The process of getting going in a Cayman S isn’t exactly what you’d call intuitive. You have to work through a fiddly pre-launch sequence of buttons, one of which is an electronic handbrake – a step backwards in the name of progress if ever there was one. I’m sure it all becomes second nature with familiarity, but when you’re eager to try a car that has been lavished with such rave reviews it’s a bit of a passion killer. Nevertheless, added complexity aside, the new interior is an obvious leap in quality and design over the rather austere previous car.
Once on the road, and what a stunning road it is, winding its way towards the old Sudschleife, it’s immediately clear that a big development budget has been used to hone every aspect of the car to within an inch of its life. Straight-up, I’d go so far to say it’s one of the nicest cars I’ve driven. The control weights are light and consistent. The seats are comfortable and supportive. It’s a very nice place to spend time. The ride was exemplary. It had the smoothest, most supple ride I’ve ever experienced in a Porsche. It really wasn’t long ago that the Germans just didn’t get ride quality. They do now. It glides creamily over rough surfaces, allowing you to keep the throttle buried when stiffer cars would have you backing off. All-round visibility is terrific for a sports car. This is a daily useable car that asks so little of the driver but has so much to give in return – an utterly obedient servant to your every command. It’s also shot through with a sense of quality and, for want of a better word, ‘completeness’. But…
… here come the buts. The Cayman had some surprises in store and they weren’t all good.
The first one was a pronounced ‘V-TEC’ like power-step at around 5000 rpm. You don’t expect any endearing flaws in the torque curve of a Porsche flat-six, especially when the last Boxster S’s virtually identical 3.4 wrote a book entitled ‘The Linear Power Delivery’. Some emissions-based ECU tweakery going on here perhaps? Regardless, the Cayman really flies at this point and any doubts that it might not feel that quick after the Exige vanish by the time you reach 7000rpm. However, you notice something else just before the PDK fires-in the next gear. Just as things are about to get really interesting, the power starts to tail off. Not much, but enough to remind you that it’s a detuned version of the 911’s 3.4 flat-six and that this is what Porsche paid their engineers to do, for reasons only understood in the marketing department. I could go on, but let’s just say that if the new Cayman GTS’s ‘extra’ 10bhp returns the stolen top-end sharpness, it would be worth every extra penny for me.
The crux of this comparison was always going to come down to the steering. I did my level best to go into this with an open mind and was prepared, reluctantly, to admit if I liked it. Of course the Exige sets the bar incredibly high here, in my experience the only power-assisted steering on sale that doesn’t feel inadequate after an Exige, belongs to the Evora. But there are just no two ways about it – the steering in the new Cayman is as dead as a dodo. It has gone to meet its maker. It is a deceased steering system… you know the rest. But here’s the really weird thing – I still liked the way the car steers. There’s an important distinction here. The way the car responds to steering inputs is terrific, even if those inputs don’t offer any actual feedback to the driver. Weight transfer is very clean, smooth, progressive and measured. The car changes direction beautifully. But the steering wheel is as lifeless as Monty Python’s parrot. I thought there would be some steering feel but it’s a total no-show. In that regard it was worse than I had imagined but, in another, it didn’t matter as much as I thought it would. Maybe you only notice this if you’ve just clambered out of a Lotus? Maybe there’s a greasy downhill corner somewhere when this might be a tangible problem but otherwise it’s close to irrelevant for 95% of road driving. The Cayman still corners with more poise, delicacy and precision than something like an M3 or Nissan GTR and neither offers much more in terms of steering feel anyway. It proves that you don’t actually need steering feel to enjoy cornering – and those are words I never thought I’d type into my laptop. But it’s a very hollow victory. Even if it’s not essential, steering feel is still highly desirable. You don’t need High Definition to enjoy a movie either but once you’re used to it, you really miss it when it’s not there.
The other big topic for discussion is PDK. Great in the city I’m sure, but as an ultimate instrument for driving pleasure, it definitely fell short. OK, I have a strong preference for three pedals and a stick but there were some real, objective issues here too. No amount of fiddling with the buttons could find a way to make this particular Cayman shift truly manually. The computer insisted on shifting up near the redline and refused to hold a gear to the limiter. I’ll give Porsche the benefit of the doubt and assume there is a way, otherwise it would be a complete deal-breaker for me. At the end of the day, if you don’t get absolute control over gear selection, what’s the point in having a manual mode? Or paddles for that matter? It’s a bigger problem than you might think. Say you’re overtaking a lorry and trying to time your upshift just before the limiter (something the exhaust note positively encourages), if your timing’s a bit late, the computer will shift up one, you shift up another. That’ll leave you on the wrong side of the road going nowhere fast, needing another downshift to get past. Not cool. Not at all fast either. Of course the solution is very simple, just leave the car in ‘D’. I don’t know, maybe I was expecting too much from PDK, but I’m still waiting to drive an auto of any kind that didn’t feel happier – and faster – left in ‘D’. After all I had read, it was quite a disappointment that this car did nothing to challenge that.
One of the potential advantages of a DSG-box that I have to acknowledge is the ability to change up seamlessly mid-corner without upsetting the balance of the car. At low to medium revs the PDK was indeed seamless and, as near as makes no difference, instant. However, at high revs there was a pronounced lurch between gears. I really wasn’t expecting that, the Nissan GTR’s system is far smoother at full-noise. So is the Evora IPS for that matter. With mid-corner upshifts at high rpm no longer on the cards, it feels like an obvious area for improvement. The paddles themselves are short on tactile pleasure too. No click, no snick, they are just like switches. From Maplins. It’s clear that the PDK box has been set-up to work best in the middle of the rev-range, which is just what you want for 95% of road journeys. But isn’t a thoroughbred sports car supposed to be more about the 5% of special journeys? Crikey. A slick shifting manual box would save you £2000 too…. However, Porsche would get another chance to convince me about PDK. A new 991 GT3, fitted with the very latest version of PDK was waiting for me at Spa only 90 minutes away…
I don’t want to be too harsh to the Cayman because it’s an unquestionably excellent car and I really enjoyed my drive in it. But for all its seductive sense of quality and ‘completeness’, it’s a bit passive. A bit of a ‘yes man’. All Dr. Jeckyll, not enough Mr Hyde. It’s strange to like a car so much without really desiring one. It reminded me of Julie Andrews. A very talented performer, impeccable manners, sounds great, undeniably attractive but not exactly an object of lust. But the green car in front of me, the stance, all hunkered-down, aggressive negative cambers, in-your-face diffuser, unapologetic wing, that matt black rear panel… well… it’s like following Kate Beckinsale in her rubber trousers. I couldn’t help but smile as I folded myself back over the awkward sill and wriggled into the unyielding carbon buckets. The hard-as-nails attitude, the feral, rage-filled charge to the redline, immediate responses and real, living, babbling, steering feel, click-clack mechanical gearchange… it was a revelation. It was like leaving an immaculate, precise, refined evening at a Bach recital and jumping in the mosh-pit at a rock concert. Less sophisticated, sure, but a whole lot more fun. I think there may have been some actual whooping involved at one point.
So round two is a surprise but emphatic win for the Exige. To be fair to the very likeable Cayman, the road was very smooth, the decision could well be reversed down a rutted British B-road. Especially in a manual Cayman GTS. But here, on the glorious roads around the Nürburgring, I was having to work the Cayman hard to keep up with the Exige. Still trying to find a way to get it to hold gears to the redline, I wound down the window to ask Ron Simons. He simply replied: ‘Are you pushing that hard already? I’m not even trying in this.’ But maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Let’s not forget that the Exige S already offers the fantasy Cayman RS spec and a bit more. Imagine if Porsche stripped 200kg out of the Cayman and bolted in the full-fat 345bhp 911 engine? That would be quite a car. And it is. Only it’s called the Lotus Exige S.
Driving to Spa that evening I decided that the two cars are so different, they aren’t really rivals at all. Someone who enjoys the whole low-maintenance approach to going fast that the Cayman represents is likely to be irritated by the compromises needed to own an Exige. Equally, someone who is attracted to the purity, focus, rawness and immediacy of the Exige is unlikely to remain satisfied with a Cayman for long. It’s a useable everyday car versus a special occasion car. Where some of the car magazines have confused the whole thing is that they write about the Cayman as a special occasion car and criticize the Exige on the grounds of daily usability. You can do both with either but don’t think for a minute the Exige can touch the Cayman as an everyday proposition. Equally, don’t think the Cayman can touch the Exige as a pure driving experience.
Next week, Round 3 – the 991 GT3 at Spa.
Thanks again to RSR for the drive in their Cayman which is available to hire for road and track events here.