As the 2012 Porsche Cayman R snaked over a road that never learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the car seemed to handle quite well. Then I glanced at the speedometer. The Cayman R was running about twice as fast as I had thought, and had plenty of room to go faster.
I hadn't driven a car this good in the turns since the Lotus Evora S. The comparison between these two cars is apt, as they take a similar approach to handling: light overall weight and a well-engineered, rigid suspension.
To earn the R trim, the Cayman does away with extraneous weight caused by pedestrian appurtenances as door handles, replacing them with simple straps. The sport seats use carbon fiber shells and aren't power-adjustable. Instead of a trick spoiler that automatically rises at speed, the Cayman R's downforce generator is fixed to the back of the car.
The Cayman R also gets a limited-slip differential, standard, to help it corner. Porsche seems to have left off some of the sound-deadening materials to save additional weight, as the pinging of pebbles flung up by the tires inside the fenders played clearly through the cabin. And as in other Porsche models, extensive use of aluminum helps keep overall weight down, resulting in an incredibly nimble car.
The car delivered to CNET lacked any electronics in the cabin more sophisticated than a CD player, so I initially thought Porsche had purposefully kept it as a pure sports car, similar to what Ford does with the Mustang Boss 302. But here I was wrong, as a look at the Porsche Web site showed the Cayman R can be optioned with navigation, a Bluetooth phone system, and a USB port for digital music.
Let me first say that Porsche's current generation of cabin electronics, packaged as the Porsche Communication Management System option, is quite good. I recently got to try it out in the Panamera Turbo S. Although the LCD is smallish, the maps show in good resolution and include traffic data. The Bluetooth phone system makes the contact list of a paired phone available on the LCD, and the stereo can handle iPods and other digital audio sources.
These optional electronics are all very modern, but I didn't mind that Porsche left them off CNET's car. Given the Cayman R's handling capabilities, I knew exactly on which roads I wanted to drive it, and I didn't want to be interrupted by any phone calls. The minimal sound insulation would have forced the stereo into competition with the excellent exhaust note, and the stereo would have lost.
That is not to say the Cayman R is some sort of bare-metal stripped racer, all roll cages and fire extinguishers. It did have a radio with a CD player, and a monochrome LCD to display the six radio presets (and that only). This car also came with the optional sport exhaust. This odd little extravagance makes a more aggressive exhaust sound at the push of a button.
Porsche engineering emphasizes efficiency, but the company does a little extra bowing and scraping to the gods of economy by including two drive modes, normal and sport. In the default normal mode, the throttle is detuned and an up arrow icon appears on the instrument cluster when the car thinks it should be shifted up a gear. As usual with these little helpers, it recommends sixth gear at anything above 50 mph.
The direct-injection engine sitting amidships lays its six cylinders flat, in Porsche style, and displaces 3.4 liters. Not a huge engine, yet it produces 330 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Although CNET's car came with the six-speed manual, another extravagance can be added in the form of the Doppelkupplung, Porsche's seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Although not harsh, there was a decided mechanical feeling when shifting the six-speed manual transmission. I could feel each movement in the linkage up through the short shaft of the shifter.
In traffic or dealing with the interminable stop lights of city streets, this overtly mechanical shifter, and the car's other brutish elements, made it a chore to drive. The only civilized thing about it was a hill hold feature, essential on San Francisco's steep streets.
Frustrated by the tedium of driving in the city, I tended to leave the sport exhaust on and let the engine rev high. If I couldn't go fast, at least the car would sound fast.