As you know, it’s customary with first-drive tests like this to save the verdict until the end, but frankly I can’t wait that long so here it is. The new Cayman S is sensational. And I mean sensational.
After two days driving brilliant Portuguese hill roads and lapping the epic Portimão race circuit, I’m totally smitten. To be honest, this instant infatuation has taken me rather by surprise. Not because I expected the Cayman to be anything less than a fine car, but because the previous-generation model was a lesson in how terrific ability doesn’t always generate a commensurate level of desirability. This time it’s love at first drive.
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If that sounds harsh on the old car it’s not meant to, but there’s no doubt that it never quite managed to win the hearts and minds of Porsche buyers in the same way the Boxster and, dare I mention it, the 911. That never made it a bad car – quite the opposite, in fact – but still the Cayman has suffered from something of an identity crisis, not helped by the inevitable ‘poor man’s 911’ and ‘girl’s car’ labels glibly applied by anyone who hadn’t driven one.
This, then, is the Cayman’s moment, or at least that’s how it feels when I first clap eyes on one in the Portuguese sunshine. We’ve all seen the pre-launch press images, but until you stand next to one and appreciate the stance, proportion, detailing and all-round rightness of the design, it’s hard to credit just how desirable it really is. Where the first two generations could look great from some angles and awkward from others, this car looks beautiful from every direction. It has greater muscle tone and physicality, yet remains appealingly curvy. It’s subtle, but far from anonymous. Sitting on the optional 20in Sport Techno wheels fitted to our test car, it looks fabulous.
It’s just as special inside, with high-quality switchgear and a design that looks and feels premium without resorting to gimmicks or try-hard styling. As ever, you can quickly find a perfect driving position and the view both ahead and behind is wonderful, thanks to the graceful rise of the front wheelarches through the windscreen and the rounded haunches reflected in the door mirrors. There are some nice details too, such as the brushed aluminium luggage divider, which looks like a strut brace and contains engine oil and coolant fillers at either end. The adaptive rear wing lifts higher and deploys at a steeper angle than that of the Boxster, giving it an effective area that’s 40 per cent larger. Every area of this car has been scrutinised and had attention paid to it.
Extensive use of aluminium in the Cayman’s body structure means a 40 per cent increase in torsional rigidity and a decrease in kerb weight by as much as 30kg, down to 1320kg in the case of the Cayman S. Engine outputs are increased, slightly (up 10bhp in the 2.7-litre version to 271bhp, and up 5bhp to 325bhp in the 3.4-litre S), but both motors have more generous power curves, so they produce more power than the old engines across the rev range.
We won’t get to drive one on this launch, but the 2.7-litre base model promises to be an absolute screamer, being the first Cayman to have an engine that exceeds the 100bhp/litre specific output mark – just – with 100.1bhp/litre. Of course, this being a modern high-performance car, these increases come despite reductions in fuel consumption and emissions of up to 15 per cent. The Cayman S equipped with a PDK ’box enjoys a CO2 rating of just 188g/km. Not bad for a 170mph+ sports car.
Ah yes, the eternal PDK versus manual transmission argument. At the risk of evo becoming the King Canute of the motoring media, refusing to accept the rising tide of paddle-shift cars even as we drown in them, I opt to sample both the PDK and manual models. The former is incredibly capable. Effortless when you wish to be lazy, intense when you’re up for it, there’s no doubt Porsche has now nailed the double-clutch ’box. The problem is that I still like a stick, especially when it’s connected to Porsche’s sweet-shifting six-speed unit rather than the knotty seven-speeder in the 991. As a downshift throttle blipper now comes as part of the Sport Chrono option package I want to try it even more. Fortunately Porsche knew we were coming, so it brought a solitary three-pedal car for the Flat Earth Society to drive.
A quick glance down the specification of this test car suggests it’s the most evo Cayman S you’re ever likely to get. That’s a manual with Sport Chrono, Dynamic Transmission Mounts and downshift blipper, PCCB brakes (bigger front discs, more rigid calipers and a greater pad area), Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) with a mechanical limited-slip differential, sports exhaust and those 20in Sport Techno rims. It also has Porsche Communication Management (PCM) and a full leather interior. It all adds around £12k to the basic list price of £48,783. Don’t get me wrong, £60,000 is serious money, but as we’re about to discover, the Cayman S is a very serious car.
We start from the official Porsche dealership in Faro and head for the hills near Monchique and a network of roads we got to know so well during eCoty 2011. Blissfully quiet, combining endless variations of corners linked by generous straights and surfaced with everything from EU-funded billiard-table quality tarmac to crumbling old-school Portuguese asphalt, they’re challenging, revealing and brilliantly entertaining.
One of the first things that strikes you about the Cayman is that although it has film star looks and sports car stats, it’s incredibly practical. With hatchback access to a generous rear luggage area, plus another capacious boot beneath the bonnet, it’ll swallow piles of bags. It’s also extremely comfortable and easy to drive, with short overhangs and a compact footprint. If you’re much over 6ft tall you’ll also be pleased to hear the new-generation platform’s 60mm increase in wheelbase creates a more spacious interior than in the old model.
As we wind our way up into the hills, the true brilliance of this car starts to emerge. Both the front and rear tracks are wider (40mm and 12mm respectively) but the overall width of the car remains the same. Together with the longer wheelbase, the track increases ensure the Cayman feels planted to the road, with excellent lateral and longitudinal stability and an agility-enhancing 46/54 weight distribution front-to-rear. Like the Boxster, the Cayman has electric power-assisted steering. Both cars’ set-ups have a more natural feel than the 991’s, but I’d venture the Cayman’s is the best of the three. On dry roads you know exactly where you are in terms of available grip, and that confidence remains even when the road is slick with rain.
You can carry extraordinary speed across the ground, slicing through transient curves without fear of short-tempered mid-engined twitchiness. When fully committed to a fast corner, outright grip is huge, as you can see from the cornering shot showing the Cayman almost picking up both inside wheels (see left). But what’s really special is that through medium- and low-speed corners, while there’s plenty of grip and stability to lean on, you can still slide the car if you wish, using the PTV and mechanical limited-slip differential to enjoyable effect. Rare is a car that has such poise and natural balance, yet allows you to adjust its attitude so readily and accessibly.
The engine and six-speed manual gearbox are superb, the former revving its heart out while the latter’s half-dozen perfectly spaced ratios always feel ideally matched to the power and broad torque delivery of the 3.4-litre flat-six. The clutch and shift are light and precise, so not only is it a pleasure to change gear, it gives you an added layer of tactile connection to the car. It might be unfashionable to say so, but I’d willingly sacrifice a tenth of a second of 0-62mph performance (5.0sec plays 4.9 for the PDK car) to have this greater sense of satisfaction. Ultimately, and perhaps for the first time in a Porsche, the choice is now made purely on personal level, rather than because one is markedly better than the other. Long may that choice continue to be available.
If you opt for the manual transmission, I suspect you will do so because you enjoy the process of heel-and-toe downshifts, but I still guarantee that you’ll love the throttle-blipper function that’s activated in Sport Plus mode. Much like the system Nissan fits to the 370Z, it is uncannily good, perfectly matching engine and road speed with a surgical stab of revs as you move the gearlever through the gate. This is disabled if you make that final step and switch off the PSM stability control with Sport Plus active, thus proving Porsche understands keen drivers better than any other brand.
With the sports exhaust option the Cayman sounds truly spectacular, howling like a banshee under load and lighting a string of firecrackers on the overrun. If there’s a criticism it’s that the exhaust can be a bit boomy when you’re not on maximum-attack, but if you switch the exhaust back into its quiet setting the problem is sorted. Likewise you have a choice of PASM suspension settings, but to be honest there’s such civility and controlled pliancy to the damping even in the firmest Sport Plus mode that you’d never complain about the ride quality. Considering the 20in rims, low-profile tyres and the state of some of Portugal’s roads, that’s incredibly impressive and bodes very well for the UK’s equally variable tarmac.
By the time we return to the hotel, I’m utterly blown away by the Cayman’s depth and breadth of ability, and by just how engaging and addictive it is to spend time with. The last new car that impressed me this much was, ironically enough, the 997 Carrera GTS, and that turned out to be arguably the best all-round 911 of the modern era. I retire to bed trying to decide what colour Cayman S I’d choose and how I can find a way to afford one. It’s a fitful night’s sleep.
The following morning we head for Portimão and the rip-roaring roller-coaster ride that is the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve. Perhaps understandably, Porsche isn’t allowing free lapping. Instead it assembles us in groups of four cars, line astern behind a pace car. Ordinarily this would be massively frustrating, but when you have Walter Röhrl on point duty, you’re guaranteed a bit of excitement. With the four chase cars working a bit like a pursuit team in the vélodrome, we each take it in turns to sit on Walter’s bumper. He’s masterful at judging the pace, just easing the tempo up until he sees the lead chase car fall behind. Of course, the longer you can stick with him the faster he’ll go. Given he’s in a 991 (desire for the unfair advantage clearly remains strong in former World Rally champions), that means very fast.
It’s brilliant fun, if a little hairy at times, especially as Portimão is littered with blind brows and unsettling crests, and the surface is damp in places. The Cayman is exceptionally well balanced, just fading into the mildest understeer through the fastest corners and staying neutral through the slow- and medium- speed turns, unless you tweak it on corner entry by trail-braking or a lift of the throttle just before you turn in.
As on the road, the Cayman is completely transparent, free from malice and utterly malleable to your inputs. Consequently you can absolutely wring its neck for a lap time, sacrifice ultimate corner speed in the pursuit of some recreational oversteer, or wind things back a little and cut clean, consistent laps. It’s easy to see how it managed a 7:55 lap of the Nordschleife. However you choose to drive it, the Cayman S feels completely happy. If you spend most of your annual mileage on the road, but fancy the odd trackday now and again, I can’t think of many cars that would fulfil your criteria more effectively or enjoyably.
What’s more, loathed as I am to admit it, the Cayman S finally justifies that infuriating rhetorical question so beloved of the motoring press: ‘Still want that 911?’ Part of me still believes it’s as big a nonsense now as it’s always been. There may well be some enlightened individuals who put their spending power aside and weigh-up the Cayman and Carrera on their relative merits. But I’m pretty certain those with the cash to comfortably afford a new 991 will not torture themselves with the same value judgements as someone who is stretching to buy its ‘lesser’ mid-engined sibling.
Then again, if you were to ask me which I’d choose, I’m not sure I could give you an answer. In the past I’d have said 911 without hesitation, but now it’s too close to call; at least when answering from the unbiased position of having driven both, but possessing the means to afford neither. That’s a victory in itself for the Cayman, and surely depressing news for any brand wishing to steal some of its market share. If 2013 delivers another new car I want quite so badly, it will be a remarkable year. The Cayman has come of age.