New Car Reviews

2006 Porsche Cayman S

Almost exactly one mile long and slowly rotting away in the southern sun, the Autodromo di Bari is what they call a Mickey Mouse circuit–more corners than a spiral staircase, second- and third-gear stuff only, and one fairly long straight where you hit 110 mph at 7000 rpm before dropping the anchors, pronto. This is the place where Porsche has brought us to sample a Cayman S development mule equipped with PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management, or, simply, adjustable dampers), PCCB (Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes), and nineteen-inch wheels (which are an option).

For those of you who aren’t Porsche diehards, the Cayman is essentially a Boxster with a steel coupe roof and a hatchback. Porsche claims that as a result of the steel surgery, torsional rigidity doubles. The Cayman also gets stiffer springs for its strut-type suspension, because, as Porsche’s chassis gurus point out, you can use stiffer springs in a stiffer car without unduly affecting ride comfort. Damper rates stay effectively the same, but the Cayman has thicker antiroll bars. Eighteen-inch wheels will be shod with 235/40YR-18 front and 265/40YR-18 rear performance tires on the standard S. The Cayman in these photos wore Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s, but Porsche plans to use two or three different tire suppliers.

The 3.4-liter version of Porsche’s M96 flat-six engine family from the Boxster and the 911 does duty here and is tweaked to deliver 295 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque, versus the 280 hp and 236 lb-ft in the Boxster S’s 3.2-liter engine. (And versus the 325 hp in the 3.6-liter base 911 Carrera.) It propels the Cayman S from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 171 mph. Porsche’s famed test driver and former World Rally champ Walter Rhrl gets the Cayman S around the Nrburgring’s Nordschleife track in eight minutes, eleven seconds, which is four seconds faster than a published time for the base 911 Carrera, again with Rhrl driving.

All of the Boxster’s chassis systems, which themselves are largely shared with the 911, have, of course, migrated to the Cayman S, including PASM, which is an option, and Porsche Stability Management (PSM), which is standard. The Cayman also will be offered with the Sport Chrono package and its nifty lap-time counter built into the dash. Without PASM, Rhrl’s trip around the ‘Ring would be three seconds slower. The ceramic brakes are another option. At 13.2 pounds each, the ceramic brake discs are exactly half as heavy as the standard cast-iron units, but that particular decrease in unsprung weight also decreases your net worth by about eight grand. In general, the Cayman’s brakes are identical to those of the Boxster, but Porsche modified the front dam to bring a bit more cooling air to the discs, and the ABS has been mildly tweaked.

The Cayman’s exterior is very clearly derived from the Boxster’s, and in fact most body panels back to the haunches are identical. Prominent round foglamps distinguish coupe from roadster in the front profile, and the Cayman side view–not its prettiest angle, we feel–is notable for the domelike steel roof and the unique side air intakes. The rear quarter-windows are the same shape as the 911’s but are turned on end. When you move to the rear, there is no mistaking the Cayman for a Boxster, a 911, or anything else on the road. The rapidly sloping hatch dives deeply between the rising hip lines of the rear wheel arches in obvious homage to the 550 Spyder of James Dean fame. At the trailing edge of the hatch lid, just below the “Cayman S” script, a subtle rear wing is ready to deploy once the car reaches 75 mph.

The lightweight hatch lid rises easily to expose a trunk that is similar in size, depth, and shape to that of the Boxster. An aluminum scuff plate covers the transition area from the trunk up to a cargo shelf over the engine compartment. Two narrow but deep lidded storage bins flank the shelf, which probably could hold an attach case under its net but not much more, since the rear glass closes in quickly here. There’s a lot of floor space, but much of it is marginally useful. Fortunately, the Box-ster’s deep front trunk carries over intact. From the driver’s seat, the Cayman is pure Boxster–except that the instrument faces are gray, not white or black, and the cargo shelf is right behind your head. This is not the place to stash a carton of eggs for the trip home from the supermarket.

But here at the track, we aren’t hauling groceries. Gerhard Rinke, the vehicle dynamics team leader for the new , takes us out for ten laps, before it’s our turn to drive. First impressions are that the Cayman is as snug-fitting for the driver as it was for the passenger and that the mid-mounted engine makes life hard for the air-conditioning; the cabin serves up rump roast over frozen heart as a summer dish.

Dynamically, though, the Swabian reptile is sensational, impressing most with the fluidity of its motions. On the road, you might play with the Sport button to fine-tune the ride, but on the track, PASM automatically selects the tautest suspension setting. As long as you drive it neatly, this car almost never sheds its composure. A ragged side to its behavior appears only when you start to overdrive it by braking too late, missing turn-in points, and stepping on the gas too early, which leads to initial understeer, impromptu oversteer, and noticeable tire wear. As long as you don’t mess up your inputs, however, the Cayman S will reward you with intuitive responses. The steering simply transfers the blacktop into the palms of your hands in a quick and unambiguous, responsive and progressive, well- damped and yet totally unfiltered manner.

The beefed-up chassis is a more focused and even more congenial partner than before, but it is difficult to assess how much of this is because of the new Michelin tires, which combine sensational grip with commendably communicative behavior at the limit. Lapping Bari at near-race speeds is like dancing with Margot Fonteyn, playing a piano duet with Vladimir Horowitz, or teaming up with Roger Federer for tennis doubles. It’s that good.

Our baby croc is fitted with the Sport Chrono package, which, at the push of a button, speeds up the throttle response, replaces the soft rev cut-out with a hard one, stiffens the damping (with PASM), and lowers the stability system’s angst. Hitting the button is a bit like dressing up for Friday night, so prepare for more expressive manners and a louder appearance. The next step beyond Chrono is to disable the PSM stability system completely, which means third-gear power oversteer–if your name is Rinke. “You can slide this car all the way to the limit at virtually any velocity,” he says with a boyish grin. In view of the grippy blacktop and the chewing-gum tires, we find that simply stomping hard on the gas pedal won’t push the tail out. You have to turn in late into a bend, unload the rear tires, and boot the right pedal to unsettle the gator’s tail, but once the fat Michelins let go, you can drift from dusk to dawn.

As with every serious sports car, the Cayman‘s essence is timing, rhythm, and coordination. After twenty laps, we’re still learning the track–adjusting lines, modifying ap-proaches, braking later, and hitting the gas earlier. The Porsche is playing along, initially like a tool, then like an instrument, and eventually like a partner, always ready to complement and cooperate. The tin-roof Boxster makes us feel heroic, and it doesn’t stop play until its tires look like those on the back of Fernando Alonso’s Renault at the Monaco Grand Prix.

The new Porsche is actually everything the 911 has not been for most of its career: confidence-inspiring, super-stable, totally balanced, quite forgiving, a gifted storyteller that is equally good at listening. Although there is almost no rubber left when rain starts to fall just before sunset, the ceramic brakes are still reassuringly powerful and ready for the next hundred laps. On the road, PCCB may be an expensive luxury, but pedal feel that never varies is a highly comforting commodity on the track. We also discovered that the Cayman sounds great, and the performance feels as if Porsche’s claims may be conservative.

The Cayman confirms the theory that the Boxster platform is an all-time masterpiece. The coupe certainly feels more solid than a Boxster, like a jigsaw composed from fewer parts, and it is more balanced than the 911. It is also less of a challenge to drive hard than the rear-engined supercar, so you can see why Porsche chairman Wendelin Wiedeking doesn’t want to give it any more power.

What Porsche will do to the Cayman is add a more affordable 250-hp version in 2007. We think Porsche should conceive a stripped Clubsport edition equipped with a high-performance engine, because it’s patently obvious that this car could easily cope with an extra 100 hp. After a visit to the power doctor, the mid-engined Porsche would be so good that Ferrari would need a truly stellar Dino–its rumored entry-level model–to strike back.

Porsche is positioning the Cayman S as a sort of premium Boxster, a strategy underscored by the entry price of $59,695. On sale in January, the Cayman S will attempt to defy the generally accepted wisdom that ragtop cars should cost more than their hardtop brethren. Given Porsche’s recent history in defying generally accepted wisdom–the success of the Cayenne comes to mind–the Cayman S doesn’t seem like much of a risk, especially since it is such a seriously quick all- arounder and track day hero.

Base price: $59,695
Engine: 3.4 L H-6, 295hp, 255 lb-ft
Drive: Rear-wheel
0-60 mph: 5.1 sec (est.)
0-100 mph: 12.0 sec (est.)
1/4-mile: 13.7 sec @ 105 mph (est.)
Top speed: 171 mph