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Car reviews - Porsche - Cayman - coupe range

Our Opinion

We like
Engine performance and sound, PDK gearbox, handling, ride quality, sharp steering, styling, touch-screen control panel, relatively good value
Room for improvement
Road and wind noise, tight footwell with manual gearbox, PDK steering wheel paddles, tricky cruise control

17 Mar 2009

NOW with the straightline performance closing on the Carrera, and with arguably even better handling while offering a superior ride, there is a reasonable argument for the mid-engined Cayman to be ranked alongside the rear-engined 911 in the serious sportscar stakes.

That may rankle with Porsche traditionalists who regard with suspicion anything without an engine hanging out the back, but there is no denying the ability and desirability of Porsche’s ‘Boxster with a roof’.

At the risk of offending those traditionalists even further, one could even argue that the Cayman looks sleeker with its well-formed lines and lithe rather than pumped fenders, but that’s entirely subjective. There’s no denying that the Cayman is a fine looking coupe.

The notoriously lazy Porsche designers (to quote Jeremy Clarkson) have largely left the Cayman’s styling alone for this mid-life facelift, limiting their contribution to the air intakes and some front and rear lighting treatment.

Not that it matters because, not only does the Cayman still look great, but the improvements made to the drivetrain are so significant that the so-called 987-series Gen II is particularly noteworthy anyway. After all, it is not often that Porsche introduces all-new engines to a model series.

We’ve seen the basic engine architecture before with last year’s upgrade of the 997-series 911 range and the performance and economy gains follow through to Cayman (and Boxster), with 0-100km/h acceleration coming down from about 6.1 seconds to 5.8 seconds (or 5.7 with the PDK transmission).

Fuel consumption is also much better than before, coming down from 9.3 to 9.2L/100km while the figure when fitted with the PDK transmission comes down to an even more impressive 8.9L/100km, thanks to the more efficient shifting and the fact that both sixth and seventh gears are overdrive.

The new 195kW/300Nm 2.9-litre Cayman flat-six engine not only produces 8.3 per cent more power and 9.9 per cent more torque than the superseded 2.7-litre, but now has more power than the equivalent base model Boxster to further differentiate the coupe from its convertible sibling.

It consequently feels more potent than the previous model and has an edge over the Boxster, delivering the performance with a pleasing growl in the top half of the rev range and a notable bark as you reach the redline and grab another cog.

Gearchanges are particularly pleasing with the seven-speed PDK, which reacts quickly as an auto and to instructions from the driver when being used in manual mode, though we did not like the operation, design and location of the steering wheel paddles. They look sleek enough, but were never comfortable to use on our 600km launch drive.

The gear paddles also raised again the issue of what is best – forward or back for downchanges. Porsche goes for forward and consequently puts the downshift paddle on the front of the steering wheel so you are pushing forward, but it never felt right.

For what it’s worth, I will repeat my personal view that the Mercedes solution is best – changing side-to-side instead, so that downchanges are instinctively made with a flick to the left, just as you do going through a manual gate. It seems so simple and logical. For steering wheel paddles, have downshifts on the left and upshifts on the right to match the centre lever.

The other solution is to leave the PDK in auto mode, which is so intuitive that it is usually in the right gear anyway, even changing down for sweepers as soon as it feels some g-force. As an auto, it is excellent and a big improvement on the old Tiptronic transmission.

For even faster shifts, you can fork out an extra $2980 you can opt for the Sport Chrono Package Plus, which provides faster response and changes as well as a race-style launch function for race starts or showing off to your friends. It slices two-tenths of a second from the 0-100km/h times.

We didn’t get to try the Sport Chrono feature on our drive program, but our experience overseas on the Cayman S suggests it snaps the changes sharply and is therefore not so comfortable for road use, where the regular PDK works so well.

Our experience of the six-speed manual gearbox in the Boxster sibling revealed light and precise changes, with a light clutch that makes urban living bearable, but with enthusiastic driving we sometimes overshot the gate going from fourth or fifth directly into second and found ourselves going nowhere in the reverse gear gate. No doubt familiarity would assist.

Having three peddles and a footrest in the tight footwell also resulted in catching the throttle under emergency braking with the manual, which could be a problem if you forget to engage the clutch.

Frankly, we would choose the PDK, which is pricey at $5500 but still much cheaper than similar rival units, and only $600 more expensive that the inferior Tiptronic S auto option.

In terms of engine power, the relatively modest increase in outputs (considering the capacity increase) suggests that Porsche has plenty in reserve for future models, but if you want more power straight away then the Cayman S is the answer, with 235kW and 370Nm from its direct injection 3.4-litre unit.

Although we also did not get to drive the S on the launch, the official figures show what a difference this extra grunt makes, reducing 0-100km/h acceleration times by six-tenths of a second.

The Cayman interior has changed little, but features Porsche’s latest touch-screen infotainment control panel, which includes a hard-drive satellite-navigation system as standard for the first time as well as full iPod connectivity, which is always welcome.

Interior comfort is excellent, with a good driving position easy to find and seats that are both supportive and comfortable, although we suffered from left knee numbness from inevitably resting it against the centre console, particularly with enthusiastic driving on winding roads.

Those same roads revealed how much grip the Cayman possesses and how hard you can tip it into a corner or power out without upsetting the innate balance of the car, while the steering was always direct and well-weighted.

We did not venture into the car’s limits because they are simply too high to do so on public roads, but no less an authority than former world rally champion Walter Rohrl, who is a Porsche test driver, reckons the Cayman handles even better than the 911. We’re not about to argue with one of the greatest drivers ever.

Such brilliant handling might be expected from a mid-engined Porsche, but what really surprised us was the compliancy of the ride, which made extended driving and highway cruising a pleasure. It’s all very well having racecar-like handling and even performance, but you have to live with a car every day and the Cayman certainly accommodates.

Although the tyres obviously contribute to the excellent handling, they also provide a fair bit of noise inside the cabin. Combined with more wind noise than you would expect, the Cayman interior is not the quietest place to be – best to drown it out with the wonderful engine note.

Our only other criticism is the cruise control, which was hard to fine-tune (very important in low-tolerance Victoria) and did not have a digital read-out.

We were impressed with the luggage capacity for a sports car, with the front consuming a couple of sizeable travel bags and the mid-engined layout (and lack of a spare wheel) providing more space in the back, whereas rear-engined 911 models get a minimal rear seat instead.

With prices starting at $122,200 – about $100,000 less than the 911 Carrera – the solid-feeling Cayman represents excellent value for anyone wanting a quality Porsche sports car, though you might want to steer clear of the extensive (and expensive) options list. We’d still go for the PDK but would otherwise be happy to have the standard car sitting in our driveway.

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