6 Nov 2012

Nothing handles like a hire car - especially when it is a Porsche Cayman S

Chris Small gets his Jag crashed into and is given an extraordinary hire car for a few days.  Here he muses on grand tourers and sportscars - as well as cheap interior trim.

“We will make sure your courtesy car will be something comparable, Mr Small.”  These were some of the most intriguing words anyone has said to me of late and they played on my mind all weekend. You see, this temptuous phrase was spoken by a representative of the insurance company dealing with a minor incident which involved a Mercedes driver not noticing that my Jaguar XK8 was actually stationary. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but nonetheless, the German staff-car driver had failed to adhere to Billy Ocean’s fine words of ‘Red Light Spells Danger’, and promptly ran up my behind at a junction in the Brecon Beacons.

The damage to my car was minor in comparison to his headlamp, bumper, bonnet, grill, radiator combo, but prior to the incident my XK8 was immaculate so, needless to say, insurance details were exchanged and the usual barrage of phone calls back and forth ensued over the next week or two until eventually my car was booked in for repair. Then came the call; “We’re ringing to arrange delivery of your courtesy car.”

Now as we all know, nothing handles like a hire car, so I was quite upbeat about the impending delivery of some kind of bland heavy-oil powered eurobox. It didn’t really matter what it was going to be, as long as it had a “traction-control off” button, I would be happy. But this “something comparable” comment had me on tender hooks. Comparable in what way I thought? They’d already told me it wouldn’t be another Jag, so I was just left imagining what aspect of the loan car would be comparable to my car.

Well, Monday eventually arrived and much to my surprise and bewilderment a Porsche Cayman S had appeared on my driveway. Dressed in an unusual matt-black vinyl wrap, with black alloys and black leather I assumed I had been given Darth Vader’s old company car. For a couple of seconds a school-boy like level of excitement filled my head. “Oh my God, they’ve given me a Porsche!” I exclaimed to my equally excited girlfriend. But then I remembered something. I wasn’t a school boy anymore. I was a grown man. A grown man who is losing his hair, has acquired a bit of a belly and who has been working in the motor industry for all of his adult life.

I have been in a fortunate enough position to be able to consider purchasing a Porsche several times. In fact I have come very close. I nearly bought a 911 Turbo about 5 years ago and I momentarily considered a Cayman only 6 months ago. But for various reasons I decided not to. However, as my, now calm, girlfriend pointed out, this was actually a good opportunity to have a long test drive of a vehicle I had actually thought about purchasing. As always she was, of course, annoyingly right. So that’s how I decided to treat the coming days. This would be a test that could potentially result in me getting my wallet out again.

Before I even ventured on to the public highway, the first thing that I noticed about the Cayman was the bizarre mixture of high and low quality materials used for the interior. The top of the dash, the door cards and the seats were trimmed in a very tactile leather and had been professionally finished. However, I fear that the designers then got bored and threw any old plastics at the rest of it. At first glance it all looks good, but once you start running your hand across some of the materials it reminded me of an old Mk2 Golf I had years ago. Yes it was well nailed together, but it did feel cheap and very much built down to a price. I was trying desperately hard not to think of this car as a poor mans 911, but this lack of attention to detail was really not helping the situation.

I found myself instantly longing for the high quality hand made finish of my XK8, but I was then distracted by the most un-user friendly infotainment system I have ever come across. All I wanted to do was set a few radio stations and load a couple of CD’s but this proved to be so anger inducing I abandoned it. To be fair the soundtrack of that flat 6 as it burst into life was enough for me to live without music for the time being anyway.

As I went on to use the car for the next few days the obvious highlight was the addictive acceleration and unbelievably direct steering and handling. As this car was fitted with the robotised 7 speed semi-auto DSG-style arrangement, it meant that standing starts would become so addictive I started to become concerned that I may burn out the clutches. However, as the days passed I started to become tired of the Cayman. Doing the daily commute wore me out and by the time I got home I just wanted to get out of it. I was missing the Jag. Badly.

In the trusty XK8, you can cruise on a motorway in complete silent refinement and comfort. Trying to hold a conversation in the Cayman at anything above 40mph was similar to trying to conduct small talk in a night club. Yes, it was monstrously quick off the mark, but to my mind at this time, it was very much a one trick pony. The XK8 may not be as fast from stand still, but it can still hustle along with the best of them, whilst soothing your furrowed brow in the process. It had been an enlightening experience, but by the time Friday came I was ready to hand it back and indulge myself once more in Jaguarness.

I had just the weekend left with the Cayman and hadn’t really intended to use it much until something blindingly obvious dawned on me. The well spoken man from the insurance company had originally told me that they would be supplying me with ‘something comparable’. Something comparable? The Cayman wasn’t really comparable in any way, shape or form and this had been where I was going wrong. Because of his phraseology I had spent the whole week comparing it to the XK8. This was, I now recognized, a complete error of judgment.

The Cayman is an out and out sports car, built solely to enhance the sheer thrill and excitant of enthusiastic driving. My beloved Jag on the other hand is a Grand Tourer, designed to transport you to the south of France with ultimate ease and pleasure. It munches away the miles with peerless ease and when you hit the twisty bits it all comes alive, but due to its sheer mass and weight it will never be a proper hairy-chested sportscar. And that is exactly what the Cayman can offer.

Realising that I had approached the car all wrong, I headed back out to the garage, fired up the glorious flat 6 and headed for my favourite B roads. Forget the cheap trim, forget the road noise. Stick the gear box in manual mode; select the sports suspension and giving it the kind of hiding you’d give any other hire car becomes an awe inspiring experience. You can push the Cayman into corners at such speeds that you know if it went wrong, you’d undoubtedly end up on the front page of a local newspaper, but it just seems to dig in harder the more you push it. My talent will run out long before the car runs out of grip and ability. The steering is perfectly weighted and the throttle fantastically sharp. After burning off another tank of fuel I decided it was time to head home before my luck ran out. I tucked it back up in the garage and headed in for a cup of tea to calm my nerves.

On the Monday morning, I was obviously glad to see the return of my now super shiny XK8, but I was a bit sorry to see the Cayman go. I was mainly sad that it had taken me the best part of the week to realise that it was not comparable to the Jag and as such I shouldn’t treat it that way. But fortunately the penny did drop just before it was too late.