THE Porsche Cayman, the poor man’s 911, gets a new role as the performance brand's entry-level sports car via a flat-four heart transplant and a personality all of its own.
WHAT IS IT?
The mid-life update for Porsche’s 981 Cayman, though this is far more than your average facelift. Almost every panel is new, the interior and suspension have been extensively altered, and mounted just behind the occupants’ heads sits an all-new, smaller capacity turbocharged flat four, replacing Porsche’s revered naturally aspirated flat six.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
Because we love horizontally opposed engines, and because we refuse to believe that Porsche has completely stuffed the Cayman (and its 718 Boxster sibling) by dropping two pots and adding a huffer.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
No, it isn’t a flat six. And no, it doesn’t wail like the old sixes used to. But the upside of dropping two pots is the Cayman has discovered a rambunctious character all its own, at least in the (optional) sports exhaust/sports chrono cars we tested at launch. There’s a touch of lag at low revs, but with the engine in sport mode and the exhaust button activated, even the base Cayman PDK is deliciously driveable, incredibly quick and dynamically superlative. That the turbo flat-four becomes increasingly addictive the more time you spend with it seals the deal. We’re in love.
PLUS: Ballsy, bassy new flat-four gives Cayman a whole new personality; warmer, cleaner interior; more fluent dynamics.
MINUS: Some turbo lag below 2000rpm; brilliant PDK makes it even harder to argue a case for the still-wonderful manual
THE WHEELS REVIEW
DESPITE being a generally pretty incredible piece of kit since it emerged from Zuffenhausen’s womb back in 2005, there’s always been something holding back the Porsche Cayman. Unable to out-power and out-rank its revered big brother, and physically incapable of matching the mystique of Porsche’s magnificent rear-engined legend, the mid-engined Cayman has always been a poor man’s Porsche 911.
But not anymore. Its reinvention as Porsche’s entry-level sports car, controversially boasting all-new turbocharged flat-four engines, has effectively set the 718 Cayman free. It’s gone through a mid-life crisis and come out the other side looking fitter, feeling fresher, and proving it still knows how to have a rollicking good time, all while sounding completely unlike a 911.
Some are going to find that hard to swallow. Porsche’s textbook exponential rise in power and thrust, backed by a hard-edged, almost aggressive wail as the previous six soared towards 7500rpm isn’t really replicated in the new turbo flat-four. But to its credit, the new engine still revs to 7500rpm, it still keeps piling on the kilowatts the harder you push it, and it still makes a terrific noise. It’s just that it no longer sounds textbook Porsche. Unless, of course, you’re familiar with the Stuttgart firm’s rich flat-four heritage dating from 1948 right through until 1969 (the end of Porsche’s own flat four in the 912), and continuing through to 1976 (with a VW Type 4 flat-four in the 914 and US-only 912E).
Offered in two capacities – a 1988cc version in the base 718 Cayman and a 2497cc version in the Cayman S – the new flat-four was developed simultaneously with Porsche’s all-new turbocharged flat-six that recently made its debut in the 911 Carrera. The base Cayman engine shares its bore and stroke with the 911’s 3.0-litre boosted flat-six, while the S gains its larger capacity via a fat 102mm bore. The larger donk also gets a touch of the exotic courtesy of a variable-vane turbocharger (or Variable Turbine Geometry – VTG – in Porsche-speak), just like the flagship 911 Turbo.
As you’d expect in 2016, the result is sizeable gains in power and torque, as well as significant reductions in fuel use. The baby 2.0-litre produces an effortless 220kW at 6500rpm and a chubby 380Nm from 1950-4500rpm, while the 2.5-litre S cranks those outputs to 257kW and 420Nm at virtually the same rev points (max torque starting at 1900rpm).
Tied to carry-over six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions, the slowest Cayman you can buy (a stock 718 manual) now does 0-100km/h in a claimed 5.1sec. A sports chrono-equipped S PDK (with launch control) trims that to just 4.2sec. Don’t be fooled by its lesser cylinder count; the flat-four Cayman is a bolter.
Every car at the 718 Cayman launch in Sweden featured both the sports chrono package ($3990 to $4990, depending on transmission), a sports exhaust system ($4330), PASM suspension (adaptive dampers in Porsche-speak, plus a 10mm lower ride height for $2710) and 20-inch wheels ($4840 extra over the base Cayman’s standard 18s), as per the white Cayman PDK you see here. Our Miami Blue Cayman S manual, on the other hand, featured PASM sport chassis (a first for Cayman), which drops the car a further 10mm and completely retunes the entire set-up for sharper response and tighter control (for another $3030).
Not that the base Cayman really needs improvement. With a 10-percent more direct steering rack (from the 911 Turbo), higher spring and anti-roll-bar rates, additional rebound buffer springs in the front axle, a stiffer rear axle and half-inch wider rear wheels, Porsche claims the 718 offers reduced front axle lift, less roll, improved rebound control, increased lateral grip and significantly higher cornering stability. What that means in plain English is an almost supernatural ability to deal with the greater demands of so much extra low-end torque when putting power down, and sweeter dynamic behaviour in all conditions.
The outcome is a more fluid, nuanced handler with a more natural transition onto its outside rear wheel when cornering and a good dose of extra polish. Wearing Pirelli P Zero N1 tyres (235/35ZR20 front; 265/35ZR20 rear), the boggo Cayman PDK definitely has more purchase than the car it replaces, yet there’s a supple confidence to its roadholding that removes some of the on-limit skatiness evident in the old car.
And the ride. While tyre noise remains ever-present on coarse surfaces, the base PASM-equipped 718 Cayman on 20-inch wheels is yet another example of Porsche’s ability to combine sports car body control with liveable absorbency.
But it’s the all-new engine that steals the show. With the steering wheel’s drive-mode dial set to "Sport" and the exhaust button engaged, the Cayman PDK manages to choose exactly the right gear for any given situation, and backs that up with a ballsy, bassy, throbby backing track that sounds slightly manufactured on first acquaintance, but really grows on you the more time you spend with it.
Simply by virtue of being a flat four, there’s a hint of Subaru WRX STi and Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ in the 718 Cayman’s acoustic repertoire, but anyone who says it sounds just like them is talking bollocks. The four-pot Porsche creams both Japanese upstarts for quality and volume of noise, and it has such a wonderfully rambunctious and unique personality; not once did I think about either of those cars while driving the 718. A heavily modified air-cooled Volkswagen, maybe, but even then, that’s hardly unflattering. It’s a lineage that pays homage to Porsche’s boxer-four roots.
Thinking no union could surpass the 2.0-litre dual-clutch’s driveability excellence, the 2.5-litre manual adds another level of naughtiness. Sport modes primed, the manual’s exhaust crackles every time you lift off the throttle, and when provoked on overrun, it’s bliss on a stick. It doesn’t sound anything like the old flat-six but only died-in-the-wool purists would ever shit-can the flat-four Cayman’s character. About our only criticism is some turbo lag below 2000rpm – it only really starts hauling once there’s a "two" on the tacho – which becomes even more obvious in the manual if sport chrono isn’t in either Sport or Sport+.
There’s definitely a step-up in firmness and focus if you tick the PASM sport chassis box (available on both 718 Caymans), but it isn’t really necessary unless you plan to do track days. Despite being firmer, that brilliantly judged ride quality still remains, and there’s less body roll combined with even pointier handling. But there’s a lot to be said for the base Cayman’s fluidity of movement, and greater nuance.
While the 718’s four-pot provenance is undoubtedly the main deal, the rest of the car has undergone many changes to facilitate its seamless application, including all the plumbing associated with a keeping a mid-mounted turbo engine cool. Only the 718’s roof, windscreen and luggage tailgate carry over from the previous six-cylinder 981, and there’s been a considerable lift in interior lushness, thanks to the 911’s new multimedia set-up and the 918’s fabulous steering wheel. Finally, the Cayman’s cabin matches its sticker price.
Transitioning from the world’s greatest six-cylinder engine to a boxer four more in keeping with hot-shoe Subarus was always going to be a challenge for the 718 Boxster/Cayman. Less could never ultimately equal more, yet there’s an anti-authoritarian brashness about the flat-four Cayman that suits its new station in life. It’s simultaneously younger and shoutier, yet more polished and sophisticated.
Stepping out from the 911’s shadow was never going to be easy. Others might argue but I think the 718 Cayman is all the better for it.
Model: Porsche 718 Cayman
Engine: 1988cc flat 4, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 220kW @ 6500rpm
Max torque: 380Nm @ 1950-4500rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
0-100km/h: 4.7sec (claimed)
Economy: 6.9L/100km (EU)
On sale: November
Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.
Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!