The Porsche Cayman is one of the best-looking sports cars on the market, and it's just as much fun to drive as it is to behold.
New for 2012 are two more powerful variants in the Cayman lineup: the bare-bones, race-inspired Cayman R and the luxe, feature-packed Cayman S Black Edition. Both use the same 3.4-liter flat-6 found in the Cayman S, tuned to make ten extra ponies for a total of 330 horsepower. The Cayman S Black Edition comes with an all-black color scheme, including black-painted wheels and exhaust pipes. It boasts an estimated 0-60 mph time of about 4.8 seconds and is limited to 500 units.
The 2012 Cayman and Cayman S carry over unchanged. The Cayman was launched as a 2006 model and revised with new engines, transmissions and suspensions for 2009.
The Cayman comes with a 265-horsepower 2.9-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. Cayman S features a 3.4-liter flat-6 with 320 hp and 273 pound-feet of torque. A 6-speed manual, our choice, is standard on both versions, while the superb PDK 7-speed double-clutch gearbox is optional.
Like all Porsche models, the interior and exterior options on the Cayman are configurable in thousands of combinations, so exclusivity with any one individual car is well within reach. Those choices add up, however, making individuality expensive.
The Cayman coupe is related to the Boxster convertible, and some will argue that the Cayman is merely a fixed-roof version of the Boxster. We disagree. The Cayman has its own feel and character. It can serve as a luxury grand-touring car for two with heated and ventilated leather seats, Bose sound system, and navigation system. But it's also a sports car with superb driving dynamics, wonderful sounds, and excellent driver involvement. Two cargo areas and fair gas mileage make for a decent daily driver, while adjustable suspension, advanced drivetrain, and racing-style brakes are well-suited for the track. And we think the Cayman is better looking than the Boxster, though we do love the Boxster and think it has a much better name.
The Cayman doesn't have a lot in the way of direct competition, though it can be compared with the Lotus Evora, the sedan-like BMW 1M, the aging Audi TT, and the much bigger Chevrolet Corvette.
The Cayman looks the road-going equivalent of a race car, which should be no surprise given Porsche's success on the world's racetracks. The overall impression is a shape designed to most efficiently cover the working parts and two people.
The hood, front fenders and doors are similar to those on the Boxster, but the remaining bodywork is different. Some refer to the Cayman as a Boxster hardtop but this in inaccurate on many counts, both cosmetic and mechanical, and therefore unfair to either car. They have different missions and appeal, illustrated perhaps best by Porsche offering a fixed hardtop for the Boxster.
A Cayman somewhat resembles the animal it shares a name with (a crocodilian reptile), especially in the tail that slopes down below the hips formed by the rear fenders. From the head of the windshield the top surface nearly duplicates a droplet, the low-drag aerodynamic shape found in everything from blimps to dry-lake speed cars. You could run a straightedge from the top of the rear window to the rear spoiler and barely fit a thumb under it, the sides protected with ridges to direct airflow and stiffen the hatch frame.
Aerodynamically, the Cayman is a slippery car. The least aerodynamic model, the Cayman S with PDK, has a coefficient of drag of 0.30 and less than two square meters of frontal area. A rear spoiler ahead of the back bumper breaks airflow to keep the car on the ground, and at 75 mph the spoiler rises for increased stability in high-speed turns.
Horizontal rows of LED tail lamps reminiscent of the Carrera GT frame the rear end. The exhaust is centrally located, with one outlet for the Cayman and two for the S, and nestles between small-scale diffuser panels.
At the front, the headlight clusters are reminiscent of the Carrera GT and the classic 550 of five decades earlier. A horizontal LED light tube serves parking light duty, the signal is in the light cluster, and rounded fog lights are in the outer grilles. The wider center grille bottom sweeps up to define the inner edges of those outer grilles, with a spoiler lip on each side.
In profile, the Cayman is enhanced by fenders and roofline gently merging together, this particular aspect vaguely familiar to Maserati and Aston Martin owners. The line defined by the door bottom sweeps upward aft of the door, becoming the rear edge of the vertically slatted engine compartment air intakes, and almost mirroring the line along the side window that sweeps the quarter window to the roofline.
An optional rear wiper parks vertically on the left side where it least disturbs the driver's rear view and adds the least wind noise. Aerodynamics will clear most water at speeds above 40 mph but the wiper is handy for reversing and urban driving.
Physics and the ergonomics of car control define the Cayman interior, the basic design unchanged in racing Porsches save removal of the various amenities, carpeting and air conditioning, and addition of a roll cage and seat harnesses.
The Cayman cabin is appropriately finished, neither as austere as some sports cars nor as overtly luxurious as expensive GT cars, yet you can push to either extreme as wishes and option budget allow. Trim can be ordered in wood, aluminum, carbon fiber, suede or painted. Multiple sizes, styles, and materials characterize steering wheel choices, with or without redundant controls, and there is even a pair of concealed cupholders, on the passenger's side. This is not the best car for sipping a cappuccino on the way to work. The Porsche 911 is better for that, the Panamera is even better, but we recommend enjoying your cappuccino at Starbuck's before climbing back into your Porsche.
The standard seats appear simple and restrained compared to the skeletons or over-embroidered armchairs on some sports cars yet they do an excellent job holding you in place while allowing free movement of feet, arms, and head. Manual adjustment for fore-and-aft position and cushion height, with electric recline, are standard and longer-legged drivers might appreciate the extra adjustments offered by the power seat option.
Even with manually adjusted seats we had a pair of 6-foot, 4-inch individuals inside without scuffing heads, knees and elbows. There is plenty of space for feet to move around despite the compact dimensions.
The steering wheel has manual adjustment for the tilt/telescope function and the handbrake is an easy grasp on the left side of the console. The gas pedal is floor-hinged for easier heel-and-toe shifting, and there's a good dead pedal for your clutch foot. The shifter is right where you want it to be and slips into the gear desired every time, a hefty detent preventing getting reverse when you downshift into first for a tight corner. On PDK cars the floor shift works conventionally and the upper-spoke steering wheel shifters both downshift (pull toward you) and upshift (push away).
The driver faces a three-pod instrument panel dominated by an 8000-rpm tachometer with inset message and digital speed display. A compact speedometer is on the left, coolant and fuel level to the right, with the bottom segment of each relegated to information displays. On PDK cars the gear display is in the right dial. You may order painted instrument dials to match or counterpoint exterior paint, including the Sport Chrono stopwatch if you order it.
Any control you might use frequently while driving is on a steering-column stalk. The headlight switch is on the left, next to the ignition switch, and all others are in the center panel ahead of the shifter. These are grouped with suspension and transmission controls (on cars so optioned) along the bottom. Climate controls are located above and are easy to figure, and audio and navigation controls are above those.
All those systems are fairly easy to decipher and effective in operation. Unlike our experience in other Porsches, including a Boxster with a near-identical interior, the iPod plugged into the Cayman was electronically disconnected each time the key was switched off and we had to physically unplug and reconnect it to be recognized.
Outward visibility is quite good, the blind spot to the right rear the sticking point. It isn't large enough to hide a car in a lane adjacent but it obscures cars coming onto the freeway in the blind spot. Fortunately, the Cayman's small size allows you to move around enough to see a little better and still remain in one lane.
The standard radio antenna is embedded around the periphery of the windshield glass and makes for a sleeker exterior. It never bothered us, but a mast antenna is available.
Cabin storage is relatively good. The glovebox handles routine paperwork and manuals, door pockets beneath the armrests handle wallets, smokes, remotes, sunglasses, and so on; the passenger has a supplementary tray adjacent to the seat. Smaller items will fit in the bin ahead of the shifter, with coins and MP3 players under the center armrest where the optional connection points are located. Seatbacks have coat hooks, there is space behind them if you don't have the seats all the way back, and immediately behind the occupants are two deep wells, and a net and bar where you could place a laptop bag without worry about it hitting you in the back of the head in a hard stop.
Despite the race car shape there are two trunks in the Cayman, a deep squarish well up front and a wider, shallower bin at the back, both accessed by key buttons or controls next to the driver's seat. Like the cabin, these storage spaces are nicely finished, and the rear trunk gets leftover cabin air so put the ice cream there for the ride home.
There is no spare tire on board but there are provisions to keep you moving. Unless you buy a roof rack there isn't room for a spare.
Porsches have had flat-6 engine designs since the iconic 911, and the Cayman retains that proven layout. With direct fuel injection, the standard Cayman engine is 2.9 liters and delivers 265 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, while the Cayman S has 3.4 liters, 320 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.
Either engine bristles with authority for the first seconds after a cold-start and then settles into a hum set off by the slightest ticking characteristic of direct-injection engines. The over-square engines rev easily to 7500 rpm and develop peak outputs between 4400 and 7200 rpm, yet despite that the flexibility and power-to-weight ratios mean you can drive very conservatively and effortlessly if you like; once the engine was fully warmed up we obeyed the upshift light on an S, accelerating in sixth gear from 35 mph on a mild grade with no problem at all. So it can be quite calm and pleasant in the Cayman.
Porsche claims acceleration for 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds for a manual Cayman and 4.6 seconds for a Cayman S PDK in Sport Plus mode (4.8 seconds in normal mode), so every Cayman has more than adequate acceleration and will top out at 163 mph. These cars aren't built on a more-is-better approach to speed, but rather a superlative combination of speed, handling, and brakes that allows all of the performance to be used.
All Caymans get a 6-speed manual as standard, and gearboxes don't come much better. First through third gear ratios are spaced for maximum acceleration, and fourth through sixth are relatively tighter, to maintain acceleration at higher speeds; you will not find yourself cruising the freeway at 1400 rpm as in a big-bore sports car. Clutch and shift action are on the light side, and the Cayman is happier with a relaxed driver than one slamming through gears.
Porsche's new double-clutch PDK gearbox is the alternative, with a wider overall ratio spread across the seven speeds but always one available for maximum thrust. This is a sophisticated box that will run fully automatically or under full manual control. You have to learn how to best get it in motion, both forward and backward. Tight parking maneuvers are a bit more challenging, and it really isn't built for idle-speed creeping. But it delivers extremely fast gear changes with no brutality. It also rates a few miles per gallon higher on the highway cycle, though any Cayman delivers good fuel economy for a car with this level of acceleration and top speed.
A worthwhile option is the limited-sip differential. The Cayman doesn't have serious issues getting its power to the ground, yet for optimum performance there is always a choice.
About the size of a personal pizza, the brake discs don't look that big, especially lurking inside a 19-inch wheel, until you realize the typical 2,900-pound car has brakes more the size of a dessert plate. Cross-drilled, vented and equipped with multi-piston calipers, the brakes are magnificent: Pedal reaction is instant, braking force directly related to how hard you push the pedal, fade non-existent, and stops short and stable with minimal nose-dive and the rear stays flat. Credit not only the brakes but the low, rearward weight bias and sticky tires. Note that all Caymans have the same diameter brakes but the S gets red-painted calipers.
Porsche's composite ceramic brakes are an option on the Cayman S (at close to 10 percent of the purchase price) and identified by yellow calipers. They are among the best in the world and take many pounds of unsprung weight off the front end, but unless you have 19-inch wheels and frequently drive on track, the performance of the standard brakes is the envy of most motorcars. If you're not sure you need the ceramic brakes, then you don't need them.
As with the other controls the steering is moderately weighted and uses little assist; it's easy to steer the Cayman around your garage without starting it. Response is quick and predictable, the relatively thin-rimmed wheel telling your hands all you need to know and nothing you don't. Effort is never so light you'll be palming the wheel in complete turns and never so heavy you feel like you're working hard. Caress the car like a person and it responds accordingly; be a ham and your date will know you didn't take Porsche's driving school.
With the structural stiffness enabled by the presence of the fixed roof, the Cayman is very rigid. There's no flex or twist to speak of, so the shock and spring rates can be kept firm without upsetting the occupants and roll stiffness keeps the car balanced while letting each wheel do its own work. The addition of Porsche's adjustable shock damping (PASM) allows the comfort for everyday or rougher road use with the taut suspension desired on a track and lowers the ride height; you will need a fairly smooth public road to find yourself going noticeably quicker with Porsche Active Suspension Management set in Sport mode.
Locating the engine, the heaviest part in the car, in the middle and down low results in a low center of gravity, and this means transitional response is superb (changing direction left to right or acceleration to deceleration, for example). Not only do the performance tires deliver considerable grip for ultimate cornering speed, on winding roads you feel only a fraction of the level of weight transfer typical of lesser cars. One of our favorite ribbons of real estate was accomplished a good 5-mph faster than in a front-engine sports car, and in the realm of automotive dynamics that's a runaway.
And this was done with the Cayman's PASM in standard ride mode and the stability management system in the default On position. This system is very well programmed to give a driver some leeway in vehicle attitude; if you feel it reining you in on a public road you're trying too hard and if you feel it on a track it means your line or speed can very likely be adjusted for the better the next time around.
We wouldn't be out a limb calling the Cayman the best-handling Porsche ever built and one of the world's best. Whether it has the fastest lap times, test figures or sales demand, we can't think of a better handling, better driving sports car. The biggest handling advantage we've seen in the 911 is its ability to handle well on bumpy pavement.
The Cayman S comes standard with 18-inch wheels and tires an inch-plus wider than the 17s on the Cayman; either model can be had in a range of 18- or 19-inch wheel styles, all with the same tire width. We would be hard pressed to change from the 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tires because, while the 19s might look better or work better on track, the 18s offered great handling, a relatively quiet, good ride, were very easy to find the limit of and recover once we found it, and are significantly less expensive and offer more choices at replacement time.
People look at you in amazement when they ask about the roof points and you answer ski rack, like no one in their right mind would drive this to a ski run. But why not? With a decent set of winter tires on 17- or 18-inch wheels, the engine's weight over the drive wheels, superb manners for the winding roads that lead to most ski areas, seat and steering wheel heaters, heated washers and mirrors, and no room for your ride-bumming boarding buddies, why wouldn't you?
For those driving the undulating, winding road we would recommend the bi-xenon headlight upgrade. The standard lights are quite acceptable for most purposes but the wide area of the main beam has a very narrow vertical band, and if the road is angled or on a hill the edges become less defined. Using the fog lamps helps, but the bi-xenons are better. In fact, along with PASM, it's the only option we'd add to an S to make the purest, driver-centric Cayman.
Few manufacturers build cars that deliver consistently better driving experiences than Porsche. From one end of the lineup to the other, throughout the years, a Porsche has always represented a terrific driving experience, and the Cayman models maintain that highest standard. The Porsche Cayman responds to driver inputs in the same manner as a race car but it doesn't bounce over bumps or wear you out with an oppressive ride. It is comfortable, nicely finished, entirely livable in traffic and will accommodate your need for modern conveniences. And the Cayman will delight on a winding highway with sounds to match Salzburg's best, balanced handling, and a driving experience unfettered by technology, insulation or excuses.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report from Los Angeles.