Road test: Porsche’s 718 Cayman is an exhilarating drive

Porsche’s entry-level sports car demonstrates it’s more than just a poor man's 911.

By Ged Bulmer, December 11 2019
Road test: Porsche’s 718 Cayman is an exhilarating drive

The low-slung Porsche 718 Cayman sitting on a dealer forecourt on a grim Melbourne day punches out of its surrounds like a flamboyant dollop on a concrete-grey palette.

We’re assured that “this is the entry level to Porsche sports car ownership” and also that considerable restraint has been applied to the options list, but in spite of this the buy-in still packs a punch of its own.

A glance at the spec sheet confirms that this particular Cayman wears the price of a good small car’s worth of extras, with the $114,900 list price (plus on-road costs) bumped out to $137,840. 

Still, with a base model 911 Carrera now setting buyers back more than $220,000, it’s understandable how Porsche might be keen for us to consider the Cayman as something of a bargain.

Chief amongst the “modest” options fitted is the Sport Chrono Pack ($5330), while the standard manual shift has also been replaced in favour of a twin-clutch auto ($4990). Porsche Active Suspension Management ($2710) has also been installed, among other devices ranging from useful to frippery.  

Assume the position

Sliding into the low-slung cabin, you’re immediately reminded that this is a real sports car, requiring both commitment and concessions. For a six-odd-foot chap packing a 95kg frame, getting in or out of a Cayman isn’t terribly elegant.

Still, once settled into the snugly sculpted leather seat with your tailbone just inches off the ground, legs stretched out ahead and leather steering wheel falling readily to hand, you realise it’s actually the perfect driving position.

Turn the key and the cabin fills momentarily with the mechanical whirr of the starter motor before the turbocharged 2.0-litre flat four-cylinder behind your head fires with a throat-clearing bark. The distinctive off-beat throb of horizontally opposed cylinders is instantly recognisable and unmistakeable as the soundtrack of the fabled German sports car maker.

The rearing black stallion at the centre of the crest on the steering wheel harks back to Stuttgart’s origins as a horse stud. As you blip the throttle, the raw and grainy sound of a different set of horses fills every corner of the snug cabin.

Talking the torque

Pointing the Cayman out into traffic, it rides a wave of effortlessly available torque. The engine’s modest 220kW/380Nm easily pushes the coupe’s svelte 1335kg to licence-cancelling speeds with instant, malleable response.

The excellent seven-speed twin-clutch auto helps here, with its innate ability to find the right gear whether tootling about the ‘burbs, or firing home cogs in milliseconds as you hammer towards the 7400rpm redline.

The cabin is dominated by dark plastics and leather, the seats stitched and perforated, and flashes of bright metalwork on a quartet of large circular vents break up what might otherwise be described as a dour ambience.

Ahead of the driver sits Porsche’s classic three-gauge layout with large tachometer prominent at centre, flanked on the left by a smaller speedo and on the right by a multi-function dial presenting everything from engine data to mapping.

Atop the centre of the dash is the timepiece that signifies the high-performance Sport Chronograph package, accessed via a dial at the bottom right of the steering wheel which selects the drive modes: Standard, Sport, Sport Plus and Individual.  

Select your mode

A cluster of switches on the centre console allows for further individual selection of the variable shock absorbers (Normal or Sport), stability control, manual override of the speed-activated rear spoiler, and the active exhaust (if you want to wake your neighbours). The pipes open automatically whenever Sport or Sport+ is selected, instantly raising revs and changing the timbre in the cabin to fizzy preparedness.

Looking out over the bonnet, curvaceous front guards busily rise and fall as the car truffles along the road, searching out bumps, dips and other surface irregularities and feeding this back through the wheel with incredible clarity. The electric rack-and-pinion steering is fast, lending the Cayman instant responsiveness to inputs as it darts into its cornering line with glee and hangs on as if glued to the road. 

Rare intimacy

Few cars short of a 911 offer such extraordinary feedback, allowing the driver to utterly immerse in the driving experience, feeling an intimate level of steering, brake and throttle control rarely experienced in modern road cars.

The Cayman’s ride is firm, to be sure, but nowhere near as punishing as its low-slung stance and guard-filling 19-inch alloys might suggest, even on pothole-blasted back roads. Adaptive dampers help here, but it’s clear that the fundamentals are very right and that Porsche’s chassis engineers deserve as many accolades as their colleagues in the powertrain division.

Some regard the 718 Cayman as a poor-man’s 911, a classification intended as a slur. But when you consider that the coupe is the direct beneficiary of decades of focused sports car development that have elevated the 911 from close cousin of the VW Beetle, to supercar status, it’s an epithet the Cayman should wear with pride.

I’ve not had the pleasure of experiencing 911s from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s; but in my mind, the Cayman carries forward the flame of Porsche sports cars from an era when they were still analogue, still rowdy, still unadulterated. 

That’s not to suggest that modern 911s have lost all of this; but they are bigger, heavier, more powerful, more technically sophisticated and refined. It’s the subtle reductions in these areas that make the 718 Cayman such an exhilarating drive.

Ged Bulmer

Executive Traveller motoring correspondent Ged Bulmer is one of Australia's most respected motoring experts and a former editor of Wheels, Motor, WhichCar and CarsGuide

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