Review: 2008 Porsche Cayman S

2008 Porsche Cayman S – Click above for high-res image gallery

To many, the Porsche Cayman is just a look-alike twin to the drop-top Porsche Boxster. While it shares a platform, underpinnings, and even engine choices with its two-seat sibling, the Cayman performs a decidedly different role and delivers even more gratifying performance. Porsche dropped off a top-of-the-line Cayman S in the Autoblog Garage. It offers a more powerful engine and larger brakes over the standard Cayman model. Follow the jump to read our impressions on the Porsche Cayman S after we held the keys in our hands for a week.

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All photos copyright Michael Harley / Weblogs Inc.

To understand the Cayman, you have to know a bit about the Porsche Boxster and the 911, as the relationship between the three is much deeper than the badge. In the early 1990s, Porsche penned a modern-day reincarnation of its first production car, the 356. Engineered from the ground-up to be a convertible, this all-new roadster (type "986") would offer a mid-engine design and seating for just two. Most importantly, much of the engineering work would pave the way for the first water-cooled mainstream 911 (type "996"). With the new Boxster and 996 sharing mechanicals, Porsche would save tens of millions in design, tooling, and manufacturing.

The first Boxster models arrived in 1996. With a 2.5-liter flat-six mounted seemingly inaccessible in the middle of the car, they were underpowered but offered world-class handling (in fact, with the prices of these early models falling, a new class of "Spec Boxster racing" has emerged). To the angst of many Porschephiles, from the A-pillar forward the early Boxster was indistinguishable from the new 911. That changed in 2005 when the Boxster was significantly updated inside and out (enough changes to justify a new type number, the "987"). It was that revised vehicle that formed the platform for the soon-to-arrive Cayman. Arriving in 2006, the closed-roof Porsche Cayman (type "987c") offered a more powerful engine, and a chassis that was 100 percent more rigid than the Boxster. This stiff platform allowed Porsche engineers the freedom to recalibrate the suspension for a sportier ride and even higher performance.

The placement of the all-aluminum engine not only differentiates the Cayman from the venerable Porsche 911, but it defines the vehicle's handling traits. Many will argue mid-engine placement is paramount for optimal handling, braking, and acceleration (witness the McLaren F1, Ferrari Enzo, and more recent Audi R8). With both passengers and the engine situated between the axles, weight distribution on the Cayman S is split 45% front, 55% rear. The curb weight, even with a full complement of safety equipment and six airbags, is listed at just 2,976 pounds. The Cayman S in our garage was lightly equipped (for a Porsche) with a base price of $59,100. A few select packages (Preferred, Xenon, Sport Chrono, etc...) and custom silver seat belts pushed it to a semi-reasonable $65,780, depending on your perspective.

Designed with a low center of gravity, the Cayman squats especially close to terra firma parked in the driveway. Once you climb into the two-seater and semi-fall into the driver's seat, the cabin is accommodating. Without the drop-top machinery found in the Boxster, the Cayman's expansive hatch adds an airy feel – especially at head level. However, the Cayman will never be confused for a large car. Even with the seat all the way back to the rear firewall to accommodate our six-foot two-inch frame, our left leg was a bit cramped on the dead pedal. During an overnight trip, our carry-on bag and laptop both fit in the front luggage compartment, but our camera pack was forced to the hatch. Space and storage is at a premium. As expected, when we started the car we quickly forgot about all of that.

Twisting the conventional key located in Porsche tradition to the left of the steering column, the engine springs to life. Modern engine electronics have tamed all rough-running personality out of the flat-sixes of yesteryear, so even when cold it settles down to a smooth idle. Located immediately behind the passenger seats, tucked under thick carpet, some insulation, and a steel panel, is a water-cooled horizontally-opposed "Boxer" six-cylinder engine with Porsche's VarioCam Plus. In the Cayman S we were driving, it displaces 3.4-liters and is rated at 295 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque (the standard Cayman makes due with a 2.7-liter 245-hp powerplant). Redline is a joyous 7,300 rpm.

As some real sports cars still thankfully offer an honest-to-God stick shift, the transmission on this Cayman S is a 6-speed manual with triple synchromesh in first and second, and double synchromesh on the other gears. With the precision of a surgical tool, the shift knob glides into position effortlessly. Around town, the Cayman is as docile as a Volkswagen Rabbit. However, when the tachometer needle is forced to the right side of the dial, the sprint to 60 mph takes just 5 seconds as the Porsche continues to a top speed north of 170 mph.

The sound of the Cayman S at wide-open throttle is a triumphant symphony of exhaust, intake, and valve-train at full song. When the throttle pedal is depressed into the carpet, the intake initially snarls and then you hear the exhaust picking up its note. Once the engine spins above 3,500 rpm, the mechanical noise of the engine takes charge. Keeping in mind that the reciprocating engine mass is only about 18 inches away – the engine is entirely located within the passenger compartment under that cover – the noise emanates from within the cabin. The flat-six isn't the smoothest engine on the market, but it sings an enthusiast's tune. Frequent trips to redline are positively addicting.

The Cayman S wears four bright red four-piston monobloc aluminum calipers chomping down on cross-drilled and inner-ventilated rotors. Even when asked to perform stops that defy the laws of physics (off-camber, decreasing radius, with the outside wheel in a patch of gravel), the Porsche puts the correct wheel down and bleeds speed without any drama. If you need help, and you rarely will with sticky fat Michelins clawing at the ground, ABS is there to assist. The "Big Red" brakes can absorb tons of heat, so fade isn't even in the Cayman's vocabulary. Brake feel, modulation, and pedal position are excellent. Porsche does brakes perfectly.

Porsche does something else even better – steering feel. Even with the standard wimpy thin-rimmed steering wheel in hand (a thicker contoured wheel is optional), the feedback and response is exemplary. Porsche has fitted the Cayman with a variable-ratio rack-and-pinion system that alters steering ratios once they exceed 15 degrees off-center. On and above highway speeds, the car is perfectly stable and it needs zero input to hold a steady line. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the tightest curves only require the smallest bit of hand shuffling. The rack works exactly as advertised.

Tossing a Cayman S back-and-forth on a desolate mountain road is one of life's greatest pleasures. To ready the Porsche, hit the "Sport" button on the dash to change the throttle mapping. This also increases the threshold of "PSM" (Porsche's thankfully non-intrusive stability control). The most glorious roads will keep you busy flicking the gearshift between second and third, watching the engine pull towards redline, before falling off drastically under full braking. The steering wheel, weighted well under your fingers, will transmit subtle impulses from the front tires back to your hands as the road surface and traction changes. With nearly indiscernible body roll, the suspension absorbs the undulations and irregularities as it confidently keeps all four tires planted on the pavement, even as the rears strain to break free. Downshift, blip the throttle, and repeat over and over again. You will be spent before the Cayman breaks a sweat.

While this review of the Cayman reads like one long-winded accolade, we did uncover some tarnish. With the twisty roads miles behind us, we found the non-adjustable suspension fairly harsh (Porsche offers its multi-setting "PASM," but our Cayman did not have it). Matters only worsened when we were stuck in traffic on LA freeways. With our low stance minimizing visibility around us, the short wheelbase oscillating numbingly over freeway expansion joints, and with minimal sound insulation to keep the din at a palatable level... the Porsche was completely out of its element. We were suffering, and the Cayman S was, too. To avoid future misery, we made it a point to take the longer and more involving "scenic routes" on future excursions. The new approach kept man and machinery very happy.

After a week with the two-seater, it was perfectly clear to us. The Cayman wasn't designed to be a comfortable daily driver, a family transport, or a cargo hauler (your Porsche dealer will gladly sell you a 911 or Cayenne to fill those roles). It was never intended to be the quickest from a stoplight, the fastest car on the road, or capture the shortest stopping distances. The German engineers had something else in mind when they spawned the Boxster... Their objective was to create a vehicle that would evoke driving passion. A throwback to a lightweight, two-seat, rear-wheel drive, short wheelbase sports car. Damn the price, we were smitten by the Porsche Cayman S.

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All photos copyright Michael Harley / Weblogs Inc.

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