Sub-$20k Canyon Car Battle: BMW Z3 M Roadster vs. Porsche Cayman


Written By: Connor Wohl

Photographs By: Ryan Magee

As a passionate car enthusiast, I'm no stranger to the irresistible allure of top-of-the-line vehicles, like the latest M cars or the most cutting-edge Porsche GT cars. However, when you're a 24-year-old recent graduate stepping into the world of work & life, the reality of financial constraints can hit hard. Despite these budgetary limitations, fear not, fellow automotive enthusiasts, for there are plenty of options for us to indulge in our shared passion for well-balanced, high-performing, and symphonic vehicles—all while maintaining a reasonable budget.

This article aims to take you on a journey of discovery, where we'll explore the true value tucked away in vehicles priced under $20,000. Together, we'll venture into the realm of cars that offer an exhilarating driving experience without breaking the bank. We will focus on two standout options: the 2000 BMW M Roadster and the 2008 Porsche Cayman. So, without further ado, let's dive right in!

The BMW Connection:

As a lifelong BMW enthusiast, my fascination with these iconic German machines traces back to my childhood. The sound of a roaring V10 E60 M5 and memories of modified 2002s tearing up Laguna Seca Raceway – these experiences forged my passion for all things BMW. However, with a limited budget for the car and its maintenance, I needed something fun, reasonably quick, affordable, and reliable. Enter the 2000 BMW M Roadster. What drew me to this classic roadster was its elongated hood, distinct Roadstar wheels, the inline-6 engine, and its refined yet sporty cabin. After three years of daily driving, I can confidently say that the M Roadster is an absolute blast to be behind the wheel of. This unique car was only imported in limited numbers to the US between 1998 and 2002, with my model sporting the S52 engine, while the 2001 and 2002 models featured the S54 engine. My M Roadster boasts a Strommung exhaust system, Gruppe M carbon intake, Dinan tune, Koni Yellows, and some interior upgrades like the ZHP knob. It's a finely-tuned canyon carver that has stolen my heart.

Canyon Carving with the BMW M Roadster:

Now, let's embark on the primary mission of this article: comparing the Z3 M Roadster and the Cayman for sub-$20k value, with a specific focus on how they perform on the thrilling canyon roads around Malibu and beyond. Starting with the M Roadster, it truly comes alive when you turn onto backroads and push the engine above 4,000 RPMs. At this point, the car's torque curve kicks in and begins to emit an exhilarating scream, especially when equipped with upgraded intake and exhaust systems. With the ability to accelerate to 60 mph in just over five seconds, it's quick enough to conquer canyon roads without the constant fear of losing control and ending up wrapped around a tree. However, it's essential to appreciate this car, as it utilizes rear suspension components dating back to the early 1980s E30 3-series, which provides a distinctive driving experience. Despite this, the front end maintains a planted feel, allowing you to confidently navigate tight turns and pick the perfect line through each curve. Things get interesting when you unleash too much power going into a sharp turn—the rear end can easily break traction. But, for someone who's spent years behind the wheel, like myself, this handling characteristic becomes an endearing and enjoyable aspect of the driving experience. It's playful, almost childlike, yet incredibly fun to swing the rear around a tight corner, as my friends in the passenger seat can confirm.

As mentioned earlier, one of the car's standout features is its classic 1950s roadster feel. With the top down, your arm resting on the windowsill, driving it is an absolute joy. So much so that I frequently find myself in Malibu, exploring the coast and tackling the canyons nearly every weekend. The best part is that when you leave the winding and twisting roads behind, the M Roadster seamlessly transitions into a relaxed cruiser, blending in with traffic as a timeless BMW. It becomes a mellow and enjoyable cruiser that takes its time to soak in the journey. After driving this car daily, I've only encountered a few downsides. One of them is the seat, which, while comfortable, offers zero recline for individuals taller than 6 feet. There's a bulky piece behind the carpeting of the seat back that prevents any further adjustment, and removing it requires a four-hour job from an upholsterer. Nonetheless, finding a clean S52 roadster for under $20,000 is entirely possible – head to M and start browsing; I highly recommend it!

The 2008 Porsche Cayman - Mastering Canyons with Effortless Precision

Ryan Magee's 2008 Porsche Cayman is a true testament to the joys of manual driving. Acquired in late summer 2023, it's been immensely pleasurable for him ever since. Although currently unmodified, the impending addition of a Fabspeed exhaust system promises to elevate its already thrilling driving experience. While I've been working on convincing him to opt for the large GT3 throttle body, that's a conversation for another day. Aside from the upgraded BBS-style wheels, the car remains in its original state and continues to captivate with its timeless charm. Despite the passage of time, it retains that quintessential Porsche look that defines the brand, and it has aged remarkably well compared to its counterparts.

In the grand comparison with the M Roadster, these two titans boast similar horsepower figures, and while the Cayman's weight is notably lighter at 2,866 pounds compared to the BMW's 3,086 pounds, the difference is subtle yet significant. The Cayman's engine note is a symphony that captures the classic harmonics of a 911 while establishing its distinct character. Admittedly, as a self-professed BMW enthusiast, I have a soft spot for the M Roadster's aesthetic appeal, but when it comes to conquering the canyons, the Cayman roars to life. Even in its factory configuration, it eagerly revs to redline and shadows the BMW through every twist and turn. It's a testament to its prowess as a canyon cruiser, with the potential to become a legendary budget-friendly enthusiast's dream with a few well-chosen modifications. Ryan's Cayman is a symphony of power, handling, and style, reminding us all why we fell in love with driving in the first place.


In conclusion, the BMW M roadster is for you if you are looking for an excellent handling and stylish roadster to enjoy a dynamic top-down driving experience. If you need something more capable and versatile, I recommend the Cayman. That said, the realm of affordable canyon carvers is within reach, even for those of us on a budget. The BMW Z3 M Roadster and Porsche Cayman are excellent choices for enthusiasts looking to savor the thrill of driving without emptying their wallets. We hope you've enjoyed this in-depth exploration of sub-$20k bargains. Next week, we'll dive into something more raucous: the allure of V8 power and Italian excellence. We extend our heartfelt thanks to our readers, and we hope you continue to join us on this exciting automotive journey. Have a fantastic week!