexibility manifested itself not just in winter usability, but a willingness to endure traffic density unimaginable when the 911 was being penned. Moreover, with boot front and back, its ability to swallow luggage was remarkable. In its first summer, it took us to Italy and on to Corsica and we still found room to bring back several bottles of Prosecco. An outstandingly practical car providing 34 mpg once you got clear of town, the Cayman was my usual long distance transport from the outset. Only the occasional need to carry a third passenger or carry some bulky item meant driving something else.
Easier to drive than the 993, the Cayman was also far more forgiving: I ventured onto a track with it for the first time and immediately felt confident. Occasionally I might miss some of the 911’s waywardness, though my skills would probably not have been enough to cope with a major ‘moment;’ the Cayman allowed the odd low-speed indulgence like sliding out of wet (and deserted) roundabouts with the PSM turned off.
Compared with a vintage 911, Cayman 987 costs were low – I spent £2600 on maintenance over four years and 33,000 miles, including annual interim oil changes because I can’t believe oil lasts two years in a performance car; insurance, limited to 8000 miles pa, cost around £200; finally a stone went through the air conditioning radiator and I was faced with £700 of unforeseen expenditure; the black paint had dulled and suffered too over eight seasons, and after 73,000 miles, the rear brake discs were due for renewal. So suddenly I could have spent well over £2000, which was the kind of expenditure I needed only once or twice with the 993, when for example the clutch had to come out (a ten-hour job!). So, I thought, why not trade up and enjoy one of the last of the last, naturally aspirated Porsches.
It required rather more than £500 to go from a well-used 987 Cayman to a 23,000 mile 981, but I was seduced by the unblemished agate grey of this much newer Cayman and the smell of the leather cabin. Once again, I opted for the better value of the smaller engine, now 2.7-litre, though rated at 275 PS. The main difference over the larger Boxster-Cayman 3.4 option is torque: the smaller engine needs to be revved: the 981 has ten horses more than its 2.9 predecessor, rated at an impressive 101 PS per litre: forty years ago, that was 911 RSR territory; its smaller capacity does however mean ten fewer Newtons. Such modest torque combined with Porsche’s usual (CO2 emissions oblige) high gearing mean that the 981’s forte is acceleration through the gears rather than from a standing start. In traffic, you rarely exceed 4000 rpm which means you keep up with everything around you, but when there is space, alas all too rare in my part of Southern England, holding second and third to the rev limiter at 7800 rpm is a heady experience. Even more than its predecessor, the 981 succeeds in being easy-going yet downright exciting when asked. In fact, it does everything better as you might expect from a more recent design, but it has taken me longer to bond with the 981 than I imagined. At the risk of sounding perverse, the 981 is almost too good.
The flex, such as it was of the 987 chassis, its narrower tyres and shorter wheelbase meant that impeccable though the mid-engine layout’s handling was, there was just enough twitch to make it interesting: you could feel the chassis working; after a day on the track, the wear on the front tyre’s outer shoulders was evidence of an understeer you could feel as the limit approached. The 981, 991-based with longer wheel base and above all that wider front track have elevated such behaviour to a level far beyond my competence: on 235 front/265 rear tyres, the 981 corners on proverbial rails. Post track exertions, the tyre profiles give nothing away. Inside, the very well-appointed cabin, which uses noticeably better quality materials, is nonetheless wider than before and somehow lacks the intimacy, almost the complicitness of the earlier car. The whole car is starting to leave the purely sports car element behind (an observation long levelled at the 911). Of the electric steering, I have no criticism: it is different – just as sharp as before, still with that Porsche feedback and still Porsche-accurate. If it feels different, I attribute that more to the 981’s different front end geometry and wider tyres.
The 981 remains though a true Porsche: with manual gearbox, you have to use the engine’s wonderful resource intelligently to the full to get the best from it (a characteristic effectively abolished on its turbocharged 718 successor) and despite its larger dimensions (and driver’s visibility which is not as good) the 981 proves just as lithe as its predecessor.
For sure, Porsche diehards were just as critical of the 996 when it replaced the 993 because progress by definition, takes us forward. For most new 718 owners and those who aspire to it, such observations will no doubt sound archaic or irrelevant: downgrading to four cylinders and the relatively crude principle of the turbocharger will mean little to them, as indeed will the manual gearbox option. Even before the petrol engine is cast aside by a charmless battery powered unit with its completely flat torque curve, cars are being subtlely refined for autonomous driving and Porsche can be no exception. For this diehard however, the watershed was reached not with water cooling, but the end of the naturally aspirated flat six: that was half the reason for falling in love with Porsches in the first place.
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Kieron Fennelly