I didn’t know what to expect from the Cayman R but I knew what I wanted it to be. I have a soft spot for road racers, having owned a street legal 1966 Mini Cooper S race car and an Exige S. I wanted Porsche to finally give us a full potential Cayman and the “R” on the boot lid gave me hope that they had.
First, a little bit of history courtesy of the Porsche archives. In 1967, plans began to evolve for a ‘factory’ race version of the 911. While the 911S had enjoyed success in the hands of privateers and the occasional factory-backed competition effort, the 911R was to be an ultra-light weight version of the car.
The chassis was made of the thinnest gauge steel possible, while fibreglass was used extensively replacing the fenders, front and rear deck lids and bumpers. The doors and deck lids all had aluminium hinges while the interior was stripped of all creature comforts – there were only three gauges in the car and seats were replaced with racing buckets. Side and rear windows were all replaced with Plexiglas and the floor boards were drilled and lightened. The result was a 911 that weighed 204kg less than its production equivalent.
All of the running gear was standard with the exception of larger brake callipers, wider wheels and tires, front and rear. The engine was very similar to the one used in the racing Carrera 6 (or 906) and put out an amazing 210 horsepower from its 2.0 litre 911S-based engine.Twenty-two examples of the 911R were constructed, but they were never homologated by the factory. Three 911Rs were kept by Porsche and the other 19 cars were sold to selected privateers.
The 911R made its first race appearance in July of 1967. At the 500km race for sports cars at Mugello, Italy, the 911R, driven by future Porsche stars Vic Elford and Gijs van Lennep, finished third behind two factory backed Porsche 910s and the 911R’s first win came in August of that year. With the focus of Weissach firmly on an overall victory at Le Mans, the 911R program was shelved. The car would, however, have many successes in the hands of privateers and two very important wins for the Porsche factory. In September of 1969, a factory prepared 911R driven by Gerard Larrousse and co-driven by Maurice Gelin won the Tour de France and in November won the Corsica Rally in Italy.
Although it’s less well known the R insignia (just like the ST of 1971) it was the 911R from 1967 which firmly established the meaning of this letter in the Porsche range.
Unsurprisingly, the Cayman R isn’t a featherweight racer, however, removing (potentially) 55kg from a Cayman S and adding a little more power is hardly the recipe for disappointment either.
Starting at £52k, the Cayman R is about £5k more than the Cayman S on paper. While the extra outlay adds another 15bhp and loses 55kg, you must do without the air-conditioning and radio that are standard in the S to get the full benefit. What the Cayman R does get is aluminium doors from the 911 Turbo, a proper limited slip differential, new front and rear aero package, sports seats and the lightest wheels fitted to any Porsche. Less really is more if you’re brave enough to go for the poverty spec, but good luck trying to sell a £52k car in a few years without a radio, sat nav, air conditioning. The reality is that most Cayman Rs will be specified to the same level as the Cayman S, just like our test car for the weekend, including the technically brilliant but heavier PDK gearbox.
Unlike many motoring journalists, I quite like the Cayman’s styling and the R is the best looking of them all. The delicate wheels, a fixed rear spoiler which reduces high speed lift and the retro decals along the doors are a reverent gesture to the cars that created the “R” legend.
It’s easy to be cynical about the Cayman range, which sits ever so neatly between the Boxster and 911, that is until you drive one and realise how good it really is. Do not believe anyone who says it’s a poor man’s 911.
I haven’t driven a Cayman for a couple of years and before setting off I’m once again taken aback by the amount of usable space this mid-engine coupe offers. The low slung flat-6 engine gives it proper house-moving potential compared to an Evora or a used Ferrari F360/430 which are all in a similar price range.
Another refreshing surprise is the start procedure – insert key and turn. The interior is no different to the normal Cayman or most of the 997 range but lacking the special simplified lightweight feeling, the kind perfected by Ferrari in the Challenge Stradale and Scuderia models. By now it’s clear that the Cayman R is not a GT3/Club sport style departure from the regular bloodline.
With your wallet lightened more so than the car it’s time to see what the driving experience has to offer. It takes less than 5 minutes to appreciate that this car is sharper than the Cayman S. The 20mm lower and firmer springs and passive dampers make the R feel taut and direct but the differences are subtle.
In the city and on the motorway there is very little difference between them especially with the super slick PDK working its magic. I find the PDK hyperactive on motorways because every squeeze of the throttle is met with 2 or 3 downshifts at which point I knocked it across into manual and call the shots myself.
As you’d expect, it’s not until we exit the motorway and find some challenging B-roads that the Cayman R comes alive. With sport mode engaged the PDK is more alert and responsive, using brake and steering inputs to predict the potential for upcoming corners and selecting the appropriate gear. Sport-plus, on the other hand, is completely unusable outside a race track because the PDK immediately engages the lowest gear available for a given road speed and only shifts up at the red line – it is an automatic race mode. As good as the gearbox is in auto, it’s even better when you take control of it using the wheel mounted paddles.
Given the option, I would always choose three pedals and gear stick but there is no denying that the twin-clutch self shifter allows you to take liberties simply not possible with a manual, such as changing down a gear in the middle of a corner with the outside wheels fully loaded and a launch control for making faultless, but mechanically unsympathetic getaways. Check out the video.
In the real world the Cayman R is faster and easier to drive on the limit than a basic (997) 911 Carrera. The 911 may have a slight traction advantage exiting corners but the Cayman takes them flatter and faster and the standard locking differential ensures that none of the Cayman R’s power-to-weight advantage over the basic 911 (yes you read that correctly) is wasted. On the road the R’s handing balance is superb. The stiffer suspension, lighter wheels and retuned anti-roll bars improve body control while the steering accuracy allows the car to be placed accurately and balanced on the throttle.
The 3.4l direct injection flat six makes a glorious howl as it passes 5000 rpm on its way to a rendezvous with the redline but it never feels noticeably quicker than the Cayman S and that’s because it isn’t. The close ratio 7-speed gearbox does its best to keep it on the boil resulting in constant elastic but never brutal acceleration.
It’s easy to concentrate on the enemies from within and forget about the others (I almost did actually), which is probably the biggest compliment I can give the Cayman R. Not once during our time together did I think about an Evora, Exige S, BMW 1M, M3 or a used Ferrari – not even once. The only choice was which letter should adorn the swooping rump. The Cayman S is all class but the R is just a little bit classier. I wish Porsche had given us a Cayman in the true spirit of the 1967 911R but instead they settled for a Cayman S+.
The Cayman R will only disappoint if you’re expecting a bargain GT3 or hard core Cayman S because it is neither. However, it is the best handling car that Porsche currently makes.
Now that the brilliant new (991) 911 has been released, I sincerely hope the marketing department will allow the engineers one last crack at the Cayman, the same way we got the GT3 4.0l, before it’s replaced by the new Boxster platform.
Porsche Cayman R Manual (PDK)
Price: £51,773 (£53,914); Top speed: 175mph; 0-62mph: 5.0sec (4.9sec); Economy: 29.1mpg; Co2: 228g/km; Kerb weight: 1295kg (1320kg); Engine type: 6cyls, 3436cc; Power: 330bhp at 7400rpm; Torque: 273lb ft at 4750rpm; Gearbox: six speed manual (7 speed PDK)