No, Officer, I Don’t Know How Fast I Was Going

Porsche Cayman R

The 2012 Porsche Cayman R is a proven attention-getter. Photo by Basem Wasef/Wired

In this unprecedented age of obscene horsepower and affordable performance, the Porsche Cayman R is the Jenyne Butterfly of the sports car world.

Who is Jenyne Butterfly? Look her up, preferably not at work.

Ms. Butterfly’s sinewy muscles are cut on gracile bone, and articulate her long limbs with purposeful flexibility. She’s graced with the sort of physique you’d associate with an Olympic swimmer or an extreme yogi. She also possesses a preternatural ability to fling herself across a pole with fluid undulations that appear to disobey the laws of physics.

Extracting 330 horses from a mid-mounted 3.4-liter flat-six, Porsche’s compact two-seater is outpowered by $24,000 Hyundais. It’s also in no danger of winning any luxury accolades, and its superstar big brother, the 911, is undeniably more glamorous. And yet, this low-slung pipsqueak is also a punchy performer, an aggro animal that’s been pruned like a bonsai, resembling a sort of scaled-down supercar.

At 2,855 pounds (or 2,910 pounds with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission), the Cayman R is the lightest road car built by Porsche. Luxuries like door grabs and sound insulation are swapped for nylon straps and road noise, and aluminum door panels save 33 pounds of mass. Stiffer bucket seats lighten the load by 26 pounds, while 19-inch wheels do their part by ditching 11 pounds of unsprung mass.

So serious is this car’s commitment to the art of asphalt acrobatics that air conditioning is a no-cost option, even though A/C comes standard on lesser Caymans. The same mass-o-phobes who probably don’t mind their musky stench polluting the non-air-conditioned cabin are likely to order the optional lightweight lithium battery for a $1,700 premium — it sheds 22 pounds, and, with its shorter profile, ever-so-slightly lowers the vehicle’s center of gravity.

Those who are not fanatical about purebred sports cars won’t “get” the Cayman R. More than a few car geeks won’t, either. Many will likely cite that oft-recalled American metric, the Chevy Corvette, a potent but sometimes cloying jack-of-all-trades with a bigger, burlier personality. The Cayman R is, on the other hand, a heavy dose of mechanical minimalism wrapped in the deceptively familiar skin of status-symbol sheet metal — for better, or for worse.

If you climb in expecting the stark, carbon and Alcantara-slathered racecar aesthetic of, say, a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, the Cayman R’s elephant hide surfaces disappoint. Its glossy plastic trim color-matched to the car’s exterior won’t do it any favors, either (though it does enliven the otherwise stark cabin.) Even twisting the ignition key with your left hand in that age-old Le Mans tradition won’t betray this car’s brilliant but obfuscated soul. Its exhaust note lacks the gut-punching immediacy of a solid American V8 or a silky smooth German inline-6, but throw the shifter into first and let out the heavyish clutch, and instant comprehension of this car’s pugilistic personality shoots directly to the seat of your pants. In a good way.

Resting .78 inches lower than more pedestrian Caymans, the R bucks with every surface irregularity, conveying the nooks and crannies of the road like your tongue on a toasted English muffin. The steering wheel pulls right or left like it’s directly linked to the tie-rod mounts by cables, and thanks to the aforementioned weight savings and mid-mounted engine, the car’s low polar moment of inertia facilitates slalom course slithers like an anxious eel.

Transitional handling (i.e., what happens when steering input initiates weight transfer, triggering the kinetic chain of events that result in direction shifts) is so direct, the Cayman begs for swervy lane changes if only for the sheer adolescent thrill of it. Credit a taut chassis, stiffer bushings, and more aggressive suspension geometry for the dynamic gains. And if you complain about the washboard ride or vaguely unrefined engine intake sounds emanating from behind the firewall, you’re missing the point. Yep, this car is just like rock ‘n roll: if it’s too loud, you’re too old.

While these sensations can be clearly construed from the passenger seat, they’re most vividly experienced by the driver. In fact, the cabin’s lack of sensual pleasures are somewhat counterbalanced by the sensory input offered by the delicately weighted steering, the immediate direction changes, and the whooshy, increasingly sonorous tug of the engine as it charges to the 7,500 rpm redline.

Launched off the line with a Sport Chrono-equipped PDK transmission, the Cayman R will hit 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. Power is delivered with an even-handed if somewhat peaky progression rather than explosive bursts of rubber-vaporizing energy, though disabling traction control makes it easy to chirp the rear tires from a standstill.

But unlike the ever-increasing legions of cars boasting over 500 horsepower (of which no fewer than 70 are currently available), the Cayman isn’t beholden to hustling loads of mass with an over-endowed engine. Its low weight and relatively modest power output means you’re not pushing the massive 265-millimeter rear Pirellis to their limits that often, or summoning the electronic nannies while negotiating a canyon corner. Unlike, say, the way a Nissan GT-R uses torque vectoring to claw its four talons into tarmac, this Porsche takes a more organic approach to handling, making it like an analog solution to a physical problem.

Thanks to its mechanical honesty, this is a car that wants to be driven hard, and that’s exactly what I did during my week-long test of the Cayman R. Mid-range torque is strong enough to make roll-on throttle stabs a tempting proposition at any speed, and I’ll admit to instigating gratuitous mid-block lurches just before summoning the tremendous four-pot brakes for stop signs. Yes, m’am, I see you’re about to step into the crosswalk. I come in peace … sort of.

I also cannonballed the Cayman R from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, taking the sinewy 7-hour route through the mountainous wonderland of Death Valley. Bored with one stretch of interstate slog along I-395, I tried time-vectoring my trip before familiar red and blue lights appeared in the rear view. I explained my vocation to the law officer — after all, who, at this particular moment, wants to be that guy driving the Guards Red Porsche? — and he showed a touch of sympathy by scratching 10 mph off my (alleged) speed.

Outside of the city and on leisurely roads with enough room to stretch its legs, the Porsche Cayman R corners, accelerates, and stops like a lean, world-class athlete. When graced with such a celestial body, it’s almost criminal not to dance.

WIRED A serious, lightweight sports car in an age of porky powerhouses. Glorious handling feedback, unfiltered. Rare is the Cayman; rarer is the R.

TIRED At this price, can you resist the lure of a used 911? Even with $13,000 in options, interior still feels cheap. Speeding tickets may as well dispense from a slot in the dash.

Imaged by Basem Wasef/Wired

Source: Wired