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Porsche Cayman S - Mid rage

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I am not much of a biking guy. So when my bike-mad colleagues get into a frenzy discussing their cornering antics on their motorcycles, I smile indulgently and go my way. I understand their excitement in talking about hanging off a bike or using the body to corner better, but frankly, I’m not too involved. Until recently.

The roads on the outskirts of Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, are of the sort you would see in advertisements or video clips for exotic cars. You know the type I am talking about... a rugged, stark background, smooth blacktop, blue skies, S-curves by the hundreds and a dude in sunglasses looking smug in his good-looking sportscar. This time around, the dude was me and the car in question was the spanking new Porsche Cayman S. 

I had just dismissed an empty straight stretch in what seemed to be a minute, using most of the Cayman’s 295 horses to split the hot desert wind at 220 kph. All Porsches are fast. And they are happiest, and absolutely in their element, when they are being given the stick. The newest machine to wear the legendary shield was also true to form. With the horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine singing at just over 6000 rpm behind my neck — yes, its powerplant nestles amidships — the Porsche was polite enough to behave itself. The Omani scenery passed by in a blur, but the car stayed planted and confident at illegal speeds, even though it wanted to ask in Oliver Twist fashion, “Please sir, can I have some more?” And if you do give it some more, the Cayman S can touch 274 kph. 

Very soon, the straight gave way to twisties carved around the hills beyond a place called Quriyat. Because of the balance allowed by the mid-engined layout — a front/rear weight distribution of 45:55 — the Cayman thrives on such roads. Though I had shaved off speed while entering the hilly terrain, soon I was back in the high-rev range, ebbing and flowing along with the road. Now this is where the biking bit comes in. Every time a corner came into sight, I was adjusting my body, readying for the best position to handle it. So for an impressive right-hander, my body would shift ever so slightly to the left, my left shoulder would be supported by the high sports seat and I would attack the curve at speeds that you wouldn’t do in your normal, everyday commuter sedan — in fact, in most cars, it would be downright dangerous. But in the low-slung Cayman, attacking curves furiously was the norm. I was shifting my body unconsciously, till I realised I was driving the Cayman like an enthusiastic motorcycle rider would use his body to tackle curves. Amazing. And I guess this is a good time to tell you that the seats and the driving position of the Cayman are absolutely spot-on. Even after driving for hours, I don’t think you’d want to relinquish the seat.

Now why would corner-carving be so important in life? And why would the Cayman be perhaps one of the best cars in the world to do just that? It’s simple. Many cars go really fast in a straight line, but is that exciting? Beyond a point, going fast is ho-hum. You can break the landspeed record and the sensation is usually the same... sweaty palms and blurring scenery etc. But taking corners is much more exciting. Just notice your everyday commute; you look forward to your favourite corner, don’t you? No wonder my biking friends are so thrilled about being one with their machines. It’s the same with the Cayman. The driver is an integral part of this two-seater; it’s built around him.

Before driving it, most motoring journalists across the world thought that the Cayman was just a Boxster with a roof and a funny name borrowed from a reptile. But when Porsche started releasing details of the car and began official test-drives, it became very clear that this surely wasn’t a tin-top Boxster. It was, as Porsche says, a different beast from the same gene pool. Now, the Boxster comes with the formidable reputation of being the world’s best handling roadster, and no car has dethroned it ever since it was launched. But the engineers from Porsche decided to go one better with the Cayman: they would not only give it a fixed roof and an extremely torsionally stiff body shell, they also rummaged in the Porsche parts bin... and found some interesting bits belonging to the fabled 911!   For instance, the 3400cc six-cylinder boxer engine, based on the Boxster S’ 3.2 unit, features cylinder heads and VarioCam Plus variable camshaft timing and valve lift system from the 911 Carrera. Developing 295 bhp at 6250 revs and 34.4 kgm of torque between 4400 and 6000 rpm, this short-stroke/big-bore engine has been lovingly crafted to rev freely and to develop gobs of torque at accessible levels — yet keep fuel consumption in check. 

But what Porsche has shied away from saying is that from the depths of the plumbing, they have managed to extract what’s possibly one of the sweetest engine notes to come from a production car. The sound of a Cayman S driven in anger, echoing off the desert hills is still fresh in my mind. Between the nine-speaker Bose surround system that came in the version of the Cayman I drove and the exhaust note/mid-engine noise, it was not a tough call at all. The Bose stereo, speed-sensitive tech and all, lost hands down. I’m afraid I must digress now and pay my compliments to Porsche Middle East’s brilliant organisation. Not only did they lay out a route that did justice to the Cayman’s dynamics, the CD in the Bose stereo had music recorded to suit the occasion. So while I was initially sulking in the Muscat traffic, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries provided some soothing comfort, while on fast roads, there was some peppy pop... and on the curves, it was fast techno. Just like in the video clips!

Back to the Cayman S. Two gearbox options are on offer, one is a five-speed Tiptronic and the other is a six-speed manual. I managed to sample both, but if I could ever afford the Cayman, I would get mine with the manual shifter. The gear lever is a stubby little unit that’s brilliant to hold and flick, and this, with the superb, well-weighted steering wheel, makes the Cayman a highly involving car, a proper driver’s car. Porsche engineers have retained the third to sixth gear ratios of the Boxster S, but they have revised the ratios for first and second to offer quicker shifts... but naturally, you end up making quick take-offs from standstill every time you start the car. And your eyes are not on the road, but on the mesmerising central dial that, in true Porsche fashion, sits right in front of you — the rev counter. 

Porsche claims the manual Cayman takes just 5.4 seconds  to touch 100 kph, while it takes 11.7 seconds to reach the 100 mph (160 kph) mark. While that’s certainly quick, what makes the Cayman’s performance remarkable is its solid mid range. You can dismiss the 80 to 120 kph run in just 6.6 seconds. In  fifth . I experienced its reserves of power on the straight sections of the route. I was overtaking most cars in fifth gear and then stretching the distance between both cars in sixth! I guess somebody forgot to tell the boffins at Porsche that downshifting can also be fun! 

The McPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar at both ends of the Cayman have been superbly worked on by Porsche, keeping in mind the innate character of the car. Of course, you have a host of optional electronica to choose from based on the kind of ride you want, the standard setup is just as good. Now, the Cayman S almost nips at the 911’s heels. While it’s priced between the Boxster S and the 911, its performance is dangerously close to the legend. But there’s one thing that distinguishes the Cayman and the Carrera. The new car is more forgiving and understanding. Even if you are not that good a driver, the Cayman will controllably understeer if you step out of bounds. Do the same thing in the 911, and you might as well pray the electronic safety devices do their job. Yes, thanks to the rear weight bias of the 911, you need to be a good driver, all right. 

What the Cayman S does is tantalisingly provide a glimpse of what the world’s greatest sportscar is all about, at an ‘affordable’ price. It gives you the 911 kind of experience without having to pay that sort of money. To me, irrespective of its parents — the 911 Carrera and the Boxster S — the Cayman S comes with its own strengths and needs to be looked at that way. Out in India in January 2006, some lucky guys have already lined up to pocket the car. One small suggestion from me: listen to what enthusiastic motorcycle riders are talking about!