It was first shown to us in the cobblestone courtyard of the Ochsen Post, a seventeenth-century country inn that’s only a few miles from the Weissach proving ground. It looked lean, athletic, and even a little unattractive, utterly unlike the overheated design exercises that pass as sports cars these days. In fact, the new Porsche Cayman S looked almost like a Porsche 911.
The next day, we drove the Cayman S out of the gates at Porsche Building 1, turned left onto Stammheimer Strasse, and headed directly to the Nrburgring. There we’d drive Porsche’s newest sports car side-by-side with the 911 Carrera to find out whether two cars so similar in appearance also share similar performance and personality.
The old 12.9-mile Nordschleife circuit is what remains of the original Nrburgring, completed in 1927 as a test track for the German auto industry. It has been a kind of moral compass, a unique place that tests the skill of drivers, the speed of cars, and the courage of car companies. It’s no wonder that it has become one of the great places in the culture of speed, just like Indianapolis, Le Mans, and Monza. Flags fly from new-car dealerships in the industrial park, while motorcyclists are lined up at the nearby gas station to buy 98-octane fuel, model racing cars, and Nrburgring history books. A new Dorint-owned hotel is in the place where the Rennsport hotel of the 1930s once overlooked the Nordschleife’s start/finish line, but the old block of garages built from cinder blocks and corrugated metal still remains in the adjacent paddock, and you can even walk an old section of the Sdschleife test circuit if you know where to look.
We set up headquarters in the Hotel am Tiergarten, a small, high-style lodging in the village of Nrburg, just below the hill where the famous medieval fortress stands. The hotel looks out onto a field called the Tiergarten, where knights once buried their warhorses that had been killed in battle, but now the name is associated with the Nordschleife’s high-speed straightaway just beyond. Here we posed the Cayman S next to a 911 for the first time.
Back in 2000, Porsche product planners realized that the market for roadsters like the Boxster had reached a plateau because of the functional compromises built into any convertible, and they figured a coupe version of the Boxster would fit the requirements of people looking for a better match between car and lifestyle. Porsche boasts that the Cayman S offers a full 14.4 cubic feet of luggage capacity, with 9.1 cubic feet beneath the large steel hatch in the rear. This is true enough if you stack the luggage to the ceiling, but the useful capacity is more like 5.3 cubic feet. Nevertheless, it all adds up to about the same as that of the 911, if you count the way the rear-engined car’s vestigial back seat can become a bin for sloppy stowage.
In size, the Cayman S really is simply a coupe version of the Boxster, and it’s only 1.7 inches longer and 0.5 inch taller than the roadster. Surprisingly enough, the dimensional differences between the mid-engined Cayman S and the rear-engined 911 are equally slim, as the Cayman is 3.5 inches shorter in overall length, 0.3 inch narrower, and 0.2 inch lower in height. The Cayman’s wheelbase is 2.6 inches longer. Meanwhile, the Cayman S weighs just 120 pounds less than the 3250-pound 911 Carrera, and it’s nearly as structurally rigid. Porsche has gone to some lengths to give the Cayman S its own visual identity, but the details are esoteric at best. The truth is, the Cayman’s shape closely resembles that of the 911, especially since, like the 911 Carrera, it has standard eighteen-inch wheels.
Even so, the Cayman S does have its own visual personality. Its mid-engine configuration produces proportions that make the car look more compact than the rear-engined 911. Then the Cayman S’s taut, even radical roofline (too abrupt for a sunroof, the Porsche engineers tell us) seems like an unattractive fit with the voluptuous fenders. Altogether, the Cayman S recalls the homely Porsche 550s built with detachable roofs for Le Mans in 1953, streamlined cars that later had their tops peeled off to create the 550 Spyder (which itself inspired the Boxster). At the same time, the Cayman S has a look of spare necessity similar to those early racing cars, which gives it an arresting freshness, as if the shape came from engineers instead of stylists. Overall, the Cayman S’s bodywork has a 0.29 coefficient of aerodynamic drag, right between the 0.30 Cd of the Boxster S and the 0.28 Cd of the 911 Carrera.
For some enthusiasts, the Nordschleife is all about the racetrack experience, since you need only fifteen euros to buy a lap for your car and call yourself a hero. There are several driver-training schools that will teach you to navigate the seventy-three corners, but the region surrounding the track also proves to be a terrific place to drive. The Eifel Mountains encompass one of Germany’s last great forests, and narrow, winding roads connect rural villages of traditional half-timbered houses.
Alert, alive, and quick, the Cayman S feels as if it were specifically built to drive such roads. Right behind your head, you can hear the 291-hp, 3.4-liter six-cylinder engine whirring with the same crisp, mechanical sound as an old air-cooled Porsche six. In contrast, the 911’s 321-hp, 3.6-liter six-cylinder has a bass note that’s rich and melodic but more distant, since it’s at the back of the car. The 911 Carrera’s engine is actually fractionally more responsive, because the mid-engined Cayman S’s complicated intake tract compromises the six’s throttle response.
The Cayman S’s DOHC 3.4-liter horizontally opposed six resembles that of the Boxster S, but it also incorporates the cylinder heads of the 3.6-liter from the 911 Carrera. The Cayman’s short-stroke engine spins quickly to peak rpm, and the combination of 911-style variable valve timing and the radical camshaft of the 911 Carrera S gives a special punch, although the exhaust doesn’t really begin to bark until it nears the 7300-rpm redline. The long-stroke, 3.6-liter six in the 911 Carrera still has an edge in performance, though, as it delivers 273 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm compared with the Cayman S’s 251 lb-ft at 4200 rpm. By Porsche’s measurement, the 911 Carrera is less than half a second quicker to 60 mph.
You can feel the difference, as the Cayman S’s 3.4-liter six has to work a bit harder on mountain roads. Even though the torque curve is virtually flat from 4400 rpm to 6200 rpm, you find yourself going to the gearbox pretty frequently. Fortunately, this six-speed manual is great, one of the few six-speed gearboxes that delivers shift action precise enough to afford quick, effortless gearchanges. For all that, the 911’s transmission sets a standard the Cayman’s can’t match, perhaps because the 911’s rear-engine layout affords a short, direct route for the shift linkage.
On these roads through the mountains, across high windblown ridges, deep in the forests of upland beech and gnarled oak, beside fields of golden wheat, the Cayman S is in its element. The structure is so tight that the car feels almost supernaturally responsive, as if the mechanical package were shrink-wrapped around you. Its weight is pretty evenly distributed fore and aft (45.0 percent front/ 55.0 percent rear) compared with the 911 Carrera (38.4 percent front/61.6 percent rear), so the Cayman S feels poised and sure-footed even on the tightest mountain road. The heightened rigidity of the chassis also makes the steering action even more deliciously precise than the Boxster, yet without any harshness. To drive this car quickly, you simply point it where you want to go. It’s warm work, though, as the engine behind you heats up the cabin noticeably.
The 911 Carrera is also a great car in similar circumstances, but it feels completely different. Its extreme weight distribution calls for more driving skill, as you use the accelerator pedal and brakes to shift weight back and forth to optimize grip during acceleration, braking, and cornering. As a result, the 911 feels like a much larger car with somewhat slower responses. Yet the 911 has far more personality than the Cayman, and the fact that the 911 is quieter and more composed on the freeway than the somewhat shrill Cayman also counts in its favor.
We walked into the little building beside the Nordschleife and bought some laps. We put our magnetized tickets into the little toll gate as if we were dealing with some kind of glorified turnpike in Ohio. Porsche must have expected such things, because the Cayman S’s options list includes all the same good stuff that the 911 Carrera carries in its high-performance arsenal. Porsche’s active ride system (PASM)–which can program the engine and suspension for either a more comfortable ride or more aggressive damping–is an option, as are low-profile nineteen-inch tires and ceramic brakes with 13.8-inch rotors. Then there’s the Sport Chrono system, which lets you program engine management and stability control for track driving.
A lap of the Nordschleife is long, some 12.9 miles, and Porsche tells us that a standard Cayman S completes the circuit in eight minutes and twenty seconds, just five seconds slower than a 911 Carrera. It’s not a big difference, yet the Cayman S makes its way around the track with a completely different style. It slashes through corners as if it were a hologram from Gran Turismo 4, so obedient to the steering that it follows the racing line in demanding corners such as the sequence at Ex-Mhle (“water mill”) almost effortlessly.
In comparison, the 911 Carrera again seems somewhat bigger and clumsier, and it’s slower in the middle of a corner. Yet the 911’s reassuring stability under braking as it squeezes down on all four tires gives you more confidence in places such as Schwedenkreuz (named for the nearby site where a tax collector was murdered in 1638 by deserters from the Swedish army), while the rearward weight bias keeps the rear tires under the car even while performing crowd-pleasing powerslides at Brnnchen (“little well”). The Cayman is quick, precise, and consistent, while the 911 is simply fast, fast, fast.
There’s about a $12,000 difference in price between the Cayman S and the 911 Carrera, about $2500 for every second in the difference between their lap times around the Nordschleife. When it comes to pure performance, you have to ask yourself, why pay more? If you must, you can add active suspension, big wheels and tires, and the Sport Chrono package to the Cayman S and get a car that will lap as fast as a stock 911 S and yet cost less than a stock 911 Carrera.
No matter what the numbers say, of course, the 911’s mystique will always make it the dominant car in this equation for Porsche traditionalists. But for everyone, the Cayman S represents a radical realignment of the planets in the Porsche solar system, as this is an “entry-level” car that delivers the serious performance that Porsche enthusiasts have always demanded. This is a real Porsche, so distinctive in style and driving performance that it has surprised even the engineers who built it. As the moral compass of the Nordschleife proves, the Cayman S points to true north.
Porsche Cayman S
Length x width x height 172.1 x 70.9 x 51.4 in
Power 291 hp @ 6250 rpm
Torque 251 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
0-60/0-100 mph 5.1/12.0 sec
1/4-mile 13.7 sec @ 105 mph
Speed in gears (mph) 1st: 43, 2nd: 73, 3rd: 101, 4th: 126, 5th: 147, 6th: 171
Lap at the Nrburgring 8:20
Porsche 911 Carrera
Length x width x height 175.6 x 71.2 x 51.6 in
Power 321 hp @ 6800 rpm
Torque 273 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
0-60/0-100 mph 4.8/11.0 sec
1/4-mile 13.2 sec @ 108 mph
Speed in gears (mph) 1st: 41, 2nd: 69, 3rd: 99, 4th: 124, 5th: 147, 6th: 177
Lap at the Nrburgring 8:15