The Dream Realized
Gliding through Portimao’s Samsung corner, former World Rally Champion Walter Rohrl is driving the Cayman GT4 very, very quickly, but by now I’ve spent enough time with the car to sense it’s got some left in it. As we exit Turn 9, Rohrl glances in the mirror at the three GT4s tailing us. They’re keeping up. His face, already stoic, tightens slightly. His eyes narrow, and his body language is suddenly slightly but obviously more serious.
It’s on. Rohrl is driving the GT4 for everything it’s worth. Three corners later, he backs off a bit, looks over at me, and says dryly, “Sometimes you have to show them who is the chief.”
It’s there, at the razor’s edge, where I finally appreciate just how good the GT4 is. Rohrl has left the traction and stability control on, and they never make themselves known, even allowing him to rotate the car several degrees at corner exit. It’s immediately clear to me the car wants to go even faster, but we’ve reached the limit of what the best street tire can do. For his part, Rohrl doesn’t appear to be working any harder. He’s just shifting faster and braking less.
On the next lap, I ask him if he would change anything aside from the tires if he were to enter the car in a race. “The car is so well-balanced,” he says. “It’s so smooth.” He pauses a moment, then answers firmly. “No.”
One would expect a Porsche brand ambassador to say nice things about the new car, but I get the impression Rohrl would happily compliment the GT4 for free. After all, there’s very little not to compliment.
Most people want to talk about the engine, which we will, but really, the goodness starts at the corners. The front suspension and tires have been pulled part and parcel from the 911 GT3. The rear suspension is upgraded with a new knuckle and helper springs, hidden behind the widest tires ever factory-fitted to a Cayman. All four corners get active dampers and ball joints for suspension mounts. The tires are Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s. They’re assisted by a big, fixed rear wing, a small ducktail spoiler below it, and a big front splitter. Together, they generate 220 pounds of downforce minimum and more than 240 pounds if you manually adjust the wing and remove the spats ahead of the front wheels.
The result is a car bewilderingly easy to drive fast. With more grip than power, it takes a concerted effort to upset the chassis in any way and far more effort to keep it upset. Short of entering in a professional rally event, you won’t find the limits of its grip on the street. Even bumps and holes can’t shake it. When we nailed an unseen mid-corner dip with the left rear tire at high speed, I have no doubt that tire left the ground, but the two were immediately put back into contact, and the chassis registered only the slightest shimmy. Very few cars in the world exhibit this sort of completely unshakeable grip and the resulting driver confidence, and one of them has a 3 in its name rather than a 4.
On top of it all, the ride quality is shockingly good. Normal mode is tuned for the rough and tough Nurburgring Nordschleife, and as a result the car rides very well on underfunded public roads. Unlike some track-oriented cars, this one you could just as easily road trip in, even with the optional and surprisingly comfortable fixed 918 Spyder-derived racing seats. Even with the dampers set to Sport, the ride is more than tolerable, just stiff. On a modern racetrack, it means that much more control.
The key component tying it all together is the steering. Controlled by a de-cluttered 918 Spyder steering wheel, it’s simply unimpeachable. The weighting and precision are perfect, and the rack lets the important road feel and feedback come through while filtering out the useless stuff. It makes the car incredibly nimble and gives a feeling of lightness not actually reflected on the scales, where it’s about as heavy as a Cayman GTS.
Taken to task, the GT4 returns beautifully neutral handling. Grip levels are so high that under- and oversteer are difficult to induce, with the former slightly easier to provoke. Getting anything more than a mild push requires a serious driving mistake, and the same goes for oversteer. The car will rotate a few degrees with well-timed trailing throttle mid-corner or too much throttle at corner exit, but the rotation is slow and smooth and easily controlled with the throttle.
When you encounter a corner you simply must slow down for, you’ll find that the car has more brakes than power. Lifted from the GT3, as well, the 15-inch steel rotors at all corners get clamped by six pistons in front and four in the rear. Brake pedal progression and feedback are perfect, allowing you to be extremely precise in your braking. There’s also a carbon-ceramic brake package, but the steelies are so hard to fade that it seems unnecessary.
With such incredible braking and handling abilities, the GT4 becomes as much a teacher as an ally. In its responses to your inputs, the GT4 will show you exactly what you’ve done wrong in any given corner. Its reactions to late braking, early or late turn-in, overly aggressive throttle inputs, and so on are textbook definitions, and if you listen to them, you’ll know exactly what to do on the next lap to get it right. If you do manage to get the car out of sorts, it’s so forgiving that your confidence won’t suffer. It bites just enough to get your attention but not enough to scare you off the track. It’s a post-graduate study in handling to a Miata’s undergraduate education.
The downside is this: It’s almost too good. On a public road, it takes suicidal speeds to really feel like you’re challenging the car. Anyone with any sense will have backed down before then. You live for that fleeting moment when you can see more than one corner up the road and confirm there’s no traffic, people, or buildings. On the track, you must identify the corners you’re scared of then grit your teeth and carry more speed through them. The car can handle it, and it won’t make you feel like a hero until you push the bounds of your comfort zone. The GT4 makes you work very hard for the emotional reward that comes from driving fast, but it makes you a better driver along the way.
Then there’s the powertrain. Enthusiasts have been begging and demanding a more powerful, harder-edged Cayman since the first auto journalist suggested it could handle a few more ponies. Finally we’ve got one, and it’s got a 911 engine just to thumb a nose at the conspiracy theorists who believe Porsche is actively sabotaging the Cayman to protect the 911. The 385-hp, 3.8-liter, naturally aspirated flat-six isn’t quite as powerful as a Carrera S, owing to a different induction system and tuning, but it’s not being held back. The engine revs freely and quickly, and the power is found when it’s working hardest. Low-end torque is just above adequate for the caliber of the car, allowing you to go hard into the throttle at corner exit without worrying much about oversteer. The engine truly comes to life at 4,000 rpm, when the torque leaves its mid-range plateau and shoots for the sky. You’ll never want to let the needle fall below the 4 again. Inside the car, it’s a healthy dose of induction noise not unlike an old air-cooled 911. Outside, it sounds like a spec racing car with just enough muffler to meet legal requirements.
The dirty truth — cliched and ungrateful as it sounds — is that this improved chassis could take even more. More power, and especially more torque. Yes, it might give up some refinement and neutrality, but the thrills would be worth it. But then it would be a lot like a GT3. Still, a GT4 RS would be incredible.
The six-speed manual shifter is far less able to be improved upon. It’s the best manual transmission Porsche has ever done and the best on the market today. The shifter is light and precise, with just enough notchiness to let you know you’re fully in gear. Throws are short, and the gates are closely spaced. The clutch is light but easy to feel out. It’s simply amazing how quickly you can change gears. The only mark against it is a somewhat weak reverse lockout that can occasionally be breached when attempting a fast 3-2 downshift. Porsche is looking into it, and it wouldn’t stop me from picking this manual over any other on offer today. Should you care to use it, the automatic downshift engine rev-matching feature works perfectly.
When driving the Cayman GT4, it’s immediately and inescapably clear this is a car built by people who love to drive above all else. It’s something not all sports cars can say, which makes it all the more special. The car was designed not just to be faster but also fun and exciting and rewarding. At the same time, though, it doesn’t give up its rewards easily. It not only forces you to be better but also teaches you how to do it. The more you drive it, the more you want to drive it. The harder you want to drive it. The faster you want to drive it. All because you know that it only gets better the harder you push it and yourself.
|2016 Porsche Cayman GT4|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Mid-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe|
|ENGINE||3.8L/385-hp/310-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve flat-6|
|CURB WEIGHT||2950 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||174.7 x 71.5 x 49.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.2 sec (mfr est)|
|ON SALE IN CANADA||Fall 2015|