2017 Porsche 718 Cayman First Drive

Deep Breaths: Porsche’s new Caymans deliver punched-up performance

MALMÖ, Sweden — Those fans of vintage air-cooled Porsche 911s welded to the urgent rasp of a flat-six engine had best grab a Cayman GT4 at any price, because the sounds from the new 2017 718 Cayman and Cayman S, however unfamiliar, represent the powerful wave of a turbocharged future.

For this third-generation Cayman—and likewise the new 718 Boxsters—the consolation is several steins' worth of added horsepower and foamy, free-spilling torque. Rewind to 1996 to recall the Boxster's knockout debut, but don't forget its stingy 201 horsepower and 6.7-second saunter to 60 mph.

Today, on Sturup Raceway's pretzel-knotted road course, the 718 Cayman S flashes its gaudy 350 horsepower and 309 lb-ft of torque. That's a respective 25 and 37 more than last year's normally aspirated model. For stubborn heel-and-toers, a delightful six-speed manual model winds the 0-60 clock in 4.4 seconds. Optioned up with the peerless seven-speed PDK automated gearbox and Sport Chrono package, this Cayman S dispatches 60 mph in a lusty 4.0 seconds. (Cayman, meet Corvette). That's with a dust-speck 2.5-liter flat four with variable-vane turbocharging—a tech knockoff from the 911 Turbo—compared to the former 3.4-liter, naturally aspirated flat-six.

The PDK models also get a Sport Response steering-wheel button seen on 911s, which makes overtaking a breeze by maximizing transmission and throttle action for up to 20 seconds. With either gearbox, the Cayman S reaches 60 mph 0.4-second quicker than before, and Porsche says the Cayman S lapped the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes, 42 seconds. That's just 2 seconds off the pace of the heroic 385-hp Cayman GT4, the track-centric pinnacle of the former Cayman. Porsche spokesman Frank Wiesmann said the new car's 16 psi of maxed-out turbo thrust, available anywhere between 1,900 and 4,500 rpm, let it make up time on the 'Ring's uphill sections. Its reworked, optional adaptive suspension helps forge a high-fidelity love connection with the road surface.

For all that, the base model 718 Cayman may be the bigger revelation, especially at a $54,950 base price that undercuts the $67,350 Cayman S by almost 20 percent. (For the first time, Porsche's mid-engine hardtop costs less than the open-roofed Boxster, by about $2,100).

Once up to speed, the previous Cayman/Boxster handled virtually as well as the S models. But their 2.7-liter six, with 275 horses and 213 lb-ft, made them the Miata of Porsches. Now, a 2.0-liter four with a wastegate turbocharger kicks up 300 horses and 280 lb-ft, the latter a 31-percent bump. Girded with PDK and Sport Chrono, the new 718 Cayman runs to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. Even from a stoplight, this base Cayman will ditch not just an Audi TT but also a BMW 4 Series, V-6 Mustang and a Camaro before delivering a final ass kicking on the curves.

Those overmatched rivals may not notice the Cayman's restyled body, but it's there and as pretty as ever. Every panel is new, save the hood, roof, and rear hatch. A pressed crease tracing the front fenders is the most evident change, while cockpit improvements center on interfaces and infotainment. A new driver's instrument panel serves up data, including map displays, while a no-fuss, smartphone-style touch screen includes Apple CarPlay.

Sound symposer tubes amplify chosen powerplant frequencies in the cabin, but Porsche might hold tryouts for shorter wavelengths and higher-pitched voices. As with the new 718 Boxsters, the engines can bellow and drone in the cabin with a preponderance of bass. It's as though Porsche, playing Dr. Evil, vowed to make journalists zip it before anyone could call its four-cylinder a wimp, tasking engineers to overcompensate with decibels to deflect any snarky reference to 914s, 944s, or air-cooled VW Beetles. An optional sport-exhaust system amplifies the tune, yet as Caymans hurtle past on the racectrack, the bawdy sound isn't half bad.

The small-diameter steering wheel grips great, but—as on the new 911—its protruding, molded-plastic selector switch looks more like a leftover from an old Hyundai catalog. One noteworthy change for PDK versions comes down on the side of race cars or Mazdas: Pressing the handsome shift lever forward now elicits a downshift as it should, rather than an upshift as before.

Both models offer the adaptive dampers known as Porsche Active Suspension Management, which lowers ride height by 10 millimeters. Also available is Porsche Torque Vectoring, which can dab an inside rear brake to improve turn-in, or lock up its mechanical differential to boost traction on exit. A pair of switchable, vacuum-controlled engine mounts support the flat-four, versus the previous single central mount. At idle, the mounts uncouple to soothe vibration; in motion, they stiffen to ease drivetrain disturbances. The engine is positioned to load 55 percent of weight over the rear axle.

The Cayman S gets an optional PASM sport setup that drops the body by .78 of an inch instead of .4 and offers a significantly firmer Sport mode for its dampers. Either version of PASM offers a wider spread between rush-hour comfort and track-sharp performance. Finally, PDK Sport Chrono models adopt a new stability-control setting that allows extra tail-wag and wheelspin.

Through Sturup's devilish corners, the first takeaway is the Cayman's zesty steering and turn-in—long a sports-car benchmark, now palpably better with the steering gear from the 911 Turbo, including a 10 percent faster ratio at 15.0:1 versus 16.6:1. Half-inch wider rear wheels and new-gen Pirelli P Zero tires provide fiercer grip and no worries about twitchiness. Lateral stability increases further with a new rear subframe cross member, firmer springs and sway bars for the base mechanical suspension, and rear dampers with larger pistons.

On the track, the Cayman underlines its other mid-engine signature, with incredibly last-moment, deep-corner braking. The base Cayman inherits brakes from the previous S, including 0.6 inch larger front rotors. The new S ups its own game to 2017 911 levels with the Carrera's four-piston front calipers and thicker rotors. Or go hog wild by choosing carbon-ceramic brakes.

Combine sharper responses with feathery curb weights—from 2,944 pounds for a manual-trans Cayman to 3,054 for an S with PDK—and the Cayman's dream-car status remains assured. And unlike many turbo cars that lose interest in redline attacks, the ultra-linear Porsche barely sags, maintaining nearly 95 percent of its force between 6,500 rpm and its 7,500 rpm redline. The climb to the peak may be less necessary, but it's still worth the trip.

With 20 percent less displacement and a lower-tech, more boost-dependent turbo—at a maximum 19 psi—the standard Cayman suffers more lag than the S. It catches its breath before it rushes from track corners, and a Porsche pro leading me in a 911 4S pulls away with zero remorse. But it's a small price for major, objective returns in turbo performance, efficiency, and easy-peasy acceleration.

When race drivers and other professors of speed discuss how great sports cars don't need 500 or 600 horsepower, the Cayman is often the first example on their blackboard. We've taken the lesson to heart, even as we wish for a bit more straight-line oomph. The 718 Cayman puts a stop to any lingering classroom whispers—even if it means drowning them out with engines whose waa-waa-waa recalls Charlie Brown's honking teacher.

2017 Porsche 718 Cayman/Cayman S Specifications

On Sale: November
Price: $54,950/$67,350 (Cayman/Cayman S) (base)
Engine:

2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-four/300 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,950-4,500 rpm;

2.5-liter turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-four/350 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 309 lb-ft @ 1,900-4,500 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe
EPA Mileage: 21/28; 20/26 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 172.4 x 70.9 x 51.0 in
Wheelbase: 97.4 in
Weight: 2,944/2,988 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.9/4.4 sec
Top Speed: 170/177 mph
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