Lifestyle

Grand Cayman


Porsche's new mid-engine coupe offers drivers better handling than the Boxster as well as the company's traditionally superb engineering

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I fell in love with Porsches back in the late 1990s while living in Germany. For me, they're like German beers: They're all wonderful, each in its own way. And test-driving the new Porsche Cayman S, which came out last year, hasn't changed my high regard for Porsche one iota.

The Cayman is basically a Boxster with a hardtop. That's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned, because the Boxster is one of the all-time great new car models to hit the market in recent decades. As with the Boxster, the Cayman's engine is positioned in the middle of the car, right behind the driver, which makes it incredibly stable.

But the Cayman also has some advantages over its convertible-topped cousin. Adding the hardtop makes its frame twice as rigid as the Boxster's, so it handles even better. And its standard six-cylinder engine is more powerful than the Boxster's -- 295 horsepower vs. 240 -- so it really moves when you punch the gas.

CHOOSE YOUR SPEED.

The downside for the company is that the Cayman, which was introduced in January, seems to be stealing sales from the Boxster. Through April, Porsche sold 2,772 Caymans in the U.S., up from zero last year, but during the same period Boxster sales fell 38.7% to 1,653. On the other hand, Porsche's overall U.S. sales were up 21% through the end of April, to 12,458, with the Cayman and the 911 accounting for the increase.

The Cayman's obvious attraction is its superior speed and handling. Porsche says the car will jump from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds with a stick shift, and 5.8 seconds with a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission (vs 5.9 and 6.8 seconds, respectively, for the Boxster). So, one night, I took out my test car -- a Cayman S equipped with a Tiptronic and a stop watch/lapcounter, a $920 option -- and timed some 0 to 60 runs on an isolated country road.

I quickly discovered that the fastest way to accelerate is by putting the transmission into manual mode and just flooring it, because the Tiptronic shifted automatically when the tachometer redlined at 7,000 rpm. Nervous as I was that a deer might leap into the road in front of me (which happens a lot at night in rural Pennsylvania, where I live), I came within one-tenth of a second of the Cayman's rated acceleration several times.

PROOF POSITIVE.

In other words, at night without any big preparation I easily got the car to jump from 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds, almost matching a professional driver who no doubt tested it on a company track in Germany under ideal conditions. And, boy, was it fun. In the process, I gained even more admiration for Porsche's version of an automatic transmission.

I knew intellectually that the Tiptronic, which costs $3,210 more than the Cayman's standard manual transmission, is more sophisticated and fun to drive than most other automatics, but now I know it in my bones.

Even with the shift lever in the standard "Drive" position, the Tiptronic automatically moves into its sportiest shifting mode when you punch the gas at speeds of more than 33 mph, kicking down one or two gears for maximum acceleration and running out to about 80% of the wide-open throttle position before shifting. Far from being boring to drive, it feels like a pro has taken over the shifting for you.

SHIFTING PRIORITIES.

This car also has a "sport" mode that changes the driving dynamics noticeably. Push a button on the dash and the electronic suspension management system automatically switches to a stiffer, bouncier setting. You can actually feel the difference, even at highway speed. The accelerator also becomes more responsive, the car shifts faster when the tachometer hits the redline, and the shift-changes happen faster.

Of course, as I mentioned above, you can always do the shifting yourself if you want to, by putting the transmission into manual mode. There are little toggle switches on either side of the steering wheel, and you do the shifting with your thumbs. I still prefer the added challenge of a manual transmission, but this is the next best thing if you're not into using a clutch.

It's an absolute blast to use on winding backroads because you can almost instantly downshift two gears and really accelerate into curves. The fun-factor is just about as high as using the paddle-shifting system in a Maserati (see BW Online, 7/14/05, "Maserati's Beauty on a Budget").

HAVE SPACE, WILL TRAVEL.

The Cayman's base price of just under $60,000 positions it between the Boxster (see BW Online, 10/28/05, "Porsche's Entry-Level Dream"), which starts out at $45,795, and the 911 (see BW Online, 7/15/05, "For my Money, make it a Porsche"), which starts at $72,095. Like the Boxster, it's a two-seater, so if you have kids you just about have to go with a 911, which has a remedial back seat.

But the Cayman's hatchback design allows for more luggage space in the rear compartment (more than nine cubic feet if you put luggage under a net on the shelf directly behind the seats). Like the Boxster, the Cayman also has a luggage compartment under the front hood, so you can take quite a bit of gear with you on overnight trips.

An obvious disadvantage of the Cayman this time of year is that it isn't a ragtop. If you absolutely have to have a convertible, the alternative is a Boxster S which has a souped-up engine that allows it to very nearly match the Cayman's speed. It starts at $55,495, so it's also cheaper than the Cayman, but I have to say I think the Cayman's handling is better.

ADDS UP.

As with other high-end German cars, the big negative about the Cayman is how fast the price mounts when you start adding options. Partial leather trim is standard, for instance, but going to full leather costs an extra $3,600 (and a lot more if you adding dding leather trim to the stuff like the rearview mirror, which alone will set you back another $475).

Sports seats go for $3,055, a nav system and communication manager for $2,970, and power seats for $1,550. Self-dimming mirrors and a rain sensor ($690), Bose surround sound ($950) a rear window wiper ($360), and heated seats ($480) are also available.

You can also spend a small fortune trying to make the car look cool. The Cayman comes in four standard solid colors -- black, white, red, and speed yellow. Metallic colors such as midnight blue and arctic silver cost an extra $825, while more distinctive "special" colors such as dark olive, dark teal green, and a brilliant metallic cobalt blue cost an extra $3,070. And you can nickel and dime yourself to death adding stuff like Porsche Crest headrests ($270) and wheel caps, aluminum spoiler lips ($520) and carbon or wood dashboard trim ($1,650).

HIGH MAINTENANCE.

Other than price, the Cayman doesn't have many downsides. One of the few is its limited visibility out the rear. The big rear roof pillars create nasty blindspots. It's hard to see directly behind the car when you're backing up (you also can't see the rear spoiler going up automatically when you hit 75 mph, which is a real shame). And visibility out the rear window goes down to zip if you stack luggage on the rear window shelf (which means it's well worth paying an extra $530 for the optional parking assist).

Like other Porsches, the Cayman is not cheap to operate, either. With the Tiptronic transmission, it's rated to get 20 mph in the city and 27 on the highway. But if you drive the car as most people are likely to drive it -- fast -- you're not going to do that well. In one stretch of 238 miles of driving, I only got 17.4 mpg -- and that was before I started doing 0 to 60 time tests on a back road. When you accelerate the Cayman to the max, you can just about see the gas gauge needle sink with every mile you drive. And, of course, it uses pricey premium gasoline.

Then again, you don't buy a Porsche for its practicality. This car tops out at 166 mph (171 with manual transmission) and it really turns heads. Porsche likes to brag that two-thirds of all Porsches ever made are still on the road, and there's a reason for that. Once you get in one, you never want it to stop.

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