At first glance, the 2014 Cayman seems like the essence of Porsche: A simple, fast, gorgeous coupe that stays glued to the pavement.
Other familiar hallmarks include a flat-six engine behind the driver; a trunk in front, under a sloping hood; and that raspy growl that's been broadcast through the tailpipes of Porsches for half a century.
And yet the Cayman has become more the exception than the rule at the German automaker, which today makes most of its money on sport utility vehicles and four-door sedans and finds itself chasing all sorts of technological frontiers — diesel drivetrains, dual-clutch transmissions, even battery power. The Stuttgart automaker's next plans include a smaller, cheaper SUV and an $845,000 plug-in hybrid supercar that begins selling in September.
Even the vaunted stick shift is out of favor. The most extreme versions of the iconic 911 — the GT3 and the Turbo — no longer even offer a manual transmission option.
And that's what makes the Cayman so refreshing: It's just a Porsche, true to the heritage, offered in a version with everything you need, nothing you don't, at a price attainable by mortals.
Sure, you can opt for the faster Cayman S with its 325 horsepower. You can throw in a lightning-quick dual-clutch automated manual transmission or $7,400 carbon ceramic brakes. A price tag north of $100,000 is possible.
But we tested the base model, distilled to the essentials: One mid-mounted engine, three pedals and 275 naturally aspirated horsepower. Now in its second generation, the Cayman starts at a reasonable (for a Porsche) $53,550. Our test car weighed in at $70,160.
The Cayman fills the slot in the lineup left by the evolution of the 911, now in its 50th year since Ferdinand Alexander Porsche debuted the car at the 1963 Frankfurt Motor Show. No longer a lithe, nimble little gadabout, the rear-engined 911 has grown into a larger and more expensive grand tourer. Base prices start at $85,250 and climb to $182,050 — before options.
This created space and demand for a more attainable sports car. Porsche seized this opportunity with the Cayman, a fixed-roof version of the Boxster convertible. Since Porsche started offering both in 2006, the pair have sold a total of 45,000 units, trailing the 911 by about 20,000 units, according to Edmunds.com.
This latest redesign should certainly help boost Cayman sales, based on looks alone. During our testing, more than one person asked if it was a 911, a confusion owing to the Cayman's larger size and wide stance. Curvaceous wheel wells flank a low hood that hides a surprisingly useful front trunk. On the side, a larger air inlet is positioned just ahead of the rear wheels.
Meanwhile, the roofline flows gracefully from the cabin to the taillights. The lights themselves are bisected by a horizontal crease that connects to the automatically deployable rear spoiler. The Cayman's wheelbase has grown 2.4 inches, and rigidity is up 40%, and yet the new Cayman S shaves 66 pounds.
The engine in the base model shrinks to 2.7 liters from 2.9 liters. But horsepower jumps by 10 to 275. Torque is a modest 213 pound-feet. Porsche says the car blasts from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.
Peak horsepower doesn't arrive until 7,400 rpm, just shy of the 7,800 redline. But the Cayman's boxer engine begs for such abuse; few peers sound so good at the limit or redline or encourage you to keep them there.
All this, with a fuel economy rating of 20 in the city and 30 on the highway. We averaged nearly 25 mpg in mixed driving.
The six-speed manual gearbox sends all that power to the rear wheels. Perfectly located in the center console, its throws are tight but fluid, aided by a well-balanced clutch. The Cayman even looks the other way when you stall, firing the engine back up automatically before your date notices the error.
The PDK gearbox — a sublime piece of engineering, worthy of its own course at Caltech — will definitely get you around the track faster. The dual-clutch automated manual, a $3,200 option, executes rapid-fire shifts on its own or at the driver's command, through either wheel-mounted paddles or a console shift lever. But the old-school stick shift offers a more rewarding connection between driver and car.
Our test car was not completely without the aid of electronic wizardry. Helping push the price to $70,160 was a $1,320 torque vectoring system and a $1,790 active suspension. The former system adds a dash of brake pressure to the inside wheel during a turn, adding agility in hard cornering. The active suspension gives drivers the choice of Normal or Sport settings for the chassis' stiffness and response.
These gadgets help the 2,888-pound Cayman devour mountain passes and scenic roadways. But the relentless pursuit of cornering grip left the Cayman feeling almost too sedate at the limit, without the visceral feel that offers a sixth sense of the car's connection to the road.
Much of this blame probably falls to the steering system, a more efficient electromechanical setup that replaces the hydraulic version in the previous Cayman. The older setup transferred more road imperfections into the driver's hands, but that's part of what helped the earlier Cayman feel so alive.
Still, the latest Cayman represents a leap forward in many other ways, while retaining deep roots in Porsche's heritage. The lightweight simplicity of the base Cayman reminds us that, for all the automaker's 4,000-pound sedans and chalet-bound SUVs, Porsche can still churn out a divine little sports car. Enjoy it while you can.
2014 Porsche Cayman
Times' take: A pure sports car that keeps Porsche honest
Highs: A high-revving engine with the voice of angels; can't-miss transmissions
Lows: A touch numb at the limit; still no bargain
Vehicle type: Two-door coupe sports car
Base price: $53,550
Price as tested: $70,160
Powertrain: 2.7-liter, six-cylinder boxer engine, rear-wheel drive
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Torque: 213 pound-feet
Zero to 60 mph: 5.4 seconds, according to Porsche
EPA fuel economy rating: 20 mpg city, 30 highwayCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times