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2006 Porsche Cayman S

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September 26, 2005

First Drive:
2006 Porsche Cayman S

San Felice, Italy - Putting a hard top on one of the world's greatest convertibles sounds like a really bad idea. I mean, half the fun in driving a Porsche Boxster comes from its convertible-ness: the wind in your hair, the punchy flat-six's intake gulping air over your shoulder, the convertible tan you develop that leaves your arms and the top of your head nicely browned. The Boxster just works as a convertible: it looks great with the top down, those curves swelling over the rear wheels just the right counterpoint to the elongated nose and hunkered-down stance. Put a roof on it, and where's the joy?

Well, that's what they've gone and done with the Cayman S. Over top of the basic Boxster body, they've put in a teardrop-shaped roof that slopes into an aggressive hatchback at the rear. The interior's gone from airy to downright dark, and there's no sunroof available to mitigate the lack of sun you'll suffer. The front end's gotten angrier with a set of radiators that wouldn't look out of place on a 911 Turbo, the twin exhaust outlet at the rear is hewn out of a single piece of solid steel, and the standard wheels feature thick, chunky spokes instead of the spindly ones you normally see on Boxsters. On first glance, this looks like a much more serious car, made for much more serious work.

In a broad sense, that's the truth. It's more seriously priced - at over $85,000, it's $10,000 dearer than a Boxster S. Replacing the folding roof with a hard top has meant a substantial increase in structural rigidity, meaning the Cayman's standard sport-tuned suspension has a much more stable platform from which to do its work, which should make for even-more-impressive handling. The standard 18-inch wheel and tire package features dual-compound Michelin Pilots that are optimized for aggressive driving, while the stubby side windows give it the countenance of a chopped-down race-car. The biggest difference, though, isn't even visible: the Boxster S' 3.2-litre flat-six has been bored out to 3.4 litres and produces 295 hp, up from 280.

Ah, that's where they put the compensatory joy - an extra 15 horses to make up for the sun we're missing. As big and as powerful as the engine fitted to the original water-cooled 911, the new 3.4 moves the Cayman along with authority, roaring up through its six closely-stacked gears with that traditional Porsche howl and, in this little car, delivering the kind of punch that you'd more normally associate with a big American V8. Highway passing rarely requires a downshift out of sixth - though the shifter itself is just fantastic, with a short, slick action - and even in third and fourth, it fires the Cayman out of tight corners with authority, and often a little screech from the tires. The electronic throttle delivers you power in three distinct stages: a deep-toned growl from idle builds to a snarling midrange, which switches over to a shrill howl as you near redline. Like the Boxster, the Cayman breathes over your left shoulder, so passing through tunnels is still an aural treat.

As is the rest of its dynamic repertoire. The Boxster has always been a better handler than the 911, and the Cayman raises the bar even further. Cornering grip, even on the base 18-inch wheels (19s are optional) is astonishing, and the speed you can maintain even around tight bends is incredible, thanks to the car's mid-engined layout.

The brakes, as with all of those from Porsche, haul the car down from speed with authority time after time; it's only if you spend a lot of time on the track that you should consider the optional ceramic-composite units, the stock ones are so good. The Cayman's steering, which gets quicker the further off-centre you turn, is a model of clarity and feedback. Best of all, the car even rides really well, despite a suspension that's been stiffened even more than the aggressive set-up in the Boxster S. It's miles more comfortable than a 911, and among the best-riding sports cars out there.

What the Cayman's chassis proves more than anything is that the Boxster has always been capable of handling a lot more power than it's been given - mostly because Porsche doesn't want to cut into sales of the higher-profit 911. And despite having put a hard top on it, it's clear that the company still wants to maintain a desirability gap between this - uh - intermediate Porsche and the Carrera.

For instance, you would think that coupe shape and the hatchback would endow the Cayman with some extra practicality, but the rear load area actually seems smaller than a Boxster's rear trunk, and is too oddly shaped to hold anything more than a briefcase; the 911's back seats are still better for luggage. The instrument cluster, despite a more serious typeface, still doesn't give you as much information as a 911 does (the dash itself is lifted straight from the Boxster, Chevy Optra-esque air vents and all), and the level of standard equipment is pretty thin, with the chrono package, navigation, and a CD changer all optional extras.

Add a package here and a package there - the theatre-quality Bose stereo would be nice, as would a full-leather interior in that beautiful oxblood colour, and maybe a set of multi-spoke wheels painted to match the car - and you're well into 911 territory - which is clearly where Porsche wants you to be.

All of which means I'm kind of torn about the Cayman. There is no question that it's a spectacular driver's car, a fast (faster than a base Carrera around the Nurburgring fast), stable, incredible-handling machine that, with every inch-precise turn and every perfectly executed shift, makes you look like a far better driver than you really are. But despite its desirability, its awkward price position puts it too close to the truly iconic 911 on one end, and a lot more than the already-superb Boxster S on the other end - a car that comes with the added bonus of sun and wind to go along with the driving rush. That the car we drove here in Italy was labeled "S" indicates that a regular, slightly less-powerful, Cayman will be along soon enough; perhaps for a bit less money, but with all that handling prowess, it'll be easier for it to find a place in Porsche's rapidly-expanding line-up.

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