The Road Test That Never Was Ö

Just before Christmas I had lined up a few days with the new Cayman GTS, to drive it and write about it, but at the last minute a mishap befell the car and it was cancelled. In theory easy enough to re-schedule, but the New Year holidays, bad weather and all manner of other things seemed to get in the way, to the point where I felt I was fated never to drive it. It went on the back burner.

Then just the other day while idly surfing the net I happened upon an article on the Autocar website about BMW, and their long term product plans, which really stopped me in my tracks. The nub of it is that by 2022, BMW plans to completely re-engineer its ENTIRE product range to be electrically powered, with the petrol engine re-thought and simplified, and relegated to the role of electrical generator, unconnected to the driving wheels. Yes, you read that right, the 3 series, the 5 series, the mainstays of petrolhead devotion, to become electric drive within 10 years. You can read it here

The auto industry is great at spinning a yarn about their future plans of course, and I would have dismissed all of this as yet more PR fantasy, but for one killer fact. I have driven a BMW i3. I had dismissed that too as some sort of science fiction, but actually seeing, studying and driving one caused me a complete paradigm shift in the way I see the future of cars. Story here. Not even because it was electrically driven either, there are lots of electric cars about now, but almost all of them are just existing conventional designs with a battery and a motor tacked on. The i3 is completely different in that BMW have started with a blank sheet, and redesigned the whole car from scratch to really take full advantage of the sea change in technology. A carbon fibre bodyshell sits on top of an aluminium chassis, which in turn holds all the heavy components like batteries as low as possible for a low centre of gravity. Inside, the conventional idea of a dashboard with dials has been replaced by two screens, like an iPad and an iPad mini. The design is different, the use of materials is fresh, it just bristles with clever new thinking. Once you see it, and drive it, you realise at a stroke how outdated almost all other car design is. Itís not perfect, but it is a stroke of genius, and by the looks of it this whole approach is going to be used to re-design the entire range. While all the other manufacturers are tinkering about with electric motors and hybrids, BMW alone seem to have really grasped the nettle and come up with something that has the potential to make a difference. Bravo BMW.

So why is all this relevant to me testing (or not testing) the Cayman GTS?

Well you see, I own a Cayman. I bought it brand new in Nov 2006, one of the very first 2.7 cars in the country, and 60,000 miles later I still have it. I have maintained throughout that it is the best car I have ever owned, possibly the best car I have ever driven, and certainly the best car in the Porsche product line up. Porsche built their original reputation by building small, light, agile cars, which could outpace the bigger engined behemoths, simply by being more cleverly engineered, even though they often had less power. In this respect, my Cayman is a very old-school Porsche product. It drives like a scalpel, not a meat cleaver.

I have driven every other iteration of Cayman since, including the 981 versions, some observations here and appreciated all of them, so the GTS should have automatically gone to the head of the class. Or should it? Even without driving it, a look at the figures suggest that this is one seriously quick car (340 bhp, 4.8 sec 0-60, 177 mph). A reasonably specced version is also going to cost nearly twice as much as I spent on my one, so is the GTS really in the same market place as my original? I think not.

Every modern Porsche that I driven recently, on the road at least, has both worried and frustrated me. They now all pack enormous firepower, and to really get them "on the plane" (to use a yachting expression) you have to be doing speeds which are going to get you into trouble. The Macan S, 991 S, (both of which Iíve just driven) and no doubt this Cayman GTS are now so fast as to be a liability on our camera festooned, speed limit obsessed roads. Sure, the throttle goes both ways, and you donít need to drive fast, but then what is the point of toting round all that power, and petrol consumption? A really fast car, driven slowly, simply isnít fun. It is just expensive jewellery.

Donít get me wrong, I love Porsches, but in the light of what BMW and others are doing, it seems to me that Porsche has got itself stuck in a cul-de-sac, producing cars that are increasingly turning into dinosaurs, out of step with the changing demands of modern transport. Porsche would no doubt reply that it can easily sell every car they make, and are the most profitable manufacturer on earth, and all of this is true, but I worry that it could be heading for a fall.

Remember the early 90ís when Porsche were still making the largely hand-built, air cooled 993, and the good but obsolete 968? It was only saved from extinction by the foresight of Wendelin Wiedeking, who radically overhauled the designs, brought in water-cooled engines, and completely transformed the build process to slash costs. It was radical surgery, and the purists were horrified at the time, but in retrospect Herr Wiedeking saved Porsche in the nick of time, even though he fell from grace later. It strikes me that this is precisely what BMW are presently doing right now, totally re-thinking their whole approach to car building. It is a gamble of course, but my money is on BMW.

So, shall I drive the Cayman GTS? Yes probably, and I imagine I will enjoy it and be prepared to say so in print. Will I revere it the way I do my simple 2006 original model? I rather doubt it, as I fear it has out-grown its purpose as a road car by simply offering way more speed and grip than can be safely exploited on todayís roads. It has also put on expensive bells and whistles that I donít need, and donít wish to pay for either. Sorry, but the world has changed.

Wake up Porsche!