First Drive: 2012 Porsche Cayman R

The weather turned to crap the minute we started driving the Porsche Cayman R on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Jawbreaker-sized hail and gusty winds tried to slow us down — but we didn’t give in. That happened a few seconds later, when we realized that when wet, the island’s roads are as slick as ice.

Sadly, by the time we returned from our drive in the Cayman R, conditions hadn’t improved one bit. The people from Porsche seemed worried that the slippery surface had ruined our chances to push the R to its limit. Well, we were definitely at — and above — the limit, but we did miss out on some of fun.

The R is based on the Cayman S and Boxster Spyder, two of the best sports cars in the world. To make an R, Porsche starts with a Cayman S and yanks just over 120 lb out of it. Out come the air conditioning, the radio, and the navigation system. With the main objective of “improving agility and performance,” clearly the 6.6-lb stereo system had to go. The door skins (usually made of steel) are replaced with the aluminum skins from the 911 Turbo, saving 33 pounds. The missing A/C saves 26.5 pounds. Lightweight seats (similar to those in the Boxster Spyder) save another 26.5. Lightweight wheels save another 10 pounds, and other changes (including a lithium-ion battery and a smaller fuel tank) shave another couple pounds from the Cayman.

Besides adding lightness, Porsche also added more power. Whereas the 3.4-liter flat six in the Cayman S (and in the Boxster Spyder) is good for 320 hp @ 7200 rpm, the Cayman R, with its revised exhaust system and engine management, makes 330 hp @ 7400 rpm — and, with the optional sport exhaust, enough beautiful music to replace the missing radio.

The R rides 20 mm (0.79 inch) lower than the regular S. Stiffer springs and dampers work with revised sway bars to flatten handling. Visually, the R is quite outspoken, with a rear spoiler whose upper surface is painted silver or black, whichever provides more contrast with the car’s base color. It comes with the nineteen-inch wheels from the Boxster Spyder as well as the limited-slip differential that’s optional on the Cayman S. Inside, ultra-cool pull-straps replace the interior door handles, just like in the 911 GT3 RS (and the Boxster Spyder).

Porsche says the changes drop the Cayman S’s 4.8-second 0-60 mph time down to 4.4 seconds (with the dual-clutch PDK transmission and Sport Chrono package.) Manual transmission cars do the deed in 4.7 seconds (down from 4.9 in the Cayman S) and top speed increases by 2 mph to 175 mph, or 174 with the PDK. Unfortunately, Mother Nature prevented us from verifying those claims.

But regardless of road conditions, this Cayman is a pleasure to drive. The clutch-shifter-throttle calibration might be the world’s best, and the cabin is comfortable and well built. The steering is, of course, damn near perfect, and the brakes feel like they could stop Charlie Sheen’s career freefall.

Our previous experience with the Cayman S in inclement conditions had us a little surprised at the R’s performance. Normally extraordinarily forgiving, this Cayman is a bit of a handful at its limits. Understeer disappears by the time you hit 40 mph, and the R’s neutral balance made concentration an absolute must in the slippery conditions. On Mallorca’s crazy-slick pavement, the Bridgestones’ breakaway characteristics were as progressive as a popcorn kernel in a microwave — and since the Cayman was just as likely to oversteer as understeer, it made for a lot of work (and a couple of, um, moments) on the island’s cliff-side roads.

We suspect this hotrod Cayman is far better poised in grippier conditions, but we reserve full judgment until we’ve had more time behind the wheel. The Cayman R should be hitting dealers right now, with a base price of $67,250 — more than ten grand less than a base, 345-hp 911 Carrera.

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