The Porsche Mid-Engine Mash-Up at Laguna Seca
"Mid-engine and Porsche go hand-in-hand." We look up from our notebook and look around the fire pit outside of the Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, California, to see who said that. No one is laughing. Racing drivers Hurley Haywood and David Donohue are standing just five feet away and they're not laughing. Well, it must be true then. For all the more than 60 years of rear-engine cars like the Porsche 911, cars with engines mounted behind the driver but in front of the rear axle have fascinated Porsche.
Old man Ferdinand's Auto Union racing cars of the 1930s had a mid-engine layout. The first prototypes for the Porsche 356 built after WWII had a mid-mounted engine, but then the 356 was built instead on the rear-engine platform of the Volkswagen Beetle. Then came mid-engine, street-legal racing cars like the Porsche 550 Spyder and 904 Carrera GTS; the former most famous for claiming the life of actor James Dean in 1955 and the latter as a car raced in the early 1960s with great success by drivers like Ben Pon, the builder of Bernardus Lodge. Then all those mid-engine racing cars that raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, from the Porsche 917 in 1969 to the Porsche 919 Hybrid in 2014.
And that's why we're here, cozied up near a fire here at the Lodge, eight miles from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. In the morning, we'll drive the track in the complete lineups of Porsche's mid-engine sports cars, the Boxster and the Cayman. And then we'll do a couple of laps in Porsche's most impressive mid-engine road car ever, the 918 Spyder.
2013 Porsche Boxster and 2014 Porsche Cayman
Walking into pit lane at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is a bit nerve-wracking, so we're happy to see a familiar face. Sitting with its door open is a 2013 Porsche Boxster in Racing Yellow. Last spring, we drove from Indio, California, to Los Angeles, via the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway in this exact Boxster. We get in and happily notice that the brake pedal is much firmer than we'd left it. Getting reacquainted takes no time, although we foolishly reach for an ignition switch on the right side of the steering column.
On the 2.2-mile track, the Porsche Boxster S and Porsche Boxster GTS in front of us pull away on the straights; the Boxster S has 50 hp more than our base model car, while the new Boxster GTS has 65 hp more. We brake later than both going into Turn Five and get back on their rear bumpers. The Boxster S's seven-speed, dual-clutch PDK automatic transmission fires off wickedly quick downshifts, and the Boxster GTS's six-speed manual with a rev-matching downshift feature also makes its driver look good. Our base Porsche Boxster gets two, clean heel-and-toe downshifts; no robots here, we think. Getting on the throttle pedal a fraction before the other two drivers keeps our Boxster on the tail of the cars in front of us, but then the Boxster S and Boxster GTS use their power to creep away as we climb the big hill that leads to the Corkscrew.
Our experience in the base-model Porsche Cayman is very similar to our experience in the base Boxster -- a slower drive on the stopwatch yet just as satisfying as its more powerful siblings when it comes to the seat of your pants. That is, it's just as satisfying until we get back into the pits and look at the Monroney stickers for both these base-model cars. The as-tested price for this fully optioned 2013 Porsche Boxster is over $66,000, and the as-tested price for the equally fully featured 2014 Porsche Cayman is over $70,000. Tick too many option boxes on the order form and the price advantage for these entry-level Porsches seems to disappear.
2013 Porsche Boxster S and 2014 Porsche Cayman S
Someone from Porsche sheepishly admits to us, "Honestly, I think I like this Boxster S better than the Boxster GTS." Yeah, you probably shouldn't say that too loudly. We prefer the look of this 2013 Porsche Boxster S in GT Silver with 20-inch Carrera wheels to the other Boxsters here, that's for sure. Equipped with a PDK, the Boxster S should get to 60 mph from a standstill in 4.5 seconds, a full second faster than the base model Boxster. Of course, zero-to-60 times don't seem to matter once we're back on the track and sandwiched between the base Boxster and the Boxster GTS.
The Boxster S feels a bit faster than the base car, but the driving experience isn't noticeably different. Until we brake. The $7400 carbon-ceramic brakes sure do bite harder than the standard brakes, don't they? And then there's this seven-speed PDK transmission, which is one of the best automatic transmissions we've ever experienced. Its shifts are snap-fast without being violent, and you don't lose the driver-car connection with the PDK as you do in a majority of cars crippled by an automatic (oh, did we say that?).
Some 70 percent of Boxster and Cayman owners opt for the PDK, and we see why. The 2014 Porsche Cayman S here today also has a PDK transmission, although the thing we really notice is that it needs a lot more force on the brake pedal than the Boxster S, since it has the standard brakes instead of the pricey carbon-ceramics. This Cayman S also feels a bit looser going into corners and a lot faster on exit compared to the Boxster S, but we chock this up to our growing confidence after several laps around this track with its challenging elevation changes and long, fast corners.
GTS is a new trim level for the Porsche Boxster and Porsche Cayman, and it represents a racier, more intense state of tune. The designation recalls for us the Porsche 904 GTS that Ben Pon used to race, a car that you can see all over the Internet in the glorious orange paint that was the signature of its Dutch driver.
The 330-hp, 2015 Porsche Boxster GTS and the 340-hp, 2015 Porsche Cayman GTS are far from the 204-hp Boxster that debuted in 1997 and the 245-hp Cayman that debuted in 2006. Both GTS cars are aesthetically imposing. Their unique front fascias and blacked-out headlights, wheels, tailpipes, and body bits give them a devilish look.
We get into the 2015 Porsche Boxster GTS and put the car in Sport mode, which engages the rev-matching downshift feature of the six-speed manual transmissions. Now at the front of the three-car pack, we quickly put a bit of distance between us and the other Boxsters. The GTS's 65-hp advantage is apparent, since we don't see the yellow, base-model Boxster in our rearview mirror during a single lap.
Climbing into the 2015 Porsche Cayman GTS, we fall in love with its perfectly contoured sports seat that squeezes us oh so gently. (This is a Euro-only option for the time being.) We put the Cayman in Sport Plus mode, which nixes the rev-matching feature and selects a racier chassis calibration that allows the car to get a little looser in the corners. We've done over 20 laps altogether, so our heel-and-toe game is on point and we're going to wring out this GTS as best we can, going harder than we have all day. The Cayman GTS and its drop-top twin feel purpose-built for Laguna Seca, track-ready cars that help you learn to be a better driver.
The 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder
All six of the Boxster and Cayman variants that we have driven today scurry out of the pits as two Porsche 918 Spyders roll up silently in full EV mode. There's a bit of a moment as everyone stands still and gawks, jaws fully dropped. The engineering of this ultramodern car is absolutely unreal: a monocoque built from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic; a racing-type weight distribution of 43 percent front/57 percent rear; rear tires that are each over a foot wide; a plug-in hybrid powertrain with electric motors on each axle that delivers 19 miles of range in full-electric mode; a seven-speed PDK transmission; and a 4.6-liter V-8 engine that revs to 9150 rpm and makes 608 hp.
We reach our right leg over the 918's wide, wide doorsill of carbon-fiber and fall into a super-low driver's seat that's almost as comfortable as the chair in the Cayman GTS. We turn the 918's ignition key (on the left, we now remember), then put our left hand on the Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel (it has a lime-green "this- way-is-straight-ahead" stripe at top center), and flick the toggle switch that puts the PDK transmission into Drive. We ease on the accelerator pedal and the 918 quickly jolts out of the pits. We press harder on the pedal, feel the kick-down point and then the V-8 engine gruffly starts up.
As the first few corners come up, we don't even brake as the car feels unimpressed by our wimpy warm-up speed. Finally we flatfoot it and the 918 sprints down a straightaway. A corner comes up, so now we definitely have to brake. Only we don't remember that the brake pedal not only engages brakes that have gigantic, 16-inch front rotors pinched by six-piston calipers but also sends the electric motors spinning backwards to send regenerated electric power into the Porsche's battery pack. We almost come to a stop on the track.
The first of just two laps is over before we know it. "Easy" doesn't begin to describe how effortlessly the Porsche 918 Spyder goes around the course. "All right," we think, "Last chance to push this thing." So we're flat on the accelerator pedal going down the front straight and up the hill to Turn One and catch the Porsche 911 Turbo S in front of us. Since Hurley Haywood is driving the Turbo S, we feel pretty good. Later in the lap, we get the 918 to drift a bit in a long lefthander, and we feel great about this.
The 2015 918 Spyder, only now with David Donohue
So the day at the track with Porsche is over. All of the tables are being folded up, all of the Porsche reps are taking deep breaths of relief, and all the journalists are sitting around tweeting. Everyone has checked out. Everyone except for racer David Donohue, who, wearing a white dress shirt and Hugo Boss shoes, is about to do some hot laps in the Porsche 918 Spyder. And no one is riding shotgun.
We quickly ask if we can ride along. A quick nod from him, we sprint to the table where the helmets have been left, and then we're in the passenger seat when Donohue tears out of the pits at what has to be 100 mph.
What did we say about our performance? Pretty great? Yeah, forget that. Donohue blends onto the track in the 918 at a higher speed than we hit on Laguna's front straight. We're humbled. Then we're excited. Donohue is sliding this hypercar through every corner and braking much later than the track's markers suggest. Then we're scared. How is this guy making this car do this? It seems impossible—this speed, this grip. We've never been scared on a racetrack until now, and our fear peaks when all four of the 918's tires leave the ground.
Donohue keeps flying around the track and we start laughing. After an entire day spent lapping Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, we can't help but laugh. The Porsche 918's V-8 screams behind us, Donohue sets up for the Corkscrew, and we think, "Damn, that dude during the meeting was so right. Mid-engine and Porsche do go hand-in-hand."