300 plus horsepower, mid-engine sportscars are a rare breed. It stands to reason then, that they should be reviewed by someone who can put them into their rarefied context. The kind of reviewer who can tell you the subtle handling differences between each generation of the 911, and whose keyboard is stained with the oil of a hundred home-rebuilt crankcases. At the very least, they should be reviewed by the kind of people who get regular seat time in the unjustifiably potent mid-engined supercars that you’d have to purchase to one-up a mid-engine Porsche’s considerable capabilities. So what happens when a Porsche Cayman S ends up in the hands of someone who is used to getting their motoring kicks with a mass-market hatchback?
The obvious answer isn’t complicated [Ed: watch out for garage doors?]. Without a thorough knowledge of the Cayman’s competition, the only impression that lasts is a lingering soreness around the muscles that were forced to spend several days clenched into a shit-eating grin. If that’s good enough for you, then by all means, grab your checkbook and prepare to lighten it of the Cayman S’s $61,500 price of admission. After all, it’s just money.
Of course, that’s not how things work around here. Luckily, some of TTAC’s most experienced writers have already put the Cayman S through its paces, and can cogently compare the crocodilian coupe to its competition from within Zuffenhausen, and beyond. Their sage verdicts confirm what is fast becoming gospel for sportscar fans: the Cayman S is the Porsche for enthusiasts looking for more poise and less pose.
But here’s the catch: by gaining accolades from those in the know, the Cayman has developed its own brand of snob appeal. And luckily for Porsche, there are plenty of buyers who want to cash in on its enthusiast halo, whether they regularly drive past 7/10ths or not. Are these uninitiated post-posers in for the kind of nasty surprises that once made Porsche infamous for killing its clientele, and still keeps Lotus Elise ownership in the domain of hard-core anoraks?
Entering the low-slung coupe provides the first hint that Porsche’s junior coupe doesn’t ask as much from the driver as other “pure” enthusiast choices. Not only are entry and egress easily accomplished, but once seated, the Cayman is as intimidating as dachshund puppy. Sure, it’s low to the ground, but visibility is surprisingly unimpeded by its sloping fastback. The effect is a confidence-inspiring user-friendliness that makes the Cayman feel like it’s wrapped itself around before you even leave the lot.
Unfortunately, this intuitive, confidence-building impression is severely let down by the Cayman’s cockpit. Driving your first Porsche? You will instantly be aware of how little of your $60k+ went towards the interior materials. Of course, the Porsche is plush where it matters, namely in the seat and steering wheel departments. Otherwise, you’ll quickly start craving the aluminum simplicity of an Elise. Especially when you realize that your expensive navigation option is no more functional or appealing than the dour plastic that surrounds it.
Never mind the bollocks: you didn’t just snag the fastest mid-engine sportscar under $100k to be swathed in creature comforts. There are plenty of front-engine GT cars that can haul ass and keep you feeling wealthy without having to stare at the steering wheel’s Porsche badge (or, if you’re actually truly wealthy, paying Porsche to pimp your Cayman’s interior). What these cars won’t do, however, is inspire complete confidence from the moment you step into the heavily-weighted gas pedal, and trundle the thing out onto the road.
Around town, the Cayman’s compact stance and brilliant packaging make a surprisingly strong argument for the Cayman S as a daily driver. Not only does it hold more cargo than you’d ever guess (more, for example, than the Lexus IS250C we traded in for it), but it’s also handy in the tight car parks that fluster so many sexily-styled sportscars. In this era of high beltlines and ubiquitous back-up cameras, knowing where your corners are at all times is the ultimate luxury.
Of course, the Cayman S isn’t the perfect city car. The 320 horsies hanging out behind your back must be managed with a subtle right foot to keep the dual-clutch transmission from confusing your request for additional shove with the desire for a woofing visit to the 7200 RPM redline. The steering, though precise and ultimately well-weighted, will come off as a bit heavy and pointy to wannabe-enthusiasts raised on the overboosted helms of mass-market Americana.
The freeway onramp is the first chance to test the real reason you sprang for a Cayman S. With the transmission in drive, the first few gears clunk somewhat heavily into action, as 3.4 liters of flat-six grab the ground and throw it backwards, leaving the rapidly disappearing traffic to deal with the consequences. Entering a cloverleaf onramp faster than expected, the instincts tell you to ease up on the throttle as the suspension begins to load up.
Screw your instincts, you have more grip than you know what to do with. In fact, the scariest moment I ever experienced in my time with the Cayman S was on my first onramp, when adrenalin and self-preservation instincts quietly whispered that I should back off the throttle, which I did with all the grace of a newbie handling 300 horses. The PDK grabbed its accelerating gear, and lurched sickeningly. Lesson learned: never stop powering through that corner. I take a moment to thank my lucky stars that my first Porsche experience did not take place in the era of epic lift-off oversteer.
On the freeway, the Cayman S remains firmly planted and remarkably refined. Oh yes, and fast too. Speeds that I’d previously reached over long, straight distances in empty Eastern Oregon were suddenly possible in the short gaps between waves of Southern California traffic. And when another clot of Prii starts to fill the Cayman’s fishbowl windscreen, the brakes haul it back to legal speeds with equal nonchalance. If you’re a speed freak with a high tolerance, you might want to consider an extra several hundred horsepower. Or you could just read a good biography of James Dean.
After all, 320 hp is likely to be enough for most Cayman owners for the same reasons that keep most of them snorting their cocaine instead of cooking it into crack. The sad truth about cars like the Cayman S (and recreational drugs like cocaine) is that you typically find your limits long before you find the outer limits of their potent capabilities. And exploring those limits usually ends up more closely resembling work than any kind of actual recreation.
And that doesn’t just mean pushing the Cayman’s epic grip to the point where the ass-end slides so subtly that you’re not sure if you just imagined it. For one thing, try finding an empty, winding road in the Southern California area. After a few hours, you’ll be feeling the toothless desperation of a sidewalk spare-change hustler. And once you do find a tight ribbon of tarmac, you’ll be an invincible, king-of-the-road, canyon-carving hero… until you come up on another NSFWing Prius.
For those brief moments when the road is curving and empty, you’ll reach a level of connectedness to a machine that most people never feel. In fact, you’ll be so intoxicated by the experience, you won’t even realize how terrifying your pace was until you reluctantly let your passenger take the wheel. Suddenly disconnected from the telepathic steering, chortling oomph and effortless brakes, the experience couldn’t be more different. And terrifying. Like having someone clap their hands over your eyes while you’re driving a “normal” car. What more do you say about a car’s ability to communicate with the driver?
But then, I’d already read the paeans to the Cayman’s communication skills. I’d read about the crazed cornering speeds, the flattering flatness of the Cayman’s roadholding, the potent shove from its flat-six. And to be perfectly honest, it feels exactly how you’d imagine. Which is to say, lovely. More surprising: the fact that this car can turn a entertaining mountain blast into white-knuckle work without ever scaring you, and then trundle down the freeway in quiet comfort and park effortlessly in the tightest, tiniest structure.
In short, the Cayman S is a gateway drug. It seems like everything you’ll ever want and more than you’ll ever really need. But each time you go out driving, you’ll be pushed to push a little bit harder. It’s undiscovered limits will tease you that much. You’ll want more… and then, just a little bit more. Before you know it, you’ll end up like Dean. Or worse still, you’ll end buying an even more potent supercar.
Budget of Beverly Hills, an independently owned-and-operated franchise of Budget Rent-A-Car gave us a discounted rental rate on the vehicle for this review. And having endured a nightmare experience with other, non-independent Budget shops in the area, we feel obligated to note that, in addition to offering a wide variety of luxury and exotic cars as well as “regular” rentals, Budget of Beverly Hills also provides a very un-Budget-like level of customer service.