The Porsche Cayman GT4 has already left an indelible mark on our motoring year.
We’ve weighed it, measured it, done road and track miles aplenty and, five-star road test verdict later, it’s by some way the best sub-£100,000 sports car we can think of. I’d say it goes into our annual Britain’s Best Driver’s Car test as odds-on favourite. And with that event imminent, there seems little point in lining up a couple of direct rivals and then waiting to clean the blood off the walls.
Instead, today’s exercise addresses bigger questions, about exactly how far this car’s greatness extends and how long it may linger in the memory. Having been the one we all want in 2015, will the GT4 still be talked about in the same way in 2025 or 2040? And should we dust off terms like ‘world-beater’, ‘giant-killer’ – ‘landmark,’ even?
Supplying some answers means reaching back a couple of decades and finding some sporting legends of universally acknowledged, game-changing stature. Probably with pop-up headlights and cassette players, too – on the very faint chance that you’re harbouring a copy of Brothers in Arms or Let’s Dance on tape.
The Honda NSX is in the news right now, with its maker on the cusp of introducing its US-made successor. But hybrid motors and all, the new NSX will do exceptionally well to have a similar effect on the sports car world as the 1990 original. Pioneering aluminium construction principles, mould-breaking everyday usability, remarkable value for money and handling good enough to win back-to-back crowns in our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car test made the NSX an undisputed marvel of Japanese technical flair and ingenuity.
The one you’re looking at may be the best-kept example in the UK. It’s one of the last 3.2-litre manual examples to be registered in 2005, with just 25,000 miles under its wheels, and is owned and maintained by Honda UK.
Parts of the European car industry took a full decade to respond to the NSX. Ferrari’s particular reply was much anticipated, though, Maranello’s 328 and 348 both having been benchmarks for Honda. And so along came the F355 in 1994.
This was the first major Ferrari developed under Luca di Montezemolo’s auspices. It was arguably the start of a reputational recovery, after the low points of the 1980s, that has accelerated ceaselessly ever since, taking Ferrari to the brink of a public limited offering of shares lucrative enough to turn current boss Sergio Marchionne into the car business’s equivalent of Scrooge McDuck.
The F355 is the car that ushered Ferrari into the modern era of supercar building. It not only corrected the dynamic ills of the 348 but also brought Ferrari ownership to a broader audience, armed with power-assisted steering, adaptive damping and an F1 paddle-shift semi-automatic gearbox.
Although a low-mileage, right-hand-drive, in-demand Berlinetta with a manual gearbox will now set you back more than £80,000, a left-hand-drive, late-model, less-fancied paddle-shift F355 is around £15,000 less than that. Our 41,000-mile 1997 example is currently on sale at Foskers Ferrari of Brands Hatch.
And so it happens that the £65,000 you might have spent on a Cayman GT4 (if only dealer supply permitted) would also buy you either the Honda (the latest, lowest-mileage NSX you could find, probably) or the Ferrari (provided you’d be happy with a left-hook F1). But that’s by the by. What we want to know is whether the Cayman GT4 feels like it’ll leave as big a mark on history as either of its running mates. It’s good. But it is that good?
If you want to be a sporting legend, first you must look the part: rare, special and infinitely interesting. The Honda manages that by being so distinctive and unusual, with its jet fighter-inspired cabin-forwards cockpit and its eye-catching technical details. The Ferrari is achingly pretty and incredibly tightly wrapped. With old-school flying buttresses, svelte curves and a properly wide supercar stance, it’s roundly agreed to be one of the best-looking mid-engined cars the company has yet built.
For all its GT4-level additions – the spoilers, aerofoils, brakes and 20in rims – I’m not sure the Cayman quite competes with either. It looks great, but it doesn’t project aura in the same way. Which may well be our relative vantage point in play, of course, because we’re too familiar with a Cayman’s outline. If the car were two decades older and that much rarer, perhaps we’d look at it differently. Or maybe we’ll never look at a Cayman quite that way. Who knows?
The Porsche is certainly not at risk of being mechanically outgunned in this contest. That the GT4’s 3.8-litre flat six trumps the NSX’s 3.2-litre V6 for both power and torque is hardly surprising, given that the Honda never sought to top the super-sports car class on horsepower – even when it was new. But showing up a 3.5-litre Maranello V8 with an 8500rpm red line: now that’s something.
The Cayman is patently the quickest car of the trio, pulling harder than the F355 through the middle of the rev range in spite of its relatively long gearing and going significantly harder than the NSX right across the rev band. If you didn’t expect that, you’re underestimating the motor industry’s unrelenting rate of progress, which has made some of today’s hot hatchbacks quicker, from rest to 62mph, than the F355.
Not that pace matters much here. All three feel like very fast cars, even in 2015. More important, the GT4’s engine has that timeless feel of something truly extraordinary, as does the Ferrari’s 40-valve V8 and – however modest its outputs may look on paper – the Honda’s V6. These three engines work their magic in different ways. Each is irresistible and each demands to be given its head on a frequent basis.
Being the oldest and least powerful motor here, the NSX’s V6 has ready-made excuses for failing to hold its own. Somehow, it needs none. Although it’s docile and undemonstrative at low revs, the V6 is always smooth and cultured. It sounds deliciously chattery just behind your head, getting going above 4500rpm and then spinning with true urgency all the way to 8000 with what feels like plenty of real-world pace and operating range.
The gearchange is an utter joy: short of throw, perfectly defined and precisely in tune with the pedals and steering wheel on control weight. And the meaty, old-school tactile feel of the long-travel accelerator pedal is striking, too. You squeeze it in a way that users of modern, by-wire accelerators may never have had to do. The irony is that the NSX’s throttle is a by-wire digital component – one of the first. It’s just one whose haptic feel has evidently been truly laboured over.
Proper mechanical throttle cable linkages rarely feel as perfect as the NSX’s digital tribute, as the F355’s soon demonstrates. Sticky at the very top of its travel, the Ferrari’s pedal, like so much of the car, is honest – alive, almost, and evidently connected, directly or otherwise, to something in need of lubrication. At low speeds, it’s quite easy to kangaroo.
At a motorway cruise, you can drive around the problem by shifting gear or just by keeping the pedal on the move, a few tiny degrees at a time. Driving a modern car just isn’t like this. It isn’t half as interactive or absorbing. Or annoying, depending on your viewpoint, I guess.
Given its head, the Ferrari’s V8 is incredible: brassy sounding, rich smelling and angrily tuneful as the revs rise. In its pomp, it leaves no room to focus on anything else. You revel in its fury. You regret, at times, that the F1 gearbox isn’t a better match for it and doesn’t feel a bit less fragile and slow. You worry, having slowed after a hard-driven few miles, as the water temperature gauge climbs towards 100deg. That doesn’t happen in an NSX. As we’ll go on to explain, you even spend plenty of corners contemplating the Ferrari engine’s mass.
But the GT4’s boxer six approaches the smoothness, user-friendliness and docility of the NSX’s engine and the stellar charisma of the F355’s – and that places it squarely in A-list territory for me. You can climb out of either rival, start stretching the Cayman’s legs and still feel like you’re in the company of combustive greatness – no question.
Were we talking about a turbocharged four or six-pot, as you’d be likely to find in many of the GT4’s current rivals, perhaps that wouldn’t be true. But the GT4 does response, range, aural definition and outright power quite brilliantly. Its gearchange and accelerator aren’t as tactile as the Honda’s, sure, but it takes a car of rare quality to shine a light on either.
Rare quality indeed. I’ve read and heard the NSX’s handling described in varying terms. Most often, in print, that it’s brilliantly tame and approachable. In conversation, oddly, that it can be edgy and tricky to control on the limit. Never, though, that this is simply one of the best-handling road cars you’re ever likely to experience – which, it seems to me, would be the most apposite description.
The car’s dynamic genius doesn’t show itself instantly. For the first few bumbling miles, a mix of concern and quiet dismay may present itself to the NSX’s driver that any mid-engined sports car could feel so laid-back and inert. At first, the car’s steering seems regrettably low geared around the straight-ahead. Its balance of grip seems okay, but you’re struggling to do enough with the wheel at low speeds in order to test the tenacity of the front end.
But, mile by mile, you venture faster. And gradually, corner by hard-charged corner, you begin to get it – as the NSX carves its way ever so gracefully onwards, placed precisely where you intended it. It’s how preposterously easy the car makes the business of driving at high speed, on the road, that is its gift to us. It’s as plain as the spoiler on its rump.
I’ll be amazed if there has ever been a more stable, secure, accurate-handling and communicative mid-engined sports car than this. The NSX’s grip levels aren’t huge and, yes, if you’re brutish, you can make it understeer a bit. But you don’t – not when it matters. And the reason you don’t is because that slightly dialled-out steering becomes ideally geared to work at fast cross-country pace, and its perfect weight and wonderfully detailed feedback let you know exactly how much you’re asking of the front contact patches – and how much more they might give.
There is absolutely no nervousness about this car. You almost never have to correct it or adjust its line mid-corner. It’s configured to be fast, to inspire the utmost confidence, not just to feel that way through speed of response and hip-swivelling cornering balance. The ride is pliant, with dextrous wheel travel and progressive damper control, which is how it should be for the road. Visibility is simply phenomenal.
You can understand why we raved about it – especially if the next thing you drive is a car from the classic mid-engined mould, like the F355. Liveliness characterises the Ferrari’s handling in almost every respect. The car feels animated underneath you, ever-changing with speed and conditions and in need of judicious management at times. It isn’t awe-inspiringly capable or forgiving like the NSX, but old-school, unreconstructed and ready to bite the uninitiated.
The F355’s power steering is light and, like the Honda’s, quite low geared. But unlike the NSX, the Ferrari’s mid-corner stability soon ebbs away as you start to lean on the outside wheels. Corner hard and the car rolls – harder and more precariously than you’d imagine it could, frankly – and the steering becomes lighter still.
Go a bit harder and, sure enough, the weight of that V8 engine slowly drags the rear wheels into gentle but developing oversteer. It’s all perfectly telegraphed, so driving up to the F355’s limits can be great fun. But it’s surprising – alarming, even – how easily approached and indeed breached those limits are.
Which brings us back to our new boy. On its 20in forged rims and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, the Cayman GT4 has levels of grip and responsiveness that would have staggered the creators of both the NSX and F355. Its handling is a touch more stability-biased than some of its range mates, although it is still beautifully poised and adjustable. It manages to feel hugely competent and almost foolproof, and yet as lively as the Ferrari in some ways. It’s balletic and playful, and somehow still benign enough. Although it is not as devoted to one particular cause as the NSX, it’s a formidable driver’s car.
In 20 years, if the Cayman does make it into the sports car hall of fame, it’ll be that delicate, flattering balance of adjustability and leniency that we’ll remember most fondly, I think. Nothing but a Cayman has struck it sweeter. And yet it doesn’t drive away from this contest having shone the brightest, or having made the greatest impression.
The NSX is a car of such singular vision and execution that its place in our folklore can never have been in doubt. Even now, it feels like it must have been designed and developed in a vacuum – come from an entirely different place from every European mid-engined rival and predecessor, with very different priorities, each of them delivered on spectacularly well. This is a car I could own and drive for ever – were I two inches shorter and considerably richer – knowing from its every move that driving it on the road is everything it was designed to do.
The stuff of landmarks? Of legend? I’d say so.
Honda NSX 3.2
Price £60,000 approx (2005, 25,000 miles); 0-60mph 5.5sec; Top speed 170mph; Economy 22.8mpg; CO2 291g/km; Kerb weight 1430kg; Engine V6, 3179cc, petrol; Power 290bhp at 7100rpm; Torque 224lb ft at 5500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
Porsche Cayman GT4
Price £64,451; 0-60mph 4.6sec; Top speed 183mph; Economy 27.4mpg; CO2 238g/km; Kerb weight 1415kg; Engine 6 cyls horizontally opposed, 3800cc, petrol; Power 380bhp at 7400rpm; Torque 310lb ft at 4750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
Ferrari F355 F1 Berlinetta
Price £65,000 (1997, 41,000 miles); 0-60mph 4.7sec; Top speed 183mph; Economy 16.0mpg; CO2 395g/km; Kerb weight 1350kg; Engine V8, 3496cc, petrol; Power 375bhp at 8250rpm; Torque 268b ft at 6000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd robotised manual
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