Motoramic

2014 Porsche Cayman moves to the pole: Motoramic Drives

Plopping an engine smack in the middle of a car has a magical effect on handling – even if it means sacrificing a back seat. So while Porsche is most famed for a rear-engine, two-plus-two sports car, its signature 911, it has managed great things with a pure mid-engine coupe with just two seats: The Cayman.

The magic continues with an all-new, third-generation Cayman. Snobs may consider the crocodile-named coupe a junior member of the Porsche family. But with this redesigned version, they’ll be forced to admit that the Cayman handles as well as the far-pricier 911, and in some situations better.

Add a strikingly reworked body and cabin, and the full gamut of Porsche performance technology, and the Cayman has evolved into one of the world’s greatest sports cars, regardless of price. That status shone with million-watt clarity on the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve in southern Portugal, the devilish high-speed circuit where Formula 1 teams have tested their machines.

First off, the Cayman is lovelier than ever, reshaped to play up its classic silhouette and alluring, deep-cleavage rear fenders. There’s no confusing this two-seater with the more-demure 911.

Like a supermodel’s cheekbones, the Cayman’s aluminum-skinned doors have been dramatically hollowed. Those dynamic recesses draw more than your eye: They direct intake air through chunky door scoops and into the flat-six engine tucked behind the driver and passenger. The rear hatch glass is wider, highlighting the Cayman’s broadened, road-sticking stance, including the S model’s 1.6-inch wider front track – the distance between the front wheels – and a nearly half-inch stretch at the rear. The wheelbase grows by 0.6 inches, another boon to high-speed stability.

The Cayman’s roof is subtly lowered and stretches farther to the rear, where it meets a finely drawn aluminum lip that forms the pop-up rear spoiler. That spoiler has 40 percent more effective area than before. That helps pin the Cayman to the asphalt at speeds that peak at 165 mph for the base model, and a lusty 175 mph for the Cayman S.

The Cayman’s sense of visual lightness is no David Copperfield illusion. An aluminum diet for the body trims about 66 pounds, putting the base Cayman at 2,882 pounds. Its main rivals, the Mercedes SLK, BMW Z4 and Chevy Corvette, are porkers in comparison, weighing 300 to 400 pounds more.

At the same time, the Cayman’s redesigned aluminum chassis is 40 percent stiffer, allowing the suspension, wheels and tires to perform without wasted motion and energy. Hans Jürgen-Wöhler, Porsche’s director of the Cayman and Boxster lines, says the Cayman, remarkably, is more than twice as stiff as the new Boxster convertible, and far less twist-prone than the 911 as well.

Natural balance is a given, with the mid-engine layout putting 46 percent of weight over the front axle and 54 percent at the rear. Less natural, but just as effective, are Porsche’s computerized handling aids, including the driver-selectable Porsche Active Stability Management suspension and optional Porsche Torque Vectoring. That torque vectoring system monitors handling forces and applies individual brakes to help pivot the Cayman around turns. Cayman S models add a limited-slip differential to maximize grip at the rear wheels.

“Our coupe is built for curves like few other sports cars,” Jürgen-Wöhler says, minutes before we take to the track to test his claim on a series of rollicking laps.

Before we do, we have a chance to appreciate the Cayman’s designer cabin that brings it into corporate line with the luxurious Panamera, Cayenne, Boxster and 911: The same banked, aircraft-style center console, central display screen, high-grade stitched leather, burnished aluminum and thin-film driver readout. If there’s any difference in eye-popping effect between the Cayman and 911, it’s hard to spot. And in addition to the useful “frunk” in front that can swallow a hefty roller bag – remember, there’s no engine up there – Porsche carved out nearly 15 percent more cargo space in the Cayman’s rear hatch, including two small storage cubbies with sliding covers.

The navigation and audio system at least proves that the Cayman isn’t perfect: The many-buttoned unit takes practice to master, though it’s miles ahead of the archaic interfaces and audio systems that used to characterize every Porsche. An optional Burmester audio system actually sounds premium, with 821 watts and 12 speakers crammed into this intimate sports car.

A more-controversial advance is the Cayman’s new electric steering. As in the Boxster, it delivers a tad less fingertip nuance than the purely hydraulic systems that made Porsche the world’s benchmark for natural steering feel. Yet as electric systems go, Porsche’s is still about the best, and there’s no going back: The systems save fuel and are critical to smooth integration with today’s handling and stability controls. (The redesigned 2014 Corvette Stingray also adopts electric steering when it goes on sale this August). A standard engine auto stop/start function conserves fuel at stoplights.

That fuel economy, for those who care, is excellent: 22/32 mpg in city and highway for the base 2.7-liter engine, and 21/30 mpg for the S model and its 3.4-liter six. Those numbers are for models equipped with the magnificent seven-speed, dual-clutch PDK automated manual transmission. Six-speed manual versions are rated for 2 mpg less on the highway and 1 mpg less in city driving.

That base engine spins up 275 horsepower, 10 more than before. The S’s larger six gains five horses, to 325, just 25 fewer than the standard 911. Peak power is now reached at 7,400 rpm, up from 7,200. The result is an impressive 4.7-second burst from 0-60 mph for the PDK-equipped Cayman S, and 5.4 seconds for the Cayman.

Sure, a Corvette or Shelby GT 500 Mustang is faster in a straight line. But as ever, the Porsche delivers handling nirvana that make Corvettes and ‘Stangs feel like clumsy couch potatoes in comparison. (And trust me, I love Corvettes and Mustangs). Turned loose on the Autódromo, chasing legendary Porsche racers including former world rally champion Walter Röhrl, I again experience what makes Porsches so special: Not sheer horsepower, though the Cayman is plenty fast, but sheer sensation, a sense of purely engineered, endorphin-blasting performance. That thrill extends to the flat-six engine howling behind my back, an 8,000-rpm battle cry that you could identify as Porsche’s from two counties over. On a more-famous circuit, the Nurbürgring’s Nordschliefe course in Germany, Porsche’s finest test drivers have clocked 7 minute, 55-second laps in the Cayman S, a remarkable 11 seconds quicker than the previous model.

Leaving the track, we rip through the countryside, slowing through tight-laned Portuguese villages on the way to Cabo de Sao Vicente, or Cape St. Vincent. On this run, we sample the brilliant six-speed manual transmission and its latest tech trick: Flick the shift lever, and the car automatically blips the throttle to match engine speed to the new gear selected. It works perfectly, though purists can shut it off if they care to practice the old “heel-and-toe” maneuver. That manual version may be a few ticks slower than paddle-shifted PDK models, yet it still makes the driver feel more thrillingly in command.

Cape St. Vincent greets us at the very southwestern tip of Europe, traced with miles of spectacular 200-foot cliffs. This headland was known as “the end of the world,” a magical, holy place to ancient Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians. It was also a favored spot for pirates’ plunder, including by Sir Francis Drake in the 1580s. Yet even at this stunning locale, tourists stop to admire the Caymans that roll up to the lighthouse guarding one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

To admire one yourself will require $53,550, the base price for the Cayman, or $64,750 for the Cayman S. Compared to last year, those represent jumps of $700 and $1,700 for base and S models – fair considering the major upgrades in style, luxury and performance. Go wild on Porsche’s pricey options, and you can easily run a Cayman to $75,000 and a Cayman S to $85,000 or beyond. Yet that’s still about $35,000 less than a comparably equipped 911 or 911 S.

But forget the price. It’s time to stop thinking about the Cayman as the Porsche for people who can’t afford a 911. This is an amazing sports car on its own terms. And its lightweight, mid-engine approach is arguably a purer distillation of the Porsche formula. Jürgen-Wöhler himself differentiates the Cayman buyer from the 911 traditionalist: “It’s a younger buyer,” he affirms. “And for them, driving fun is the number one priority,” with prestige or practicality barely entering the picture.

Put me firmly in that group. Beginning this April, the Cayman becomes simply the best, most fun-to-drive sports car you can buy in the roughly $60,000 to $80,000 range. Not the fastest, but still the best. Don’t believe it? Drive one yourself – and then we’ll talk.