Car enthusiasts often deride mainstream, popular cars as "appliances," saying they don't offer any driving fun. In most cases they're right, but that doesn't mean those cars aren't what most people want.
The 2012 Porsche Cayman R, on the other hand, is not an appliance; driving it is like piloting an oversized go-kart, and it offers one of the best blends of power and handling for the money.
The 2012 Cayman starts at $52,850 (including a $950 destination charge), but the lightweight Cayman R version we tested, which is new for 2012, is considerably more expensive, at $67,250. In between there's the Cayman S, which uses a slightly less powerful version of the Cayman R's flat-six engine. See the trim levels compared side-by-side, or see how the Cayman R's specs stack up against comparable sports cars -- the Audi TT RS and the Lotus Evora -- at Cars.com.
The first-generation Cayman enters its seventh model year for 2012. It's due for a redesign in the near future, but the current car can still turn heads. It has its own look distinct from Porsche's iconic 911, and in some ways it's a more graceful one. The mid-engine design facilitates a low hood bordered by elliptical headlight assemblies, and the roofline trails gently toward the rear of the coupe.
Perhaps more likely to elicit strong opinions is the available Peridot Metallic paint, which our test car had. It's an intense shade of green, but the black Porsche graphics on the doors and the optional black-painted 19-inch wheels made for an eye-pleasing contrast.
Extension of the driver
It's a description that's overused whenever sports cars are discussed, but the Cayman R can legitimately be called an extension of the driver. Its responses are that intuitive, its transitions that natural and balanced. It's easy to feel connected to the Cayman R in a way most sports cars can't match.
Different elements of the driving experience contribute to this sensation, but it starts with the steering. The setup is amazingly natural, free of excess power assistance that can get in the way of steering feedback. Porsche has done an excellent job of making it seem like there aren't many components separating the steering wheel from the front wheels, and this is key to how it feels in your hands -- whether cornering or going in a straight line.
The Cayman's front-to-rear weight distribution is another important element. With the car's mid-engine layout, Porsche has achieved a 45/55 weight distribution, front/rear. The car isn't hauling around a lot of weight, either, especially in R form: It weighs 2,855 pounds, 121 less than the Cayman S. Beyond that, the center of gravity feels especially low. The Cayman R's ride height is lower than other trims; it uses an exclusive suspension that drops the car about an inch.
All this combined lets you tackle corners with an enthusiasm that would have other cars begging you to slow down. The Cayman R, by comparison, begs you to go faster. You really have to recalibrate your sense of maximum permissible cornering speeds -- its capabilities are that high.
Perhaps the only downside of the Cayman R's 330-horsepower, 3.4-liter flat-six-cylinder engine is that you can't see it unless the car is on a lift. The engine is covered by a parcel shelf behind the two bucket seats, and the only visual cue that there's an engine underneath is a small access panel.
There are, however, plenty of auditory reminders that there's a horizontally opposed six-cylinder under the shelf, especially when you stand on the gas pedal; the engine lets out a mechanical symphony when the tachometer needle swings to 4,000 rpm or so. The engine pulls strongly even at highway speeds, quickly adding 10 mph to your cruising speed. Porsche cites a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds with the six-speed manual transmission and 4.6 seconds with the optional dual-clutch automatic known as PDK.
Our test car had the manual, and while the shifter has short throws that make quick shifts easy, shift feel lags behind the high expectations set by the rest of the car. Whereas everything else related to the driving experience exudes precision and exactness, the shifter feels a little vague and muddy as you row it through the gears.
The Sport Chrono Package includes an analog stopwatch on the dashboard and a Sport button that makes throttle response much more immediate. It also raises the rev-limiter and activates the optional sport exhaust. In a car like the Cayman R, Sport mode would be a good starting point for the drivetrain settings, as opposed to an optional one; the normal mode's more relaxed tuning doesn't go as well with the car, but it improves efficiency and keeps PDK-equipped cars running at a quieter engine speed.
For a performance car, the Cayman R's EPA-estimated gas mileage is quite good. It's rated at 19/27 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission. With the automatic, fuel economy estimates improve to 20/29 mpg. Premium gas is required.
Despite its compact exterior, the Cayman R's cabin can accommodate taller drivers. I'm 6-foot-1, and I was comfortable in the driver's seat. The bucket seats are firmly cushioned and have considerable side bolsters that hold you in place in corners.
We've seen Porsche improve its interior quality in recently redesigned models like the Cayenne SUV and the 911, but the current-generation Cayman predates those models by a number of years. As such, the car's interior is decent -- with good fit-and-finish and materials quality -- but it's not especially luxurious considering its near-$53,000 starting price.
Besides contributing to the Cayman R's handling prowess, the car's mid-engine layout results in two trunks. The one in front is deep and measures 5.3 cubic feet, and the parcel shelf under the rear hatch is 9.2 cubic feet. If you use soft-sided bags you can fit a surprising amount of luggage in the car.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, both of which are required on new vehicles as of the 2012 model year. The Cayman also has seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags that deploy upward from the doors.
Cayman in the market
The Cayman is something of an overlooked gem in the Porsche lineup. It's consistently outsold by its drop-top sibling, the Boxster, as well as the pricier 911. Sales aside, it remains my favorite Porsche sports car for daily driving. The car's secret is that its modern technology doesn't get in the way of driving engagement, but rather enhances it. That's one of the reasons the Cayman landed on our list of fun-to-drive cars.
The next-generation Cayman, which we expect to be less than a year away, will probably take many cues from the recently redesigned 2013 Boxster. Even though the Cayman has been around for a while in its current form, the car is as appealing as ever and a perfect country-road companion. Rejoice, car enthusiasts, rejoice.
© 2012, Cars.com