Review and road test of the Porsche Cayman '981 Series' (2012-2016)
GETTING A BREAK IN THE CAYMANS
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Is the Porsche Cayman the best sports coupe reasonable money can buy? You'd have a pretty tough time arguing otherwise. For an insight into just how far ahead of its rivals this car really is, you need look no further than the fact that it's most regularly compared to its 911 stablemate, which costs nearly twice as much. In this second generation '981' series guise, the Cayman's classic mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout remained but was further developed with a re-designed chassis, a longer wheelbase, lower weight and a little more power than before. Add in sleeker looks that really offer up that 'want one' factor and you're looking at an obvious choice in the serious sports coupe segment from the 2012 to 2016 era, a supercar in all but price tag.
(2nd Generation 2 dr coupe 2.7, 3.4 petrol [base, S, GTS, GT4] )
Though Porsche is best identified with the rear-engined 911 sportscar, the company actually has just as much heritage in mid-engined machinery. The very first car to bear the name 'Porsche' was, after all, a mid-engined sports car, the legendary 356 No1, and back in the 1930s, Ferdinand Porsche himself created the mid-engined Auto Union Grand Prix racers. It's slightly surprising then, to remember that when the Stuttgart marque first launched the original version of this Cayman model in 2005, it was the first mid-engined Porsche coupe they'd sold since the 914 of 1969.
Of course, they'd been selling the mid-engined Boxster roadster for nearly a decade before that, the car that provided most of the basics behind this Cayman. Early on in this coupe model's history, Porsche always determinedly refuted suggestions that this car was simply 'a Boxster with a roof' but that's essentially what it boils down to. Not that there's much wrong with that, the exemplary handling balance of the brand's entry-level model enhanced by a body almost twice as stiff, which was always enough to make this car the darling of the red mist brigade in the motoring press, if not as strong a seller as its maker would have liked. Even after pokier engines and a high-tech PDK auto gearbox option were added in 2009, buyers still wondered why they ought to choose a curiously-proportioned Cayman coupe when a Boxster convertible was cheaper and prettier.
In response, Porsche created this '981' series MK2 model, a car that was quicker, even sharper to drive, more efficient to run and higher tech to use. What most helped this post-2012 design though, was its new sense of style, influenced not a little by the brand's 918 Spyder hypercar. The driveway result is no longer a poor man's 911 but a very desirable sportscar in its own right. A model that makes similarly priced rivals look distinctly one-dimensional. In 2014, Porsche introduced an uprated 340bhp GTS variant. And in 2015, Porsche introduced an even higher performance 385bhp GT4 model. The second generation Cayman line-up lasted until 2016 when the normally aspired flat six engines of this '981' were replaced by the turbo flat four units used in the restyled '982' series car.
What You Get
Does it look like a 911? The uninitiated might think so but visually at least, the '981' series Cayman is no longer a lesser, rather clumsy copy of that car. Your eye's immediately drawn to the bi-xenon headlights of the sleeker front end but the bigger changes are to be found further back with the higher haunches, the more prominent wheelarches and the swept-back roofline that together make this model a more distinctive thing than its predecessor. Reducing the rake of the rear screen and pulling its base further back has done wonders for the shape and it also helps that, unlike with the previous model, the indented doors weren't shared with the 911 and so better suit the completed design. The overall result is all muscularity and purpose.
The whole idea with this car's second generation re-design was to put it on the same lightweight architecture that underpinned its Boxster and 911 stablemates - which is why, despite being a bigger thing than its predecessor, it actually weighs less thanks to extensive use of aluminium in the chassis, coupled with magnesium and steel where it's needed. A good example of the ceaseless development quest for efficiency can be found in the rear boot lid, emphasised by a distinctive blade spoiler that cuts across the rear light clusters. The lid is fashioned from aluminium and less than half the weight of the previous part.
Lift it and you might be surprised to find how much space this car can offer behind a mid-mounted engine layout that's always been a big plus when it comes to practicality - though your service technician might not immediately agree. There's an expanded 275-litre space on offer here which, when combined with the further 150-litres you get under the bonnet in the front, provides a 425-litre total that's actually more than you get in a Volkswagen Golf. A two-seater Porsche sportscar that carries more gear than your average family hatch? The surprises keep on coming.
There aren't too many of them when you get behind the wheel mind you, unless you count the fact that despite a lower roofline, there's actually more headroom than the previous version of this car could offer thanks to a lower mounting position for these surprisingly broad seats. The cabin's essentially the same as you'll find in a comparable '981' series Porsche Boxster - though that's no bad thing, with the same standard of fit and finish you'd find in a 911 costing twice as much. Unlike that car, you only get two seats. Those that see the 911's two cramped rear berths as irrelevant should swap from one car to the other for a week and see how often they throw a jacket or briefcase in the back or carry young children.
Get yourself comfortable and, if you're familiar with previous Cayman models, you might notice that you sit a little further back from the controls, this contributing to a feeling of greater space in a re-designed cabin that really is more roomy thanks to a 60mm wheelbase increase. The usual bulky centre console arrangement was tidied in this design by fitting an electrically operated handbrake and also by moving the cup holders off to a slot by the glovebox. The dashboard, with its tapered centre console, proved to be a big improvement and if you've opted for a car fitted with the Sport Chrono package with its smart little timer, you'll find that dial neatly incorporated into the dash rather than being perched atop it like an afterthought (as was the case with the previous model). There are a few ergonomic issues: some of the buttons you use fairly often require you to take your eyes off the road to search for and operate. Likewise, the big central screen relegates the heater controls to a rather cramped position underneath, so they can be a little awkward to use. Overall though, we're talking here of an interior that feels impressively up-market.
Peer through the chunky sports steering wheel and you'll find that, as with all the brand's models, a central oversized rev counter commands your attention, a silver finish marking out the 'S' model. To its left is a speedometer with spectacularly unhelpful 25mph increments. To its right is a VGA screen masquerading as a dial but actually displaying wither trip computer functions or a sat nav display if the car in question has been fitted with the expensive Porsche Communications Management system.
What to Look For
This '981 Series' Cayman's normally aspirated flat six engines are reliable and charismatic units which have yet to show up any significant problems. Our survey into models fitted with these powerplants revealed a lot of very happy people but inevitably, a few issues were raised which you might need to watch out for. One owner reported vibrations at speed, traced to uneven tyre wear. Another reported hesitant starting and an electric parking brake issue. We also came across cars that had noises in their instrument binnacles, heater blower motor problems, a glovebox that wouldn't close, an alarm problem and a PSM failure warning light that kept coming on.
Check the tyres for wear and also have the rear axle and suspension inspected as heavy acceleration from a standstill on a dry surface can lead not only to wheelspin, but also to quite severe 'axle-tramp.' This is a condition where the rear of the car judders under the torque of the drive going to the grippy rear tyres and is a potentially damaging and uncomfortable sensation. A whining axle or drive shaft will bear testament to this. Few customers specified their cars in base trim and Porsche extras weren't cheap so watch out for those buyers looking to claw back unreasonable sums they blew on options.
Check the condition of the alloy wheels for kerbing damage. Also make sure the electric motors that power the hood haven't been damaged by ignorant occupants attempting to raise or lower the roof manually. Check the bodywork, especially the bonnet and bootlids, as these can easily be damaged by owners slamming them onto protruding items from the front and rear boots. Caymans are quite colour sensitive, and dark blue and green cars are harder to shift than ever-popular silver and red. Otherwise insist on a proper Porsche main dealer service history and buy with confidence.
(Estimated prices, based on a 2013 year 2.7 Cayman) Cayman spares are predictably quite pricey, although they never cross the border into exorbitant. An air filter will be priced at around £45. Brake pads are around £45 for a set. Wiper blades cost in the £15 to £20 bracket, though you could pay £42 -£50 for a pricier-branded set. A oil filter is around £20 and a headlamp bulb around £11.
On the Road
So, what's it like? Well, the cabin envelopes you like a proper sports car should. You sit low, and there are no seats behind you; just a bulkhead that separates you from the direct injection engine, just thirty centimetres from the small of your back. That'll be either a 2.7-litre 275bhp unit if you've opted for the standard Cayman or the 3.4-litre 325bhp powerplant if you've chosen the Cayman S. If you're wondering, that's 10bhp more in each case than you'll get from the engines fitted to equivalent Boxster models from the '981' era. Both powerplants are six-cylinder units with two banks of three-cylinders horizontally opposing each other, the pistons moving towards each other like boxer's fists, hence why you'll hear this engine referred to as a 'flat 6' or a 'boxer'. It's a Porsche staple meaning a low centre of gravity and, in this car at least, a rather distinctive soundtrack.
The engine's mid-mounted, that being the major point of differentiation between this Cayman and its pricier 911 stablemate, which has its powerplant slung out behind the back wheels. Here, in contrast, it's hunkered down in the middle of the car, something that has all sorts of beneficial effects on this car's handling dynamics. Even if you don't plan to thrash round the Nurburgring, you'll notice a balance and friendliness to a driving experience that feels, well, just right. Like a 911? Well, you could say that in some ways it's better. It's certainly slightly more accessible for the inexperienced and if you're starting on the Porsche ownership ladder, a couple of years in a Cayman would certainly be useful before graduating on to a 911. Many are so satisfied they never move on from here. This, after all, is a car so pliable, so forgiving that even if you play with the steering when you shouldn't, power on in the middle of a slippery corner say, it'll shrug its shoulders and work with you. This feeling of sheer control is so complete that some might feel some of the fun has been taken out of the experience. You can't help admiring it though.
If you're someone likely to be regularly engaging in those kinds of antics, then you're probably someone who wouldn't settle for anything other than Porsche's slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, but don't dismiss the seven-speed PDK twin-clutch sequential auto gearbox, a set-up which works best with the optional steering wheel paddles. In using it, you're not quite as immersed into the driving experience as you would be with the well-weighted manual but on the other hand, not having to grapple with the gearstick does free up your attention for other demands, such as picking the proper braking point or homing in on an apex. In addition, PDK cars are slightly quicker and more frugal, plus from new, they could be ordered with the option of a Sport Chrono Pack which includes a 'Sport Plus' option for a track-style gear shifting strategy and launch control for Grand Prix getaways.
You'll be wanting some numbers. The basic 2.7-litre Cayman with a manual 'box will accelerate to 62mph in 5.7 seconds and run onto 165mph. Go to the other extreme and plump for a 3.4-litre Cayman S with PDK and Sport Chrono and you'll be able to demolish the 62mph sprint in just 4.7 seconds with the engine pulling strongly from 4,000rpm and taking on a lovely guttural bark as the revs rise towards the red line and the cars hurls itself on towards a top speed of 174mph. That's quicker, not only than the old Cayman R but also a standard 3.4-litre 911. Accordingly, overtaking is instant, the 50-70mph increment demolished in less than five seconds. That's providing you've pressed the provided 'Sport' button that optimises the engine tuning and, on PDK auto models, results in later upshifts and earlier downshifts. Progress that'll be accompanied with even more aural fireworks if your car comes fitted with the optional sports exhaust that most original owners specified. This car, you see, has never been about Top Trumps figures. Its appeal lies in the way it feels - in the way it makes you feel. The tactile experience it offers at the wheel.
Cayman enthusiasts had feared this might be diluted somewhat by the adoption of the electro-mechanical steering system introduced with the '981' series models but as it turned out, that's has never proved to be much of an issue. Before, the steering felt alive and hyperactive but included a lot of feedback and chatter that didn't actually help the driving process. This set-up is a lot more composed and mature - though no less responsive and accurate, through the corners enabling you to place the car with pinpoint accuracy exactly where you want it. Side with the red mist writers who don't like this arrangement and all we can say is that you'd struggle to find anything very much better elsewhere.
Turn-in is crisp at whatever speed you choose and body roll's well contained too: Porsche claimed this car to be 40% stiffer than its predecessor and it feels like it. Enthusiasts will be pleased to find that the stability control system can be switched into a looser mode or off altogether if you want to get a little more, er, expressive, though you do need a fairly fast pair of hands if you want to get this car moving about beneath you. The brakes, as you'd expect, are mighty. Some original owners paid a fortune extra for optional carbon ceramic discs.
You don't really need these but we would try and seek out a car that fitted with Porsche's PASM adaptive damping system. With this set-up, four vertical chassis sensors enable you to set the ride quality up to suit the mood you're in and the road you're on, so, depending on your choice between 'normal' and 'sport' settings, the car can feel loose limbed and supple when cruising along a typically broken British B-road, yet will retain decent body control should you chuck it at a corner. It works even better in combination with the Dynamic Transmission Mounts that come as part of the optional Sport Chrono Package. These adapt their stiffness and damping characteristics to changes in driving style and road surface conditions, in effect acting as suspension for the transmission. The result is greater traction and better stability during acceleration, braking or cornering. If you're someone who'll regularly be powering on through those corners, you'll also benefit from finding a car specified the Porsche Torque Vectoring set-up. It comes with a mechanical locking differential and nips at the brakes of the inner rear wheel through tight bends, making the car feel more nimble. The system comes into its own in wet or wintry conditions but in the dry, we think many drivers wouldn't miss it.
Ultimately though, however you specify your car, there's real subtlety in the way the Cayman handles and you don't need to drive the thing like you stole it to enjoy it. And don't worry if budget dictates the choice of the more affordable 2.7-litre version. In many ways, having to work a little harder at extracting the performance actually makes the experience even more fun. Either way though, what we have here is a masterclass in sportscar excellence.
Whether this improved '981' series Cayman really upstaged its pricier 911 stablemate - or indeed whether this is the car a modern era 911 really should be.. well, we can't help wondering whether these are really irrelevant questions. If you like one of these Porsches, you'll probably be unconvinced by the other, with fundamental differences that are small but highly significant.
Perhaps a closer rival to the Cayman is the car it was designed upon - the Boxster, which drives almost as well, is priced more aggressively and offers the option of open-top summer driving. Ultimately, what it boils down to is that Porsche can offer two brilliant and relatively affordable sportscars from this era. Enough said.
In the real world, this is one of the quickest cars you can drive and one that makes you feel special every time you sit in it. True, the asking price for a good one won't be cheap and there are more powerful rivals that cost the same. But it's also true that for the money, nothing else offers as complete a sportscar driving experience.
Porsche Cayman '981 Series' (2012-2016) review by JONATHAN CROUCH