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.