By Mike Daly
There’s always been something a little magical about Porsche’s midengine cars. From the Fifties-era 550 Spyder that was to die for (literally—the roadster was the last ride of king of cool James Dean) to the streamlined 904 coupe of the following decade, the racing midengine Porsches were rarer and better designed for pure speed than the standard production 356s and Carreras. Their exterior form also managed to improve on the superlative road cars…which is precisely why the automotive world was so enraptured with the debut of the Boxter some 14 years ago, and again when the hardtop Cayman was unveiled in 2005. For motorsports fans who think those models didn’t go far enough in adopting the race-based ethos of the 550 or the 904, Porsche has now delivered the Cayman R.
Unveiled at last November’s Los Angeles Auto Show, the new Cayman R stresses performance above all else, focusing on reduced weight and increased power. The car certainly looks the part, especially finished in Peridot Metallic, Porsche’s signature neon green. In addition to the flashy paint and classic Porsche lettering that adorns the doors, the Cayman R features snazzy black-framed bi-xenon headlamps and a fixed rear spoiler. The spoiler, in combination with a ride height that is almost a full inch lower than the Cayman S, gives the R a passing resemblance to the supercar Carrera GT (an always-flattering comparison) and improves performance with increased downforce and reduced aerodynamic drag.
The R continues to use the 3.4-liter flat-six engine found in the Cayman S, but it’s tuned for an additional 10 horses, for a total of 330 horsepower. With 121 pounds shaved from the S’s girth, this increased power is good for 4.4-second launches from 0–60 mph when the car is optioned with the seven-speed PDK dual-clutch paddle-shift transmission. Traditionalists take heart: the R is also available with a six-speed manual that is actually 100 pounds lighter than the PDK, although Porsche is confident that the shifts aren’t quite as fast. Top speed is a nonlimited 174 mph.
As weekend racers well know, when cutting weight from a car for the sake of speed, comfort features are usually the first to be eliminated, and the Cayman R is no exception. Under the assumption that this car will be enjoyed on track days, the R comes standard without radio or air conditioning. Those features can be optioned, mind you, but at the risk of motorsports sacrilege (frankly, one doesn’t buy a car like this to listen to the radio). Weight is further reduced with the use of aluminum in the door panels, as well as interior substitutions such as nonreclining carbon-fiber sport seats and pull-strap door openers that are made of the same red material as the seatbelts, for a hot-blooded look that screams speed over sumptuousness.
From a driving perspective, there is no arguing with the results. The Cayman R feels like a go-kart on steroids, wonderfully tractable and prepared to pounce, compared to the gargantuan dimensions and bloated curb weight of more stratospherically priced “supercars.” Steering is remarkably precise, with a rewarding tightrope feel that responds to minimal input. Function layout is intuitive, with separate buttons for Sport and Sport Plus mode, each of which relatively ratchets up the PDK’s gear mapping and exhaust note. Thankfully, there are no vaguely marked buttons that perform five different functions here; like the car itself, the interface is delightfully minimal. A Sports Exhaust button allows the driver to open baffles that result in a throatier and louder exhaust note from the R’s unique dual-pipe set-up.
Though some Porsche enthusiasts will take issue with the PDK transmission, claiming that the gear changes are at times counterintuitive or a tad slow, there is much flexibility built into the system, which can be paddle-actuated during any of the driving modes: Standard, Sport, or Sport Plus. Only Sport Plus, however, leaves computer intervention to the barest minimum, allowing the driver to rev at higher rpms for extended stretches if preferred. The PDK offers the added bonus of Launch Control, a blast-off exercise in which the driver holds down both brake and gas until instructed by a cue from the car to release the brake for a screeching burnout.
In truth, the Cayman R is comfortable enough to be an around-town car if one can get used to the process of getting in and out of the low-seated ride. And those that undergo that task will be rewarded with pining gazes from old and young who recognize that there is something very special about this Porsche. Drivers who truly understand the R’s design brief as a track car will stick with the radio and A/C deletions, opt for the ceramic brakes, and take advantage of the car’s limited-slip differential and lack of Active Suspension Management (both good things for fast laps). With the addition of the Sport Chrono package, day racers can even clock their times with an elegant onboard stopwatch that beautifully crowns the dash panel. Considering that 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the film Le Mans, in which Steve McQueen piloted the legendary 917, as well as Porsche’s recent announcement that it is returning to Le Mans competition, the Cayman R is a well-timed upgrade that not only heralds the arrival of one of the marque’s purest performers but also evokes Porsche’s peerless motorsports legacy.
MSRP: Base, $66,300; as tested: $78,150