We live in an era of optimum internal combustion performance, but there’s something missing in the way many modern cars drive. Experiencing good power, solid handling, and reassuring grip all in the same car is fun, but often, it's not joined by what truly separates good cars from great ones: engagement. One modernish sports car that could be a brilliant answer to this on the used market right now is the base 987.1 Porsche Cayman from the second half of the 2000s.
Not much beats having a sharp and communicative steering wheel in your hands, a precise gear shift, and an expressive engine that pairs well with closely spaced pedals for easy inputs. And if the curb weight is, say, less than 3,200 pounds, even better. A few recent cars do this well, but they’re few and far between, like the 2022 Toyota GR86 and 2021 Lotus Evora GT. The Cayman seems to split the difference between these two, weighing in under 2,900 pounds and having its engine in the middle. It can also be found second-hand for far less money than the GR86. Though, is it overall a solid buy in 2022?
Porsches produced between 1997 and 2008 get a lot of hate. This era of early water-cooled adaptation produced some legendary pieces of machinery, yet some are also known for possessing some very costly faults. Two of the biggest are rooted in the brand’s M96 and M97 engines—the M96 has had comments sections riled up since day one about intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing failure. The M97, on the other hand, for cylinder bore score, which I’m afraid isn't a rating for how boring it is to rev out (it’d be very low as they’re quite fun), but rather damage caused to the engine’s cylinder walls.
But the base, first-gen Porsche Cayman is an outlier that’s generally not affected by these two expensive mechanical annoyances. With that, is this entry-level Baden-Württembergian coupe worth considering if you’re after the fun and increasingly rare quadruplet of power, handling, grip, and engagement?
When it debuted in 2007 at a starting price of $49,400 before destination charges, the base 987.1 Cayman produced 245 horsepower and 201 lb-ft of torque, 50 less than the 3.4-liter-engine-equipped S, respectively. It also came with some weird 17-inch tire sizes in its basest offering, optional Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) adaptive dampers, smaller brakes than the S, softer suspension with a thinner rear sway bar, and other bits here and there to justify the $9,500 price difference between the two when new. For getting power to the rear tires, Porsche offered either a five-speed manual, a more rare six-speed manual that could only be bolted up if PASM was optioned, and an of-the-era (meaning very slow shifting) Tiptronic automatic.
The base 987.1 Cayman was widely regarded as fun, yet a tad lacking as new. In 2006, Jethro Bovingdon wrote for Evo and Joe Rusz penned for Road & Track that it handled very well, yet was noticeably slower than the S model. Though, slow is certainly relative, as I’d call its zero-to-60-mph time of six seconds plenty quick. Rusz also noted that the base's softer suspension, bubblier tires, and smaller rear sway bar made it more compliant over the S, yet handling wasn’t severely impacted. Sounds like an ideal scenario, really.
The Right Formula
To this day, enthusiasts and journalists alike (not that those are mutually exclusive) affirm that the base is plenty fun (this is an excellent, thorough forum read, by the way) and not a major reliability nightmare like some of its P-car contemporaries. Due to weighing 2,865 pounds (110 less than the S), having its engine in the middle, possessing hydraulic power steering, and great inputs, it’s still a grand time behind the wheel.
One YouTube channel that I happened upon during my research, MarkCup70, has covered base 987.1 ownership extensively and has very good things to report about the lesser-engined Cayman.
Recently, I briefly drove a low-mileage 987.2 S. If the base 987.1 possesses a similar steering feel, confident front end, wonderfully baritone flat-six induction sound, and at least 70% of the handling that you get from the S, then it’s a very good car indeed.
The Price of European Sports Car Ownership
As is true for any form of used European enthusiast car ownership, especially something by Porsche, BMW (like I’m currently experiencing), or Mercedes, knowing the car’s common issues, how much parts cost, how much of a pain it is to work on, as well as what condition your particular example is in, is absolutely paramount. Being inclined to do your own wrenching goes a hell of a long way, too.
For the base 987.1 Cayman, things don’t look too scary. Sure, genuine and OE parts cost a lot of money, but that’s par for the course in the region of German automotive ownership. This is where you shrug your shoulders and say "welp, that's the Porsche tax." Thankfully, the aftermarket is stacked with suspension, brake, tire, chassis, and power upgrades for improving upon the chassis’ excellent characteristics from the factory, but even mild damper and spring upgrades fetch a decent piece of scratch.
However, common mechanical issues aren’t atrocious by German car standards—how low that bar actually sits is up for debate. Rear sway bar links and various bushings seem to wear out a tad fast, and getting at the front of the engine for a belt service via a hatch inside the cockpit looks rough, but that’s just part of mid-engine sports car ownership. They can also develop annoying oil leaks, ignition problems, cam solenoid failure, and issues with their exhaust systems. All of these and a few more are thoroughly outlined on pcarwise.com.
The M97 engine is also well known for possessing an air-oil separator, or AOS, which has the function of filtering crankcase vapors back into the intake manifold. This part is known to become overwhelmed under hard cornering on track, though a Porsche-Motorsport-grade unit can be swapped in to match such a task. They’re expensive, but again: Porsche tax. Oil starvation is an issue as well, but companies make kits that expand capacity to help remedy that.
Regarding the 2.7-liter engine’s far less propensity to suffer bore score, the 2.7 and 3.4 look identical in shape and size due to possessing the same block, just the former has an 85.5-mm bore versus the 3.4’s 96.0, with the former having much thicker cylinder walls. As far as lacking IMS bearing concerns, this is due to it being much larger and better designed than M96-generation engines’, thus having a far lower failure rate. Forum users say it’s nothing to lose sleep over.
Beyond mechanical issues, there’s not much to write home about besides sagging headliners, weak cupholders, and premature wear on the seats. If you're familiar with any other overall mechanical, reliability, or materials downsides, join the discussion below.
Worth A Look?
The base 987.1 Cayman possesses good power (to me, at least), solid handling and grip, and great inputs.
Its inputs and sharp mid-engine feel are what’s most appealing, especially in our era of lackluster electric power steering and bloating curb weights. And if you have a soft spot for the Porsche brand like yours truly, the Cayman is quite compelling. Especially for $25,000-$30,000, which is where good examples with less than 80,000 miles and five-speed manual transmissions seem to live in our current, wretched used-car market of 2022. Sigh, I swear they used to be $20,000, tops.
There are endless resources across the entire internet with 987 Cayman specifications, ownership insight, wrenching DIYs, and pretty much everything that prospective owners need to know. Depending upon one’s situation and willingness to do their own maintenance, the lowly 2.7-liter equipped tin-top Boxster could be a great option.
Update 7/8/22: Added a note regarding bore score.