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Porsche Cayman GT4 drive: something old, something new

Friends let friends drive Porsches

Basem Wasef

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

It’s yet another sunny day in California, and my buddy Basem Wasef and I are working. Okay, we’re actually out driving in two Porsches, but since we’re both automotive journalists, this loosely comprises work.

I’ve got a Porsche Cayman GT4 for the week, the super special new iteration of Porsche’s two-seat coupe. The GT4 shares a multitude of parts and body elements with the holy grail of modern 911s, the GT3. Starting at $85,000, it is the dream Cayman, the enthusiast’s Cayman. And since it has a more powerful 911 engine shoehorned inside, it is the Cayman we never thought Porsche would give us.

And yet I’ve handed over the keys to Basem at his parents’ well-tended house in Pasadena and he, in turn, has given me the key to his baby, an air-cooled 911 built in 1996. He’d bought it off the previous owner months earlier after a long and substantial search, and had only driven it himself a handful of times.

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(Basem Wasef)

The 911 is painted a throwback forest green, subdued and gorgeous, while the Cayman is a flashy and modern red. They have some things in common: six-speed manual gearboxes and naturally breathing engines. The 911’s engine is in the very rear, the GT4 in the center. These are driver’s cars.

I follow Basem out of the valley and into the San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles to the Angeles Crest Highway, a mountain road favored by urban hikers and road warriors alike. It’s gonna be a great day.

But we are immediately sobered when we round a corner, just beginning to zing along, and there is a cop car blocking the road. We realize there’s been an earlier incident and that it was serious. There’s a phalanx of emergency personnel pulled over in a small parking area, yet the various men in uniforms are in no hurry. A bad sign.

And then we notice the morgue vans. Three of them. My scalp prickles.

After a few minutes, the cop waves us on, and we pull into the left lane to get around a tow truck that’s using a heavy-duty winch to haul up something — a car presumably — which has gone off the road and right over the cliff. My eyes meet Basem’s in the rearview mirror. We both have sons who are less than five years old, and part of our job is to regularly test the boundaries of vehicles and our abilities. Basem also rides motorcycles. This moment is a reminder that a location like a racetrack is the best to push those boundaries. Google the Angeles Crest Highway and you’ll find too many news stories of fatalities, and even a dash-cam video of a car going over the edge. Yikes, indeed. With that in mind, I lead the way cautiously in Basem’s 911. The 911 is a 993 model, the last of the air-cooled 911s, and its engine is 3.6-liter flat-six with around 280 horsepower. It’s a special car, not least of all because it’s Basem’s dream vehicle and he’s foolishly deigned to let me have a go at the wheel.

The 993 definitely feels and drives like an older car, but in the best of ways. The power steering is hydraulic, and it is classic Porsche: lively and talkative. The gears are a joy to work through, and the car is alive underneath me. Dip into the accelerator and speed gathers around you. It takes attention to work it around tight corners. Safe, but not the kind of car you can pay only half attention to.

Which is well suited to the Angeles Crest Highway. Look at it on a map: it is a slithering path of an epileptic snake. Also known as California State Route 2, the two-lane road runs some 60 miles through the mountains before ending in San Bernardino County. From Pasadena, it only takes about 15 minutes to reach the start of the road. Basem grew up nearby and recently moved his wife and son back to the area from a trendier neighborhood of LA. He claims it was be closer to his folks, but I suspect it might also have something to do with the proximity to the road.

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(Basem Wasef)

We met years ago — seven, ten? I haven’t the slightest — and because of the nature of international car launches we’ve traveled together around the world, driving glorious roads in glorious cars. Lambos in Italy, Porsches in Portugal? We’ve done that. Like the old 911 and the new Cayman GT4, we share some traits: we’re passionate about our families, our jobs, travel, good hotels, and the world’s fastest cars. When I’m out in LA, he’s silly enough to take a few hours away from his hectic schedule to come out driving with me purely for the fun of it. Oh, and did really need to buy an old 911? No. (Is his wife understanding? Unaccountably.)

Anyhow, here we are, and I find a side road that drops off the top of the ridge and runs through a series of rolling hills. Basem gamely follows. We may not be able to talk to each other between the two cars, but we’re in sync, a crescendo and ebb of wailing engines and humming tires that bounces off mountain walls.

We may not be able to talk to each other between the two cars, but we’re in sync

The Cayman GT4 looks great in my rearview mirror. It is a bulked-up machine, with three air intakes filling up the bottom of the prominent front fascia, and a fixed rear wing hanging off the back. The GT4 designation points to a machine meant for racing, and these bits of bodywork create greater downforce at high speeds.

Basem easily keeps up with the 911. The GT4’s 3.8-liter six-cylinder engine is ported over from a 911 Carrera S, with 385 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. That’s a significant bump over the Cayman S and its 3.4-liter engine with 325 hp and 273 pound-feet. It’ll hit 60 miles per hour in about 4 seconds, probably a second quicker than the 1996 911.

The latest 911 models are turbocharged, and the Boxster model (the Cayman’s convertible sibling) is transitioning to a four-cylinder, turbocharged engine. The Cayman will eventually follow suit. I love the sound and personality of a naturally breathing Porsche flat-six, and I’d strongly bet that the Cayman GT4 will become a collectible car. Buy one now, put a sheet over it, and sell it in a decade or two and you’d beat every stock market.

An hour slips away. Maybe three. Basem has to head back to town to pick up his son from daycare. We stop and chat for a few minutes at the side of the road, and I enthuse over his 911. He made a hell of a buy, I tell him. Older 911s are getting ever pricier, especially air-cooled models like the 993. He seems pleased with my assessment, and I tell him, honestly, that I’m jealous as hell. I’m also aware he wouldn’t lend it to just anyone. Thanks, buddy.

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(Basem Wasef)

We switch cars, head back to the Angeles Crest Highway. He goes east and I go west, and we rev our engines in farewell.

More hours slip away. I get lost in the rhythm of the road, which unwinds endlessly over the landscape, hill after rolling hill, twist upon twist, straight after straight. No traffic, no stop lights. No distractions except the sound of the Cayman all around me, the motor reaching up to its redline, time and time again. Finally, wearied and losing my concentration, I decide to turn around and head to downtown LA. I’ve told other friends I’d meet up with them, and there will be good food and drinks and fun.

But none of the rest of it will be quite as happy as those miles in a great car, on a great road, with a good buddy. After all, that’s the real reason you buy a Porsche, old or new.