IT'S tough to be a younger sibling.
Consider, for instance, the Kennedy brothers. If anything, Robert F. Kennedy was even brighter and more driven than his older brother John. But it was Jack who was first in the limelight, Jack who became president, Jack who is remembered as staring down the Red Menace, Jack whose death is a symbol of lost American innocence.
So it is with the Cayman and its big brother, the Porsche 911. The Cayman might be a purer design, properly midengined for better handling: engineered using modern standards, rather than an evolution of an older layout. However, it's not a 911, and for some time, that's been the biggest strike against it. The Cayman sits in the shadow of its rear engined brother, held back from its full potential, not quite capturing the public's imagination.
What Porsche has done with this, the Cayman R, is fit Bobby Kennedy with a limited-slip differential, attach lightweight rims and aluminum doors, boost his horsepower with a sport exhaust and new engine tuning, give him new carbon-fibre racing seats and . . . y'know what? I might be pushing this metaphor a little too far.
So, the Cayman R, a lightweight, race-bred version of Porsche's wunderkind. The question: is it finally better than the 911?
First off, I have to admit I've always been on the fence about the Cayman's styling. Essentially a Boxster with a fixed roof, the littlest Porsche coupe can lack the physical presence of a 911. The bigger car's swelling haunches and teardrop perfection are at-once classic and menacing.
By comparison, the regular Cayman can fade into the background somewhat. Um, not this one.
Sporting a fixed rear wing, a stance lowered by 20- millimetres and super light weight 19-inch alloy wheels, this Cayman R is about as subtle as wearing a traffic cone on your head (although much more fashionable). The hue pictured is called Peridot, and never mind if your neighbour buys an all-electric Nissan Leaf, or Toyota Prius, or bio-diesel-converted VW Jetta TDI, if you get your Cayman R painted this colour, you'll always be able to point out that your car is technically more green.
Normally, critiques of a car's interior start with clichÃ©s like "sliding behind the wheel" or, "easing myself into the seat" as though we reviewers were (a) coated in butter or (b) suffering from hemorrhoids. Not so with the Cayman R.
Performing a set of complicated contortions that would have any yoga instructor applauding and any chiropractor making subconscious "ka-ching" noises, I (eventually) wedged myself behind the wheel of the Cayman R, drenched in sweat.
The seats are the primary offender here, fixed-back carbon-fibre race buckets with no height adjustability and enough grippy side-bolstering that getting out of the car will have you making the same noise as a cork coming out of a wine bottle.
Actually, egress is even worse than ingress: you fall out of the Cayman R as though you've been shot and are crawling to safety, and woe betide any passenger who tries to clamber out in a dress.
Since we're in here, take a look around at the spartan interior with exposed body-coloured plastic between the seats and bright red seatbelts. No buttons on the steering wheel, just a simple, driver-focused and quite serious layout.
One caveat: the fabric door-pulls are intended to save weight. Fair enough, but how much are we talking here: a few grams? I'd rather not have to explain to passengers why my $80,000 Porsche doesn't have interior door handles.
If the racing seats, lowered ride height and fixed spoiler haven't given you a clue as to the nature of the Cayman R yet, then perhaps that last letter will. They didn't call it the "R" because they were trying to appeal to pirates.
Porsche offers the Cayman R without air-conditioning (although they'll happily charge you to put it back in again), and when that 3.4-litre, 330 h.p. flat-six barks to life through the free-flowing exhaust, you'll probably start thinking about throwing the radio out as well.
It snarls, it sings, it builds to a sonorous howl near the 7,600 r.p.m. redline like some internal combustion engine version of Nessun Dorma. Yes, you can get 911s that sound this good, but only for a third more the price.
It's the perfect soundtrack to a car that has, through a collection of minor tweaks, become quite nearly a perfect Porsche. It may be set up for track day performance, but it's also just such a pleasure to drive on the road - and not in an anti-social manner.
So many new cars do such a good job of isolating you from the sensation of speed that it's easy to wander over the limit without even noticing. Sure, the Cayman R is capable of blitzing a racetrack (0-100 kilometres per hour in 4.7 seconds), but it's also equally wonderful on a backroad without driving irresponsibly. It flows through the curves, constantly feeding you information.
My tester was outfitted with Porsche's PDK dual-clutch transmission, and while it is, without doubt, the very best automatic gearbox in the world, a joy to shift with the steering wheel-mounted paddles, and technically superior to the six-speed manual, be aware that it does add weight - and $4,180 to the price tag.
So, a perfect car for all conditions, right? Not quite: during my week with the Cayman R, I did discover an Achilles heel.
My tester was outfitted with Blizzak winter tires, which were surprisingly good in the snow, but it was a very rainy week, and a combination of that lowered height and race-spec alignment meant that the rear tires were very easily overwhelmed.
While it's such a balanced car, and very easy to control (and there's always Porsche Stability Management to help out), the Cayman R loves to get sideways in the wet. That's great on the track, but drifting around all over the streets in a bright green car is not going to make you popular with the police.
Also, good luck talking your way out of a ticket while wearing a red seatbelt. Not going to happen.
Despite the race-car interior, the Cayman R is a surprisingly practical car. Because the engine is in the middle, there's a 911-matching front storage compartment, as well as a large space in the rear. As it's a hatchback, the Cayman is big enough to stow larger items like golf clubs that are a bit trickier to cram into a 911.
Fuel-economy is quite good too at 6.6 litres/100 kilometres on the highway. That's Honda Civic territory. Around town, projected mileage is 14 l/100 km and, as with any sports car, don't expect to hit these numbers if you give it the beans.
Not much is standard on the R for your $75,600 base price: airbags, cruise control and a trip computer. That's about it.
Again, the standard Cayman R has been lightened by removing air-conditioning. Putting it back in again costs you $2,010. A mild upgrade to the stereo will cost you $800.
Cupholders are a no-charge option, but does putting them in a car with no interior doorhandles make any sense to you? Me neither.
More useful options include things like the $1,780 bi-xenon cornering lights.
Dynamic lighting is fantastic in a sharp-handling car like this. Also a must-have is the Sport-Chrono package for $1,690. While a six-speed manual might not need the extra-ferocious throttle maps available through Sport Chrono, it certainly livens up driving with the PDK, especially in a track setting.
Blistering performance; razor-sharp handling; moderately practical; it's literally green.
Silly door-pulls; optional charge for a/c; tricky ingress/ egress.
The checkered flag
The very best Cayman you can buy and, dollar-for-dollar, maybe the very best Porsche.
Competitors Audi TT-RS ($67,600)
With 360 h.p. from its five-cylinder turbo-charged engine, the Audi TT-RS seems like it should be a major threat to the Cayman R. But while the Audi is also a small, lightweight coupe, the two cars are actually very different. In fact, it might make sense to have one of each in your garage.
The Audi is the all-weather road-going champ. It's not quite as sharp-feeling as the Cayman, and on a track, that gap is going to widen, but when conditions get bad, the reverse will be true. Also, it has a slight advantage in having rear seats (although they're almost too small to use).
BMW 1 Series M Coupe ($53,600)
BMW's little scrapper is one of the hottest cars around, even though it appears to be a hodge-podge of parts.
You've got a 335 h.p. twinturbo-charged inline-six out of the 335is (with a bump in power), a widened and flared version of the 135i's chassis, and the rear suspension and differential out of the M3.
As it turns out, it's a recipe for pure, unadulterated fun.
It's not the track machine that the Cayman R is, not the supremely composed daily driver that the TT-RS is, but a throwback to the pugnacious smaller BMWs of the past.