It's been variously belittled as a Boxster with a roof, or the Porsche that tells people you can't afford a 911 … but the Porsche Cayman emerged in 2005 to quickly establish itself as one of the great driver's cars.
Named after a type of alligator rather than the tax-haven islands whose residents certainly could afford far more expensive Porsches, the Cayman arrived in 2013 in all-new form for the first time in eight years.
We’ve reviewed the new Porsche Cayman in isolation both overseas and on home soil, but how does it fare against two natural rivals?
We’ll be honest and reveal that this comparison wasn’t exactly strategically planned and was more a case of sports car planets aligning fortuitously.
Lotus test vehicles tend to be thin on the ground, and the one day an Exige S became available we just happened to have both a Cayman and the hottest version of the Audi TT in the garage.
It means it’s not quite the perfect match-up in terms of power.
The Porsche Cayman S and its 239kW 3.4-litre six-cylinder is needed to be the direct competitor to the identically priced ($139,900) TT RS, which produces 265kW, and the $119,900 258kW Exige S.
But while the base Cayman has just 202kW, power is only one facet of the sports car contest under scrutiny as we set out to find which is the best driver’s car here…
ENGINES AND TRANSMISSIONS
Three sports cars, three different engine configurations. The Audi TT RS makes a nod to the company’s legendary 1980 Quattro with a transversely mounted 2.5-litre in-line five-cylinder up front.
Lotus and Porsche both offer six cylinders, positioned behind the driver, with the British car adopting a vee format 3.5-litre borrowed from Toyota while the second German’s 2.7-litre continues with the famous Boxer layout – with three pistons facing each other in a flat position and ‘sparring’ during the combustion process.
Only the Porsche makes do without forced induction to feed greater amounts of the atmosphere into the air/fuel mix, and it’s therefore not a great shock to see it generating the lowest outputs.
The base Porsche Cayman produces 202kW of power at 7400rpm and 290Nm of torque between 4500 and 6500rpm.
In the middle of the power pecking order sits the supercharged Lotus Exige S with peak power of 258kW and 400Nm. Audi’s TT RS has the most impressive spec sheet, however, with its turbocharged five-cylinder cranking out 265kW at and 463Nm.
Wisely, the TT RS gets those high numbers to the ground via all four wheels rather than just the fronts as with lower-grade versions of the coupe – and a standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Porsche and Lotus go the classic sports car route with rear-wheel drive. The former comes standard with a six-speed manual but our test car was equipped with the optional ‘PDK’ seven-speed dual-clutch auto, but the latter is stick-shift only with six gear ratios.
The TT RS is the second fastest model in the Audi catalogue (behind the R8 supercar), though even with the off-the-line traction advantages of all-wheel drive and a super-quick-shifting gearbox its ability to accelerate from zero to 100km/h in an impressive 4.1 seconds is just eclipsed by the Lotus.
Key to the Exige S’s stunning acceleration – 4.0 seconds – is the mantra behind every Lotus: light weight.
Where the TT RS and Cayman tip the scales at a portly 1475kg and respectable 1340kg, respectively, the Lotus Exige S has a total mass of just 1176kg.
To put that in perspective, the Audi is carrying the equivalent of about four average-sized adults.
Still, acceleration from a standstill and through the gears is laughably quick in the Audi and Lotus.
There’s no turbo lag worthy of mention in the Audi, and the Lotus’s mechanical supercharger provides even more linearity.
Shift quality of the Lotus’s manual isn’t great, though. It gets its engines from Toyota, but they should go to Honda for their gearboxes.
Even if you had an S badge on your Porsche Cayman, you still wouldn’t get close in a standing-start sprint – 4.9 seconds with a PDK transmission.
In the standard Porsche Cayman, the experience is more progressive – and reflected by a 5.6sec time. But while it takes more time to build speed, the Porsche only feels a touch slow in this company and is incredibly rewarding in the way that every incremental press of the accelerator pedal translates into an incremental increase in momentum.
The yowling single-pitch from the rev-happy six-cylinder that’s such a bespoke Porsche sound is quite wondrous, and almost as addictive as the warbly tones of the TT RS that’s complemented by parps and crackles from the exhaust during hard acceleration.
The Lotus is, well, just noisy. It’s a bit of a din in the cabin, with supercharger whine mixing with a lot of road noise.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
Noisy the Lotus may be, but it seems a natural fit for a two-door that is more road-legal race car than sports car. The Exige S is a car that should come with a warning sticker - “For hardcore drivers only” – because it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Unlike the Audi and Porsche, there is zero focus on refinement and cosseting. And it requires more effort, mentally and physically.
The latter you’ll notice the first time you turn the wheel. With no power steering (purely hydraulic), and a tiny wheel, low-speed manoeuvres such as parking will feel like a work-out session at Gold’s Gym.
That steering comes into its own, however, as speeds rise and the scenery switches from building backdrops to flowing fields.
It’s incredibly communicative, out-doing the Porsche’s new electric steering for relaying information from the road to the driver’s fingertips.
Every bump, every camber is telegraphed, though while the Lotus isn’t deflected from the driver’s chosen line it’s highly advisable to keep both hands on the wheel due to the Exige S’s brutal acceleration.
The Lotus’s ability to gather pace with such great force is also reason to keep an eye on your speedo, because it would be all too easy to trigger a read-out on a police car’s radar gun that will illuminate sirens.
Around corners, there’s also tremendous traction from the rear wheels, and the brakes are simply brilliant.
The suspension of the Lotus Exige S is uncompromisingly stiff. It makes the Briton perfect for racetracks and okay for most roads. But as we found on our long test route an especially poor road will force the driver to back off … or face the prospect of the wheels losing enough contact with the bitumen for control of the car to fall into the lap of the gods rather than the driver.
Extra suppleness in the underpinnings of the Cayman and TT RS meant the Porsche and Audi simply sail on, tempting the driver into adding rather than subtracting speed.
Audi’s Quattro division created a masterpiece in its R8 supercar, though it’s been a hit and miss case with its RS models that sit atop a number of the company’s vehicle lines.
The performance arm hasn’t been able to overcome some of the TT coupe’s bad traits. The TT RS’s suspension, propped up by low-profile, 19-inch wheels, crashes into the bump-stops over holes and is almost permanently fidgety – even struggling to settle on the freeway.
The steering, too, isn’t a match for the rival helms here, short on feedback and heft.
Not all is lost for the Audi, however. The steering still offers plenty of precision and speed, while the flat-bottomed, perforated leather wheel feels great in the hands.
The quattro all-wheel-drive system provides exhilarating, sling-shot acceleration out of corners, and those 19-inch tyres produce high levels of grip.
It’s heading into and driving through corners, however, where the nose-heavier front-engined Audi can’t match the delicate balance of the mid-engined Lotus and Porsche.
Here, you quickly forget about the Porsche’s relative lack of acceleration speed compared with the TT RS and Exige S, because in corners the handling is both supreme and sublime.
With its weight centred, like the Lotus, the Cayman turns into corners with more directness and speed than the Audi, then setting itself through bends with poise not even any other Porsche can match.
A bigger footprint than the previous generation, through wider tracks and an extended wheelbase, helps the stability cause, as does a lighter body resulting from various parts being made from aluminium rather than steel.
One fact that continues to stun is that the Cayman is twice as stiff as its convertible twin, the Boxster – a car itself that is about as wobbly as an oak tree stump set in concrete.
The Porsche is a more relaxed mid-engined experience than the Lotus. The Cayman’s composure, whether mid-corner or under braking, is never compromised.
Despite such unerring body control, the Porsche’s suspension complies remarkably with road surface – though tyre roar can be loud at times. It’s the only car in this comparison that can be genuinely described as cosseting for long drives.
Comfort isn’t a word you’re likely to use with the Lotus. Great in short bursts, you’ll be drained by driving the Exige S any fair distance.
Even getting into the car is hard, clumsy work. Your instinct will be to go legs first into the Lotus, but you actually need to go bum first.
Once you’ve contorted your body and gone for a drive, then you have to get out. It requires the sort of ungainly body manoeuvring you’d be more used to seeing in a game of Twister and makes the Exige S the last car you’d choose for arriving at a red carpet event.
We mentioned earlier that the Lotus feels more like a road-legal race car, and the cabin does its best to impart a motorsport feel.
You would almost only have to add a fire extinguisher to the passenger footwell, remove the passenger seat and add a roll cage and you’d be ready to line up at a CAMS-approved racing event.
The Lotus’s interior is extremely basic, stripped to the bare essentials – even air-con is optional – and also quite cramped. Vision is good outwards but obscured rearwards by the combination of the sloping glass window and wing appendage (not that anyone will be overtaking you any time soon).
Quality is not always convincing. A piece of roof-lining fell off during testing, the passenger window wouldn’t rise completely into its sealing, and the rear hatch was difficult to shut flush with the body.
There will be a third-generation Audi TT in 2014, and although an RS version is likely to be at least two years after that the current cabin is inevitably fighting the ageing process.
That includes the absence of some features, such as auto on/off headlights and Bluetooth audio streaming, you’d expect in a new car released today – especially one costing $140,000.
Visually, there may be a few wrinkles if you compare the TT with more recent Audis but fit/finish and selection of materials is still impeccable.
The driving position, with its slightly higher seat elevation, isn’t quite as sports car perfect as the Porsche’s, though there is more adjustment than the Lotus that offers fore/aft movement only.
The Cayman’s interior is hard to fault in other areas. Some of the buttons are a bit fiddly, but generally cabin ergonomics are excellent and the overall interior experience is more sophisticated than ever before thanks to the superb texture and quality of the leathers and plastics, and design.
The centre console that rises seamlessly into the centre stack transfers from other Porsches to bring more style and sophistication to the Cayman.
Practicality is usually a fair way down the list of priorities for sports car buyers, though both the Audi and Porsche are particularly good here.
The TT RS’s hatch lifts to reveal storage space, and the rear seats – while not much use for humans – are another luggage solution, especially when folded down.
The previous Porsche Cayman was relatively handy for practicality, too, but the new model increases cargo capacity by a further 50 litres.
A total of 425 litres is split between the front ‘boot’ (150L) and the rear cargo section (275L). (Placing an engine in the middle of the car has advantages other than handling.)
Exige S owners will find themselves stopping at the petrol station more regularly. Not only is the fuel tank significantly smaller at 40 litres, but the Lotus also uses the most fuel – 10.1 litres per 100km against 8.5L/100km for the TT RS and 7.7L/100km for the Cayman.
It’s just one of the many compromises the Lotus requests from owners in return for its riotous driving experience that in many ways feels like driving a grown-up go-kart.
But if sports cars are a niche, Lotus cars in Australia are an even smaller cranny. Buyers are typically well versed in the brand’s history and most would certainly be keen track day drivers, though $120,000 still seems steep for what you get from the Lotus Exige S – especially with the number of optional extras.
The Audi TT RS doesn’t present an obvious price justification, either, when you compare it to the TT S that is still plentiful quick and is more than $40,000 cheaper.
A lack of ride comfort also reduces its everyday enjoyment, but that turbocharged five-cylinder is a pure joy to hear and exploit at any given opportunity.
Each member of this trio deliver thrills, but the best driver’s car here is also the car that is the easiest to live with on a daily basis.
The comfort level of the Porsche Cayman that provides such sensational handling is almost super-natural.
You can buy the Cayman S for even sharper acceleration and outright speed, but if you can afford only the base model you’ll hardly feel cheated.
Germans may call this the poor man’s Porsche, but who cares when you get a driving experience so richly rewarding.
Engine: 2.5-litre 5-cyl turbo
Power: 265kW at 5500-6700rpm
Torque: 463Nm at 1650-5400rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
Fuel consumption: 8.5L/100km
CO2 emissions: 197g/km
0-100km/h: 4.1 seconds
Engine: 3.5-litre V6
Power: 258kW at 7000rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 4500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 10.1L/100km
CO2 emissions: 236g/km
0-100km/h: 4.0 seconds
Price: from $107,000 ($115,000 auto)
Engine: 2.7-litre 6-cyl
Power: 202kW at 7400rpm
Torque: 290Nm at 4500-6500rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
Fuel consumption: 7.7L/100km (8.2 manual)
CO2 emissions: 180g/km
0-100km/h: 5.6 seconds (PDK)
Weight: 1340kg (PDK)