Eleven miles up, eleven miles down. No police, no black ice, no farm traffic. Simply eleven miles of the most gorgeous road: corners of all radii, dips and crests, climbs and descents, some blind stuff and some wide open, the black tarmac covered with a light-gray dusting of winter salt. When you hit the Sport Plus button, and pull the gear lever to the left into M, you can feel it straight away: the limits are quite low, the car feels rather nervous, the electronic helpers enter the game much earlier than expected. How come? Because it's 7 degrees outside, the road salt is acting like fine sand, and the fly yellow Cayman S is shod with Michelin Pilot Alpine M&S tires. They are at their best in a relatively narrow temperature window. When cold, the grip slackens suddenly, like a broken fishing line. When really hot, the footwear indulges in ridiculous slip angles, but as long as you keep them in their comfort zone, they will encourage you to put the new Porsche to the real test.
We have always liked the Cayman S for its poise and precision, balanced handling, and accessible performance. The new, second-generation Cayman has those same characteristics, but it has lost 65 pounds and gained 5 hp. Torsional rigidity improves by 40 percent, the wheelbase increases by 2.4 inches, and the standard tire size has gone up from 18 to 19 inches. The result is a nimbler and even more determined sports car that really shines on this deserted Bavarian road. The normally aspirated flat six obeys throttle orders as if it were governed by a telemetric mastermind, the seven-speed PDK dual-clutch gearbox hammers through the ratios like a rapid-fire weapon, stability control works reliably in minimum interference mode, the steering does its best not to let the driver feel its electro-mechanical origins, and the brakes snarl at their ABSolute limit whenever optimism challenges the law of physics.
Normally, SportPlus is only for racetrack use, but when you're lucky enough to have a public road all to yourself, it doesn't hurt to push the chips to overload. That's overload as in full punch all the way to the cutout speed, accelerating hard in third gear at 100-plus mph, relishing each and every whiplash upshift, and changing down so early that your head keeps snapping forward in a sequence of wordless nods. You can either dictate the rhythm and the pace by using the paddleshifters or you can slip the lever in D and let the black box mastermind the very rapid progress by itself.
The harder you go, the more conscientious the input should be. It is surprisingly easy to overdrive the Cayman S by being a touch too slow at the wheel, not determined enough on the brakes, and too impatient with the throttle. Mistreated like this, the car will squirm and wiggle, fighting both tarmac and driver, relying on its computerized cleverness to stay on the road. The worst thing one can do in this situation is switch off PSM stability control and pretend to be on top of the game.
Unlike the 911, which swings around gracefully like a power-operated precision carver, the Cayman wants to be coaxed with verve into rotating around its midriff axis. Push too hard, and you might spin. Push too little, and you might understeer out of the picture. Push too passively, and the drift may come to a premature end. The secret lies in massaging the accelerator and holding the coupe in that narrow bracket where slip and grip maintain a healthy balance. This stability issue reoccurs on certain high-speed autobahn sections, where the Cayman S deserves special attention during flat-out lane changes, lift-off braking, crosswinds, and unilateral surface irregularities. No big thing at rush-hour speed, but traits to be remembered for the next 5 a.m. pedal-to-the-metal stint.
Although the design theme has not changed much, the new Cayman looks crisper and more mature. Its longer wheelbase, bigger footwear, and wider track relay a more self-conscious stance. Porsche claims that there is now a distinct visual difference between the Cayman and the Boxster, but the two-seaters still share headlamp graphics and the trademark wraparound rear spoiler lip. Having said that, the air dam of the fixed-roof model extends to a higher position and at a more upright angle. Thanks to the modified tailgate, the Cayman can accommodate half a cubic foot of cargo more than before, but you still need to stack the goods all the way to the roof.
Featuring 19-inch wheels and bixenon headlamps, the new Cayman S is not exactly underequipped, but it certainly is not fully loaded, either. Among the most desirable extras are leather, navigation, active cruise control, the PDK transmission, active dampers, and the Sport Chrono kit, which includes Sport Plus mode along with launch control and dynamic transmission mounts. Not absolutely essential but worth considering are carbon-ceramic brakes, torque vectoring, power seats, 20-inch wheels, keyless entry and ignition, a Bose or Burmester sound system, and the sport exhaust.
The optional "power steering plus" system provides extra assistance at speeds of up 30 mph, complementing the green picture that also features brake energy recuperation, thermo-management, and auto stop/start. When equipped with PDK, the Cayman will, under certain conditions, coast in near total silence with the engine cut off, which tends to comes as a bit of a surprise after an extensive blast through the decibel stratosphere. These features contribute to the fuel consumption, which has improved by 15 percent.
The extended wheelbase yields a little more legroom, which is welcomed by those who failed to stop growing in time. Although the seat pushes back farther, seatback recline is still stopped short by the rear firewall. Despite the perfectly spaced pedals and the generously adjustable steering wheel, the meticulously put together cockpit is a mixed bag. On the credit side, we note a larger in-dash color monitor, three trademark round instruments, and two ergonomically correct shift paddles. Downsides include a messy A/C control panel, a confusing array of buttons, a digital speedo readout that is much too small, the absence of any assistance systems bar active cruise control, and the not sufficiently intuitive access to the limited choice of driving programs.
The standard six-speed manual is a crisp and eager transmission with surprisingly light throws and positive action. The clutch may be a touch on the heavy side, but it is prompt and progressive. Despite these assets, we would still rather have the PDK, which offers a seventh forward ratio, cuts fuel consumption by ten percent, and shaves up to three-tenths of a second off the 0-to-62-mph acceleration time. Order the optional smaller-diameter sport design steering wheel, and you can shift gears via chromed paddles instead of boring thumb switches. To get the best out of PDK, specify the SportChrono pack. When the launch control lettering lights up in the right spoke of the helm, the Cayman S sprints to 62 mph in 4.7 seconds.
Since it is shod with winter tires, the excursion to the autobahn does not permit us to sample the car's 176 mph top speed. We stick to the rubber-induced 150-mph limit, which feels quick enough on the soft-compound, soft-sidewall Michelins. We would prefer the no-longer-available hydraulic steering system, because the new direction-finder is sometimes too clever for its own good. At low speed, the rack-and-pinion device enhances the self-centering force, which is okay for parking but counterproductive through hairpins. Equally debatable is what Porsche describes as filtering action. Although well meant and effective, these brief and barely noticeable correcting inputs can be more of an irritation than a help. Especially through undulating corners, on off-camber blacktop, and along aquaplaning grooves, it sometimes feels as if car and driver are debating who is in charge.
While the steering is an acquired taste, the upgraded brakes are an undisputed bonus. Like the roadster, the coupe now boasts bigger cross-drilled and inner-ventilated rotors, stiffer calipers, larger pads, and more efficient cooling ducts. If you choose to spend a small fortune on carbon-ceramic stoppers, Porsche will fit the same six-piston calipers as in the 911 along with even more substantial composite discs all-round. The high-tech deceleration apparatus may make sense on the racetrack, but for everyday driving the steel brakes are spot-on. This is especially true on low-friction surfaces where the tires run out of grip long before the pads start to drip with sweat, and where every spirited approach to a corner is accompanied by pulsating ABS intervention. Fading is nonexistent in cold-weather conditions, and the beautifully subtle dynamic brake balance ensures that the rear wheels won't take time out.
We have yet to try a Cayman S with standard suspension, but if it is as good as the no-frills chassis of the base 911, it probably is a safe choice. Alternatively, one could order the non-adjustable sport suspension in combination with the newly available 20-inch wheels and tires, which many hardcore drivers are likely to do. Option number three is the optional adaptive damper system, PASM, which lets you choose between normal and sport calibration. In the new Cayman, PASM employs four additional sensors for a quicker and more sensitive response and is no longer a black-or-white affair.
Even in Sport, the shock absorbers assume a relatively soft setting as long as the driver is holding back. PASM can be combined with PTV, short for Porsche torque vectoring. PTV pairs a mechanical side-to-side diff lock with an advanced ABS algorithm that intermittently decelerates the inner rear wheel through tight corners tackled at speed. As a result, the car turns in more eagerly and puts the power down more effectively at the exit of the bend. It sounds like a must-have, but after 400 miles I'm not sure I could tell the difference.
Does the new Cayman S live up to expectations? Yes, with minor reservations. The mid-engined Porsche is a compelling car that ticks all boxes. Fast, well built, sporty, and safe, the second-generation Cayman is also compelling to drive. The suspension blends decent ride comfort with entertaining handling properties, riveting grip, strong traction, and behavior at the limit that varies between docile and demanding. The revised flat six mixes a riveting soundtrack with an addictive willingness to rev, sensational smoothness, and blazing performance. The PDK transmission fuses instantaneous upshifts with no shifts at all under trailing throttle. The brakes are out of this world, but the steering isn't. Like so many modern high-tech automobiles, the new Cayman turns out to be an extremely spec-sensitive buy. Get the mix right, and you will love it. Get it wrong, and you may keep on longing for that 911.
2014 Porsche Cayman S
Engine: 3.4-liter flat six
Horsepower: 325 hp
Torque: 273 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 7-speed PDK automatic