Muscle and fine manners from Stuttgart
Engine: 3.4 litres, six cylinders
Power: 325bhp @7400rpm
Torque: 273lb ft @4500-5800rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Top Speed: 175mph
Living in the Wye Valley I am blessed with an abundance of great roads within three minutes of my front door. So long as you travel outside obviously busy times, you can plot a course to practically anywhere on roads that’ll satisfy your hunger for driving and, in the meantime, reveal any faults that might lie within a car’s dynamic characteristics. Which is handy when you earn your living as I do.
But there’s one road I hardly ever use. It’s not that it’s far away, dull or always choked with traffic. On the contrary I can be there in 10 minutes, it’s always deserted and if there’s a better stretch of Tarmac in this part of the world I’ve not yet found it in 18 years of looking. The problem is that it’s lethal. It has all the usual challenges such as tightening radii, camber and surfaces changes and none is the least problematic when you know where they are. The real hazards are the impossibly high hedgerows and murderously concealed side turnings from roads and, critically, fields. Around any corner you have to accept you could find a tractor doing 15mph or a trail of mud and cow pats leading from a field gate right to the point you’re minded to reapply the power.
In my more honest moments I’ll admit I’m actually quite scared of this road. It doesn’t go anywhere I can’t reach more quickly by another route, so the only point of going there is to drive and I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Put it this way, if the next time I visited I discovered a radar-enforced 40mph limit along its length, a small part of me would actually be quite relieved.
Every so often, a car turns up that does little less than demand you take it to this road. This will be a car that’s so much fun that wherever you drive it, and however much pleasure it provides, you know you’ve not derived maximum enjoyment until you’ve driven it on the best road you know.
So recently I went there in the new Porsche Cayman. It wasn’t an automatic reflex. It had been so long since I’d visited the road it didn’t even occur to me at first. Instead I set off on my usual 100-mile test route over to the mountains and back to find out more about Porsche’s newest product.
The Cayman is, of course, a rebodied, coupe version of the Boxster, equipped with more powerful engines and a more rigid body structure. As the Boxster is the cheapest and, at least until now, quite the best Porsche you can buy, it’s fair to say the omens were good. Cleverly Porsche delivered a car in `S’ specification with three pedals and dark grey metallic paint — precisely what I’d choose were Tin the market for one.
It’s the first really good-looking Cayman, too. For far too many years Porsche has struggled with design as much as it has excelled with its engineering. Among recent signs of improvement, though, the Cayman is substantially the strongest. I like its silhouette and more muscular lines, even if some of the detailing, like the rear wing and badging, are needlessly fussy.
At first it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Its ride was firmer than anticipated and almost harsh over some broken surfaces, which the council still hasn’t repaired 18 months after they appeared. And it didn’t seem to steer as sweetly as earlier Caymans I’ve driven. This is the first of the breed to abandon hydraulic steering in favour of an electric arrangement and, as it has in every other Porsche so affected, it shows. There’s no lack of accuracy and the gearing is perfect, but that background chatter through the rim — something that kept you company on every journey, however fast you were driving — is gone. The feel is there but you have to up the tempo to find it. It is almost as if Porsche has programmed two strategies into its steering software: one for just tooling about and another for pressing on, where feedback through the wheel needs to be synthesised.
But there was plenty else to enjoy here. The 3.4-litre engine is one of Porsche’s best recent efforts, spreading its 325bhp over such a wide area that you’d neither be slowed nor inconvenienced if you were jammed in third gear. From less than 3000rpm to more than 8000, the flat six hauls and howls its way around the clock. But you’d miss that gearchange. This is Porsche’s old six-speed manual transmission and unrelated to the seven-speed unit fitted to manual 911s. It is blessed with a quick shift and wonderfully mechanical feel that make it superior in every way (including its number of ratios, six being more than enough for my small brain).
Up in the mountains I found a car of such capabilities I was aware of strange gasps and snorts that, in the absence of anyone else on board, must have been coming from me. Here was a car providing a level of response and poise you’d expect only to find in a highly specialised, dedicated performance machine and not in a civilised, comfortable everyday transport like this. I don’t know what kind of Porsche you’d need to get away from it, but in the current absence of any Turbo or GT3-variant 911 I am quite certain that, around a lap, this is the quickest Porsche currently on sale, not least because no other can touch the confidence it inspires.
Which, in the end, is what made me modify my return journey to include the road. Illusory or otherwise, the Cayman had convinced me that, so long as I drove while leaving that margin for error required on any public road, it would be able to cope with anything we discovered along its length. And so it proved. That day and on that road, the Cayman proved that when it comes to chassis tuning, no other mainstream manufacturer is presently in the same postcode as Porsche. It flattened the crests, breathed across the dips and, when a Peugeot stuck its nose a little too far out a concealed side turning, it shrugged off the speed like you might flick away a fly. The driver saw the Cayman and stopped, but even if he’d pulled out the Porsche had sufficient reserves to cope.
I have a chum who used to own a second-generation 911 GT3. Last week he borrowed a Cayman S from his dealer for the day, came back and ordered his own in exactly the same specification as the car I drove. His dealer told him he was the fourth former GT3 owner so to do.
And all I can say, as a man who still ranks the most recent GT3 as the greatest road-going Porsche of the last 40 years, is that I’m not in the slightest bit surprised.