Auto Review

Review: 2012 Porsche Cayman R


Editor's Rating: Stars_10

With no air conditioning, radio, or even door handles, the stripped-down Porsche Cayman R offers drivers a purer driving experience

The Good: Racecar handling, quickness, luggage space, lightning-fast PDK transmission

The Bad: Goofy weight-cutting measures, cramped cabin

The Bottom Line: A rival to the iconic Porsche 911, at a lower price

Make: Porsche

Model: Cayman R

Model Year: 2012

Body Type: Two door/two passenger

Price Class: Premium

Product Name: Porsche Cayman R

Up Front

I recently drove the new 2012 Porsche (PAH3:GR) Cayman R for nearly 500 miles in the rolling hills of northeast Pennsylvania. Most of the time I was marveling to myself: "This car is so sweet."

The hardtop equivalent of the Boxster Spyder, the R is a stripped-down, racing-oriented version of the Cayman S. Weight-slashing measures, such as the omission of a radio and air conditioning, and the use of lightweight racing seats, aluminum doors, carbon-fiber interior door panels, and canvas straps instead of door handles cut the car’s weight by 121 lbs., to 2,910 lbs. (2,855 with a stick shift). Meanwhile, special engine-mapping and exhaust systems boost the horsepower of the R’s 3.4-liter, six-cylinder engine to 330, 10 more than in the S. That means the R has only 8.8 lbs. of weight per hp.

If all this seems a little crazy to you, stick with the Cayman S, a great car in its own right that’s nearly as quick as an R and has all the usual creature comforts. But if you’re into weekend racing, the Cayman R is definitely worth considering. It comes close to matching the performance of the more expensive and powerful Porsche 911, and it arguably handles better. The R’s most direct competitor is probably General Motors’ (GM) Chevy Corvette Grand Sport, which is more powerful but isn’t as refined and doesn’t handle as well. Other rivals, such as the Audi R8, cost far more.

Of course, the R doesn’t come cheap: Starting price is $67,250, compared with $63,050 for the Cayman S and $54,085 for the regular Cayman. You can add back the radio and air conditioning free of charge, and only add 33 lbs. to the R’s weight. Highly desirable optional performance equipment, however, can easily push the R’s price over $80,000, especially if you opt for the $8,150 ceramic composite brakes.

The R already comes packed with safety gear. Standard equipment includes six airbags (front, side, and side curtain bags for driver and passenger), as well as stability and traction control, seatbelt pretensioners, and brake-force distribution.

The Cayman R is surprisingly fuel-efficient, especially on the highway. It’s rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway with a stick shift, 20/29 with an automatic.

Porsche is doing well this year, but not because of the Cayman. In the first five months of this year, total U.S. sales of all models soared to 12,996, up 47 percent against the same period last year. The big gainer, however, was the Cayenne SUV, which saw its sales nearly triple, to 5,868, during the period. Combined sales of the Boxster and Cayman fell slightly, to 1,508.

Behind the Wheel

I drove the Cayman R on the track at the Monticello Motor Club, a private facility 90 miles north of New York City, as well as on the back roads of northeast Pennsylvania. It’s an exceptional car, combining extraordinary handling, quickness, and stability. A major reason is that the Cayman’s engine is positioned in the middle of the car rather in the rear, as in the Porsche 911. As a result, the Cayman has nearly perfect front-rear weight distribution.

In addition to reducing the Cayman R’s weight and boosting horsepower, Porsche engineers lowered the ride 0.8 in. and added stiffer springs, an anti-roll bar, and limited slip differential. I found that these changes improved handling in the Cayman R even more than in the ragtop Boxster Spyder. You also don’t have to fool around with the bare bones ragtop that comes on the Boxster Spyder.

Difficult as it is for traditionalists to accept, the seven-speed, dual-clutch PDK automatic ($3,660 extra) is preferable to the six-speed manual transmission. The car is simply faster with the automatic than with the stick shift, because no human being can match the speed at which the PDK shifts. The R is rated to jump from zero to 60 in 4.7 seconds with a stick shift, vs. 4.6 seconds with an automatic and 4.4 seconds with an automatic and the optional Sport Chrono Package ($1,480).

If you love fast driving, take this car to a track with plenty of curves in it and punch two buttons on the center console—one that puts the car in Sport Plus mode, another that activates the Sports Exhaust System ($2,810). Sport Plus quickens accelerator response and holds the car in gear until it approaches red line, while the Sports Exhaust has an even more satisfying growl than the regular exhaust. You spend most of your time in second and third gear with the exhaust roaring in your ears. The steering is precise and perfectly balanced, and the car is rock solid on the curves.

One of the appeals of the PDK is you don’t have to be an expert driver to seem like one. There’s a satisfying "blip" as you downshift, and shifts happen so quickly that a bystander watching you speed by would assume a professional driver was at the wheel. If you prefer, you can do the shifting yourself using the shift lever or paddle shifters on the steering wheel. For straight-ahead acceleration, the launch control feature—which allows you to rev the engine to near red line before taking off—makes it easy to match the R’s rated zero to 60 times without a lot of fish-tailing and burnt rubber.

The Cayman’s cabin feels cramped. There’s a surprising amount of luggage space, however—a deep trunk up front, a shallower one in the rear, and a flat space behind the rear seats (on top of the engine compartment) with a net for holding luggage in place.

Opt for regular seats rather than the sport buckets if you plan to use the Cayman R as a daily driving car. The seats are great during hard-driving, because they’re so heavily bolstered they hold you into place under extreme conditions. They’re also quite comfortable during the daily driving. The trouble is the sides of the seats are so high that getting out of the car is like climbing out of a box. I often ended up stumbling out of my test car like a drunk getting home from a binge.

Buy It or Bag It?

Would you pay 80 grand for a car with no radio and air conditioning? That’s the obvious question raised by the 2012 Cayman R. If that sounds crazy to you, save 4 grand and go with the Cayman S, which is only slightly slower and doesn’t have those crazy canvas straps instead of door handles. You can add creature comforts back into the R, but what’s the point? Any Cayman—whether the base model, the S, or the R—is a great set of wheels. The Cayman R is for purists who want to squeeze every last drop of performance out of their car.

Click here to see more of the 2012 Porsche Cayman R.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for Businessweek.com.

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