Pros: Focused performance; distinctive styling; outstanding reliability

Cons: High price; costly options; smallish size; fierce personality isn't for everyone

Available in three trim levels-base, S and R-the Porsche Cayman is the rare coupe that made its debut after its roadster variant, the Boxster. And while the open-air Boxster has suffered its share of slings from red-blooded performance enthusiasts claiming it's too cute to be taken seriously and that it's "no 911," naysayers are countered by the engine's positioning amidships for optimal weight distribution. Besides, the smaller and lighter cars' performance levels are just a few ticks behind that of their iconic stablemate.

First introduced as a 2006 model, the Cayman's performance has improved in its second generation, which was introduced in 2009. For the 2012 model year, the base version ($51,900) packs a 2.9-liter flat-6 engine producing 265 horsepower; the S ($62,100) has a 3.4-liter powerplant yielding 320 hp; the high-performance R model ($66,300) features aggressive weight savings and 330 hp from its 3.4-liter mill. Either iteration can be ordered with a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual.

This diminutive, pricey two-seater may be a tough sell when compared with more affordable offerings from high-volume manufacturers, but, as many sports car cognoscenti will attest, there's something about the way a Porsche feels-particularly the lightweight, performance-focused Cayman-that simply can't be reproduced in any other car.

Comfort & Utility

Porsche achieves the unexpected with the Cayman: although the cabin is volumetrically small, its humped roof enables six-footers to avoid feeling claustrophobic, as they would in most cars of this size. Also defying the genre are two trunks with surprisingly usable amounts of storage-5.3 cubic feet in the front and 9.2 cubic feet at the rear.

The experience in the cabin is comfortable enough, though there's no forgetting you're in a small vehicle; while its Lilliputian dimensions aren't quite clown car material, the Cayman also comes across as compact and immediate; the placement of the controls furthers that impression of intimacy.

One of the main complaints surrounding the Cayman is that simple aesthetic upgrades will cost you dearly; for example, there are no fewer than 21 aluminum trim options, from an "aluminum look" center console ($730) and stainless steel door entry guards ($415) to a customized PDK selector and hand brake lever ($2,390). Similar options exist for carbon fiber, leather, wood, and black trim-the lists go on.

When well equipped, the Cayman becomes a handsomely finished sports car that's a pleasure to behold. But without some of those extras (a leather-lined dashboard, for instance), the Cayman's spartan interior will feel less high-end than you might expect.

Technology

The Porsche Cayman packs the usual coterie of technological creature comforts. Navigation is optional, and Bluetooth/MP3 interfaces became standard in 2011. But the majority of its tech features are focused on performance.

For starters, Porsche Active Suspension Management ($2,090) uses electronic dampers to adjust ride stiffness. The PDK transmission ($3,420) enables smooth, clutchless gearshifts with quicker acceleration and better fuel economy than the three-pedal setup. Porsche isn't particularly generous with its performance features, and ticking each box quickly adds to the MSRP. For instance, a limited-slip differential costs $950; the Sport Chrono package runs $960; sport exhaust increases the price by $2,810 and ceramic composite brakes are a steep $8,150.

Don't get us wrong, there are many sophisticated features available on the Cayman-but be warned that they have a way of escalating the cost at a dizzying pace.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Acceleration, steering feel and handling dynamics are strong suits of the Cayman, and they're available in three degrees of intensity: base, S and R. Zero to 60 mph can be achieved in 5.5, 4.9 or 4.7 seconds, respectively-quick but not blindingly fast times. But as many Porschephiles will tell you, this car is more about driving feel than outright numbers.

All Cayman models avoid gas guzzler tax, thanks in part to their lightweight construction and sophisticated drivetrains. Equipped with a PDK transmission, the base model's 2.9-liter flat-6 achieves a respectable 20/29 mpg. The bigger-engined S version is equipped with direct injection, which maintains fuel economy numbers at 20/29 mpg-impressive considering its robust acceleration. Although the R's engine produces an extra 10 hp, its fuel economy figures also remain at 20/29 mpg, very likely due to its additional weight cutting measures.

Safety

It may not win the battle for crumple-zone-bashing curb weight, but the Porsche Cayman is engineered with plenty of safety-conscious features-including nimble handling, stability control and brakes with precharging and brake assist-to help you avoid a wreck before it happens.

Caymans are built with a system of high-tensile steel body reinforcements intended to minimize deformation of the passenger cell. In addition to six airbags, passive safety features include an energy-absorbing dashboard and force-limited seatbelt pretensioners.

Driving Impressions

When you're behind the wheel of a Porsche Cayman, maneuverability, responsiveness and immediate power come first and foremost. Ride quality will vary greatly depending on wheel/tire package. The Cayman's bias toward handling doesn't leave much room for ride comfort-granted, the relatively low unsprung mass of its suspension components means that it handles some bumpy roads better than you expect, but this is still a taut, glued-down sports car with an uncompromising bias towards handling.

Power is copious in all three models but edgiest in the R, which also comes with a more aggressive suspension that is satisfyingly sharp on twisty roads but punishing on all but the smoothest surfaces. The R also takes a more mercenary approach to weight loss, with optional air conditioning, a stereo available as a no-cost addition and door handles replaced with nylon pulls. All are distinctly unluxurious choices but could be music to the ears of hard-core driving enthusiasts. Also satisfying is the R's instantaneous response to steering and throttle inputs, which produces crisp lane changes and fleet passing maneuvers punctuated by a sharp, mechanical-sounding exhaust note.

Other Cars to Consider

Lotus Evora - Similarly focused on driving dynamics and communicative feedback, the Evora (starting at $64,000) offers compelling performance and plenty of character. Where it loses ground to the Porsche is in bulletproof refinement. This is a low-volume offering from a niche manufacturer, and it has the quirks to prove it.

BMW 1 M Coupe - The $46,135 1 M Coupe is an impressively honed pure expression of a sports car. Unlike the Cayman, it offers small rear seats for those times you absolutely must haul more than one passenger. We can't fault BMW for calling this the spiritual successor to its E30-generation M3, but since all 1,000 of these ultra-limited production coupes are spoken for, most will simply call it the performance bargain that got away.

Audi TT RS - The edgiest TT yet, this $56,850 RS is the answer to the prayers of many Audi fanatics. It comes with a manual-only transmission and a thundering 360 horsepower. Those attracted to performance purity may be put off by the TT's front-engine/all-wheel-drive layout, but there's still plenty to like in this buttoned-down package.

AutoTrader Recommends

Getting the base Cayman, and springing for a few performance-enhancing options including active suspension management is one way to go. But for those wanting an uncompromising Porsche experience, the R might be the only choice for you.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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