A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but what if that rose had a four-cylinder engine? That’s the dilemma raised by the new Porsche 718 Cayman S, the replacement for a car that was pretty much perfect and one that has traded its predecessor’s charismatic flat-six for a new turbocharged flat-four. We know that engines everywhere are downsizing these days, but this one feels like a personal affront.
Offsetting the reduced cylinder count is the enhanced vitality of the Cayman S’s stats, which match those of the Boxster S. The 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four has 350 horsepower—25 more than the 3.4-liter naturally aspirated flat-six in the previous Cayman S—along with 309 lb-ft of torque, an improvement of 37 lb-ft. That has cut half a second from the factory-stated zero-to-60-mph time (when equipped with the PDK dual-clutch automatic) as well as improved fuel economy.
You’ll notice that the steering wheel of the car in our photos is on the wrong side. We grabbed our first turn of the Cayman S in the U.K.—specifically, in the Brecon Beacons, the bleak and rugged corner of Wales that the British Army’s elite SAS regiment uses for its selection tests, and where the local roads provide a similarly demanding dynamic challenge.
Much of what we’ve said about the turbocharged engine in the 718 Boxster holds true here, but the Cayman’s fixed roof means its driver has no means to escape from its new, carefully engineered soundtrack. You have to listen hard to discern the loss of cylinders—at idle, there’s a shadow of the sewing-machine noise of an air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle (or, more appropriately, a Porsche 356 or 912). But brush the throttle even lightly, and this gets buried beneath more muscular induction and exhaust noises. These get louder and more forceful as the engine is worked harder, enhanced by a system that augments certain frequencies. It sounds fine—there are even some pops and bangs on the overrun in the punchier Sport mode—but it just doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as its predecessor. Then again, few cars ever did.
More than compensating for the aural deficiency, the 718 feels decidedly quicker than the old Cayman S, and to a greater extent than the raw numbers suggest. Much of this is due to the engine’s boosted output. While the old 3.4 had to be whipped like a racehorse to deliver its best, the turbo engine’s torque curve is as flat as an Iowa cornfield. The peak 309 lb-ft is maintained from 1900 to 4500 rpm, and although there’s a fractional hesitation when making big throttle applications at lower engine speeds—thanks to a lag-reducing variable-geometry turbo, it’s too brief to really describe as laggy—the 718 is much happier to pull its tall gearing than the old car ever was. It feels almost as quick upshifting at 5000 rpm as when it’s revved to the 7500-rpm fuel cutoff.
The new engine is only part of the transformation. Porsche excels at balancing performance with grip, and the 718’s extra urge has required a comprehensive chassis reworking to keep it in check. Changes include firmer springs and dampers and a quicker steering ratio with revised geometry. Our test car had the Porsche Active Chassis Management option that brings both adaptive dampers and a 0.8-inch reduction in ride height. The collective results on a demanding road are nothing short of startling, with the Cayman S extracting huge adhesion from its Pirelli P Zero tires. Our test car had a full boatload of dynamic options, including the Sport Chrono pack and brake-based torque vectoring, which could be felt helping out in slower turns. The manual gearbox is still a peach, and the S now gets the 911 Carrera’s four-piston brake calipers, which seemed tireless under hard use.
Less Like a 911
This sharpening makes the 718 feel more mid-engined. Previous Caymans often felt as if they’d been set up to deliver a 911-lite driving experience, in keeping with their position in Porsche’s brand hierarchy. But the S now feels markedly more responsive and agile than a base Carrera, better able to exploit its optimized weight distribution when it comes to making progress along a twisty, bumpy road. The extra torque can be used to help give directional advice—even small throttle changes exert a noticeable influence on the cornering line under high lateral loads—but never to the extent of dominating the proceedings. On first impression, this still feels like the best-balanced junior sports car in the game.
The engineers behind the new Cayman S should be proud. It’s demonstrably better than its predecessor in pretty much every measurable metric. It’s only when we come to the less quantifiable matter of soul that we have to report continued concern. Sports cars aren’t bought for the same rational criteria as minivans, and we’ll fully understand if you’re planning to cryogenically preserve a late-period 3.4-liter Cayman S as your personal apogee of the modern sports car. But the 718 is a compelling reason to be cheerful about the future.
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