Porsche's junior coupe is back. Start saving. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Is the Porsche Cayman the best sports coupe reasonable money can buy? You'd have a pretty tough time arguing otherwise. For an insight into just how far ahead of its rivals this car really is, you need look no further than the fact that it's most regularly compared to its 911 stablemate, which costs nearly twice as much. In this third generation guise, the Cayman's classic mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout remains but has been further developed with a re-designed chassis, a longer wheelbase, lower weight and, yes, a little more power than before. Add in sleeker looks that really offer up that 'want one' factor and you're looking at an obvious choice in its segment, a supercar in all but price tag.
Porsche determinedly refutes suggestions that what we have here is simply 'a Boxster with a roof' but that's essentially what it boils down to. Not that there's much wrong with that, the exemplary handling balance of the brand's entry-level model enhanced by a body almost twice as stiff, enough to make this car the darling of the red mist brigade in the motoring press, if not as strong a seller as its maker would have liked. Even after pokier engines and a high-tech PDK auto gearbox option were added in 2009, buyers still wondered why they ought to choose a curiously-proportioned Cayman coupe when a Boxster convertible was cheaper and prettier. So what to do? Porsche could certainly make this car quicker, even sharper to drive, more efficient to run and higher tech to use - and sure enough, it's all been done for this third generation version. What'll really help most of all though is its new sense of style, influenced not a little by the brand's 918 Spyder hypercar. The driveway result is no longer a poor man's 911 but a very desirable design in its own right. A car that makes similarly priced rivals look distinctly one-dimensional. And one that here, we're going to put to the test.
So, what's it like? Well, the cabin envelopes you like a proper sports car should. You sit low, and there are no seats behind you; just a bulkhead that separates you from the direct injection engine, just thirty centimetres from the small of your back. That'll be either a 2.7-litre 275bhp unit if you've opted for the standard Cayman or a 3.4-litre 325bhp powerplant if you've chosen the Cayman S. If you're wondering, that's 10bhp more in each case than you'll get from the engines fitted to equivalent Boxster models. Both powerplants are six-cylinder units and are mid-mounted, that being the major point of differentiation between this Cayman and its pricier 911 stablemate, which has its powerplant slung out behind the back wheels. Here, in contrast, it's hunkered down in the middle of the car, something that has all sorts of beneficial effects on this car's handling dynamics. If you want more, there's a pokier Cayman GTS model offering another 15bhp over the S variant. Or an even faster flagship Cayman GT4 variant that borrows its 385PS 3.8-litre engine from Porsche's 911 Carrera S. Even if you don't plan to thrash round the Nurburgring and go for a more standard Cayman model, you'll notice a balance and friendliness to a driving experience that feels, well, just right. You'll be wanting some numbers. The basic 2.7-litre Cayman with a manual 'box will accelerate to 62mph in 5.7 seconds and run onto 165mph. Go to the other extreme and plump for a 3.4-litre Cayman S with PDK and Sport Chrono and you'll be able to demolish the 62mph sprint in just 4.7 seconds with the engine pulling strongly from 4,000rpm and taking on a lovely guttural bark as the revs rise towards the red line and the cars hurls itself on towards a top speed of 174mph.Turn-in is crisp at whatever speed you choose and body roll's well contained too: Porsche claims this car is 40% stiffer than its predecessor and it feels like it. What we have here is a masterclass in sportscar excellence.
Design and Build
Does it look like a 911? The uninitiated might think so but visually at least, the Cayman is no longer a lesser, rather clumsy copy of that car. Your eye's immediately drawn to the bi-xenon headlights of the sleeker front end but the bigger changes are to be found further back with the higher haunches, the bigger wheelarches and the swept-back roofline that together make this model a more distinctive thing than its predecessor. Reducing the rake of the rear screen and pulling its base further back has done wonders for the shape and it also helps that these indented doors are no longer shared with the 911 and so better suit the completed design. The overall result is all muscularity and purpose. You might be surprised to find how much space this car can offer behind a mid-mounted engine layout that's always been a big plus when it comes to practicality - though your service technician might not immediately agree. There's an expanded 275-litre space on offer here which, when combined with the further 150-litres you get under the bonnet in the front, provides a 425-litre total that's actually more than you get in a Volkswagen Golf. A two-seater Porsche sportscar that carries more gear than your average family hatch? The surprises keep on coming. There aren't too many of them when you get behind the wheel mind you, unless you count the fact that despite a lower roofline, there's actually more headroom than the previous version of this car could offer thanks to a lower mounting position for the surprisingly broad seats. The cabin's essentially the same as you'll find in Porsche's Boxster - though that's no bad thing, with the same standard of fit and finish you'd find in a 911 costing twice as much. Unlike that car, you only get two seats.
Market and Model
What Porsche advertise the Cayman at and what it rolls out of dealerships costing are usually two quite different things but in terms of list pricing, if you think of the base 2.7-litre model as costing around £40,000, the 3.4-litre 325PS S variant as being pitched at about £50,000, the 340PS GTS variant being around £55,000 and the top 385PS GT4 model being around £65,000, then you won't go too far wrong. In Porsche terms if you're looking at the 2.7 or the S, that means a premium of around £2,000 over comparable Boxster models. Go for that S variant and you'll be making a £25,000 saving over a base 911 with exactly the same engine and pretty much the same performance. If, like us, you love 911s, that's quite a sobering thought. Equipment runs to Alcantara-trimmed sports seats with electrically adjustable backrests, 18-inch alloy wheels, a CD stereo with 7-inch colour touch-screen control, auto headlights, air conditioning and a universal audio interface offering all kinds of extra connectivity. To this tally, this Cayman S adds larger 19-inch alloy wheels with larger front brake discs from the 911 Carrera, a partial leather interior and Bi-Xenon headlights in addition to the power advantage of its larger 3.4-litre engine. The safety kit on the Cayman is pretty comprehensive. The two stage PSM stability control system is one of the very best in the business. A pair of impact sensors are located near the headlights and these evaluate the severity of a crash in milliseconds and inflate the full-size and knee airbags in two stages depending on the severity and type of accident.
Cost of Ownership
So to the efficiency figures. This Cayman S manual will return 32.1 mpg on the combined cycle whereas if you tick the PDK option box, you'd be looking at 35.3mpg. Much of the benefit comes in having a super-tall seventh gear on the PDK transmission, a fact borne out by the extra urban fuel figure which is 45.6mpg compared to the manual car's 40.9. In fact, a PDK-equipped Cayman S is better on fuel than a manual Cayman 2.7. If you want the best economy, go for a Cayman 2.7 with PDK where you'll average 36.7mpg with emissions of just 180g/km. By way of contrast, something like a Nissan 370Z GT will return 26.7mpg and emit 248g/km. Even BMW, a company who pride themselves on their efficient powerplants, can't get close to Porsche here. A BMW 135i Sport, for example, is down 19bhp on the Cayman S yet returns worse fuel economy and emissions. Insurance groupings are 37E for the Cayman 2.7 and 41E for the Cayman S. Taking these costs, plus residual values, fuel economy, servicing and VED taxation into account, the Porsche continues to look better on the balance sheet than its rivals. Over a typical three year/36,000 mile ownership period, the Cayman 2.7 will cost 87.8 pence per mile. A Cayman S with PDK will set you back 113.2 pence per mile. Here, it seems, is a car you can buy with your head as well as your heart.
Whether this improved Cayman can finally upstage its pricier 911 stablemate - or indeed whether this is the car a modern 911 really should be.. well, I can't help wondering whether these are really irrelevant questions. If you like one of these Porsches, you'll probably be unconvinced by the other, with fundamental differences that are small but highly significant. Perhaps a closer rival to the Cayman is the car it was designed upon - the Boxster, which drives almost as well, is priced more aggressively and offers the option of open-top summer driving. Ultimately, what it boils down to is that Porsche has two brilliant cars on its books and as problems go, that's not a bad one to have. What's not in doubt is that the Cayman makes the dilemma of where to spend a sports car budget limited in the £40,000 to £50,000 bracket about as straightforward as it can be. In the real world, it's one of the quickest cars you can drive and one that makes you feel special every time you sit in it. True, the asking price isn't cheap, the options are expensive and there are more powerful rivals that cost the same. But it's also true that for the money, nothing else offers as complete a sportscar driving experience.