Here we match up a pair of vehicles that are uncannily similar in many ways except one: price. We wanted to see what you get for the extra dough—just prestige? Higher insurance premiums? A better valet spot? We want to know if the pricier Cayman justifies its MSRP or if the FR-S delivers similar performance and appeal. Because in the car market, as in life, there's a lot of entitlement going on.
Second place: 2013 Scion FR-S
It’s so unfair. We love this car, but management doesn’t allow ties for first in a two-car comparison [or any comparison—Ed.]. Perhaps you can understand that.
The FR-S is just a bowl of ice cream with a stick shift. No car since the original Mazda Miata has made an empty cloverleaf as enjoyable or an end-run around loafing traffic as fun. You don’t even need to go fast. The 200-hp FR-S is low and small and makes 60 mph feel like Mach 1.7, so it may be just the cure for a spotty driving record.
Reasons to not buy a sports car get eliminated one by one in the FR-S. Everybody seems to fit in the manfully bolstered bucket seats, and the rear seatback folds to extend cargo space. We got 21 mpg even though the days were hot, the driving was hard, and there was plenty of idling for photography. All that interior noise and ride harshness you expect as payment for your fun is absent. The FR-S is quieter than the Cayman and doesn’t slam or crash on the rough stuff.
Some credit goes to the narrow, fuel-economy-minded Michelin Primacy tires. They serve the FR-S driver admirably around town even if they get slippery at the extremes. Putting power down on a drag strip and holding the line through a hairpin, in other words. Were you able to launch the FR-S closer to its lofty 6400-rpm torque peak without the tires losing traction, the 0-to-60-mph time (6.4 seconds) would undoubtedly be quicker.
The 200 horsepower seems adequate until you take the FR-S on mountain roads. Trying to keep up with the Cayman, we ran for a full 30 minutes across a high ridge with the engine yowling in third gear at 6000 rpm. Well, at least you know it is durable. But it’s not a mezzo-soprano at that speed, more like a mezzo-econo.
There’s really nothing wrong with the FR-S except that it suffers from the curse of affordability. It seems a teeny bit dowdy inside compared with the top-spec BRZ. The rotary knobs are ordinary, and the radio looks ill fitting and out of place, as if it’s just passing through from some other vehicle. Nor is the Pioneer unit very easy to operate.
To point out flaws in handling seems highly unsportsmanlike, considering the car it was driven against, but there are some. Those skinny tires squeal and squirm when pressed, and it’s the rear that breaks grip first. Think twice, maybe three times, before switching off the stability control, as it’s very easy to get sideways in an FR-S. The damping is also a bit loose—that great ride, remember—allowing the body to pogo a bit as you set up for your hero’s appointment with the apex. One test driver called the FR-S “spastic.”
More kindly, the FR-S is a full-employment opportunity for aftermarket tuners, who will be happy to make it as whistlingly boosted and rock-rigid unbearable as your wallet will allow. In the meantime, you have a fantastic everyday sports car. Glass more than half-full, we’d say.
First place: 2012 Porsche Cayman S
So why does the Porsche take first? Because it’s just so—what’s the word? Maybe there isn’t one word, which is why Steve McQueen didn’t talk through that whole movie in which he was driving a powder-blue Porsche.
The Cayman S is McQueen, the pit clock at Le Mans, a grumpy genius in Gmünd, and an entire nation obsessed with closing the gap between reality and perfection baked into one little sports car that would probably engender world peace were it found in every single parking space.
Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but the Cayman S is a heartthrob, and the world is a happier place for its existence. Sure, it’s exorbitantly priced, and Porsches haven’t always been quite so out there, especially when the mostly Volkswagen 914 was priced nearly the same as the Datsun 240Z. Nowadays, the base price of the Cayman S is more than twice the entry price of the Scion.
Porsche hasn’t always justified its premiums but does here. One effortless zing to the 7400-rpm redline (same as the Scion’s), and you get it. This is a flat engine that sounds anything but flat. Or mass-produced. Or anything but a machine made by maniacs for precision and form. What’s that worth? To us, a lot.
The last hurrah for Porsche hydraulic-assist steering (already the new 911 and Boxster have gone electric) reminds us of how it used to be: a ticker tape of pulsing road data. The 911 is too grown-up for all that racer stuff now, but the Cayman S isn’t. Not yet.
The Cayman is always squat and settled and usually more capable in a corner than its driver. Locating the engine in front of the rear axle probably helps. More-expensive rubber and cross-drilled brakes as well as lighter materials in the super-lubricated suspension preserve its neutrality and confidence at higher speeds. A firmer structure—perhaps packed with gold sovereigns—dampens vibrations and hushes door slams to a meatier thunk. In every way, you feel the extra dollars delivering.
Well, except one or two places. Unless you drop even more coin on a leather-upholstered dash and doors, the plain plastic units look a little too Korean. And the cable-linked shifter feels more like a bungee-linked shifter. The FR-S’s brake pedal is firmer, even if the result of standing on it is less impressive.
The expensive PASM delivers a mellower ride when set to “comfort” than the Cayman’s base suspension does; only push “firm” if you want to ruin it. In “sport,” the S’s body motions become sharply stunted, but that doesn’t make this Porsche feel any more stable in turns. And our particular test car, which was nearly new, suffered a strange clutch-engagement problem that prevented us from extracting the engine’s full performance. Porsche replaced the clutch and all was good, the S delivering on the promise of its price by taking just 4.5 seconds for 60 mph and 13 seconds flat for the quarter-mile.
Alas, we’ve hit upon an old stalemate, like the argument about which is better, a Casio or a Rolex. In this case, we’d be unfaithful to all that car enthusiasts worship if we said that the Porsche doesn’t earn its higher price. And if you can’t pay it, feel lucky to live in a time when there’s such a superb alternative that’s affordable.
This is not a typical Car and Driver comparison test. Here we're looking mostly for relative value, which is a slippery thing. We therefore tried to reconcile price with goodness—i.e., if a car is three times as expensive as its rival, it must be three times more fun, rewarding, and well-executed to win. The Price Factor represents the price ratio between the two cars; the Experience Factor is derived from a modified version of our usual scoring format. If the price number is larger, cheap wins; if the experience number is larger, expensive reigns supreme.