I’m standing in the pit lane of Portugal’s wondrous Estoril race circuit, having just had my unbridled way with the new 2020 Porsche 718 Cayman GTS 4.0, marvelling at the strange juxtaposition of a sports car that’s returned to former old-school, naturally aspirated ways while seemingly evolving into the best example of the GTS breed yet.
In a way, the Cayman GTS has come full circle, returning to the unboosted flat-six format that was put to pasture in 2016 at the end of the 981 generation, a 3.4-litre unit outputting 250kW.
The new version’s 4.0-litre unit is derived from the current 911 engine family and makes 294kW, only slightly detuned (by 10kW) from that found in the current limited-run Cayman GT4 and Spyder.
At 4.5 seconds for the 0–100km/h sprint, the new six-speed-manual-only coupe is slightly quicker than the old 981 fitted with a quicker-shifting PDK dual-clutch we tested back in 2014, though the key commonality is character, with both engines revving to a sonorous 7800rpm ceiling.
Nestled between these two high-revving flat sixes sits the last 718 Cayman GTS, the turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder version I found myself driving at Ascari in Spain back in late 2017.
Manual for manual, the new 718 GTS 4.0 is no quicker than the turbo-four version – in fact, fitted with the PDK, the latter could hit 0–100km/h in a scant 4.1sec. And you can bet the new 718 GTS 4.0 will match it once the dual-clutch gearbox arrives as an option later this year.
Point is, the 2020 Cayman GTS 4.0 is no quicker than the old 2.5T. In fact, it’s one-tenth quicker than the current Cayman S PDK which, at $151,290 list, is over $20K more affordable than the new 4.0-litre GTS manual’s $172,400 ask before on-roads.
Yet here I am at Estoril standing next to a Python Green 718 GTS 4.0, its optional ceramic-composite brakes still daisy-fresh despite 260km/h ABS stops at the end of its 986m main straight, its Pirellis punished to within millimetres of their treads’ lives. And I’m genuinely thinking, 'Would I really want for a more fun-filled, driver-focused sports car experience than that?'.
Sure, there’s a formidable list of other Porsches – 911s, 718 GT4, the turbo-four 718 PDK – that are probably more capable, grippier and ultimately quicker around the Portuguese circuit or a number of racetracks. But when it comes to organic and analogue connection between driver and hot-mix wrapped in sensory-tingling fanfare, the GTS 4.0 is so damn satisfying that wanting for more seems excessive for excess’s sake. Even if it’s nudging $190K with those fancy stoppers.
And while I’d love to see how much extra the GT4 has in its tank, it’s also another $35K up the fiscal tree track-fit with ceramic anchors.
That glorious naturally aspirated boxer six would prove its mettle on-track – which I’ll get to shortly – but I’m inclined to believe it’s well worth a big chunk of the extra $26,200 invested beyond the turbo-four Cayman S. Half of it in sheer soundtrack alone. But the GTS 4.0 does load other gear in for what’s quite a convincing value pitch, if at $172,400 for a cleanskin.
You get typical GTS-spec black-accented details, sporty bodywork enhancements, fetching satin-finish 718 Sport-style 20-inch wheels and tinted bi-xenon dynamic headlights and (static) tail-lights outside. Meanwhile, the interior is awash with Alcantara, including the headlining, with a choice of red or light grey ‘Crayon’ stitching, seatbelts and instrumentation, and a specific ‘GT’ steering wheel.
The key cabin upgrade, though, are the race-style Sport Plus buckets – certifiably track-centric pews with huge side bolsters and largely mechanical adjustment.
But that $26K starts to look well worth the splurge once you stack up the GTS-specific go-faster gear. Suspension is a firmer, lower (20mm total drop) adaptively damped ‘PASM’ set-up than the S-spec 10mm-lower chassis, and it gets a torque-vectoring mechanical LSD and dynamic gearbox mounts not offered on lower-grade Caymans. Brakes, too, are more powerful six- and four-piston monobloc calipers with larger 350mm and 330mm discs front and rear.
Sport Chrono, usually a $3770 sting, is also standard issue, bringing with it track-savvy Sport Plus drive mode, a wheel-mounted mode selector, throttle-blip rev-matching on downshifts (Sport and Sport Plus), and a ‘loose’ Sport stability-control calibration among other racy addenda.
In short, it’s match-fit and track-friendly out of the box with little left to want for. That said, buyers intent on spending more time on-road than on-circuit can, for no extra cost, opt for the more tempered Cayman S-grade 10mm-lower suspension and/or more comfort-leaning 14-way-electric Sport seats as a no-cost option.
It’s in this more ‘street’ configuration – a Gentian Blue metallic version – that kicks off our Estoril hot-lapping, albeit an example wearing ceramic brake hardware.
We’re barely out of pit lane and through the sweeping Curva 2 and the glorious 4.0-litre boxer six is already deep into its seduction, its metallic bark bouncing around inside the cabin, rising to a sonorous scream the more RPM that is piled on.
It takes half a dozen upshifts to hit 7000rpm peak power to acclimatise to the sonics and the sheer breadth of engine available.
This engine does what great, sports-honed, naturally aspirated ones do: its responses and sonics are linear and intimate to every incremental movement of the right foot, impossibly linear, and in complete cooperation with the driver’s whims.
There so much RPM to play with and so much consistent tractability throughout, there’s little wonder the Cayman only needs six forward ratios: chasing the redline in sixth gear will net you 293km/h if the path ahead is long enough.
As linear as the engine is, it’s still only producing a maximum of 420Nm, which only arrives once you’ve spun up 5000rpm, where peak torque holds station until 6500rpm.
Maximum power arrives without the slightest ripple in delivery at 7000rpm, though being the wunderkind that the flat-six is, there’s still another 800rpm of head room to play with before the cut-out clamps down.
The upshot is that the engine’s full-noise sweet spot is 5000–7800rpm at its absolute widest. So, while its powerband is beautifully cooperative and amply potent, you really have to spank the GTS hard for it to return its best.
You don’t have some force-fed tsunami of torque tearing at the tyres on corner exits, and the coupe can get caught off the boil with too much lazy short-shifting.
That’s the beauty of the naturally aspirated, conventional manual format. It doesn’t mask poor driving technique via an abundance of output, and the amount of pace generated is almost entirely down to driver skill. And the key challenge to the Cayman GTS is also its most rewarding.
Thankfully, the six-speed manual is a wonderful ally: even in these left-hook cars with my poor Aussie right-arm muscle memory, there are no clumsy miss-shifts, the gearbox’s narrow gating and short throw allowing rapid-fire changes with a flick of the wrist.
The clutch, too, is meaty and nicely progressive, the engine’s dual-mass flywheel (from the 911 GT3) keeping engine response mid-change perfectly crisp, and the rev-matching function removing any nasty compression lock-up during Estoril’s two heart-stopping, full-ABS stops into either Curva 1 or the Parabolica Interior.
The ceramic brakes really are superb for the hot-lapping task at hand. It’s not simply the tremendous power under foot, the amount of poise and progression present allow pinpoint driver control – to the point where it feels almost as if the Cayman GTS is standing on its nose while the bum sways about deep into the braking zones.
Throughout, the chassis is ever-faithful, keenly poised, and somehow manages to remain playful enough to respond to inputs of steering and the weight shifting of lift-off or braking, yet maintaining an almost benign, safe-as-houses balance. Caymans (and Boxsters) have, as a breed, presented more chassis talent than the available power and road speed can comfortably handle, and adding an engine as wondrous as the 4.0 really brings the Cayman package into its own.
Dynamically, the Cayman GTS is as benign or as tail-wagging lairy as the driver wants it to be. And the cooperation of the engine and gearbox simply amplifies the intimacy of the chassis and what the driver wants to do with it. But the coupe can be overdriven and those Pirellis can be overpowered, it’s just that the lofty interaction the car allows between driver and tarmac means that you can indulge in the wildest interplay without the scary, white-knuckled ‘moments’. And that’s with the S-grade ‘comfort’ suspension of this blue test car.
I swap into the green car, the more standard-issue GTS with its race-style seating and firmer 20mm-lower ‘GTS’ suspension. And the difference those two changes make is noticeable enough to make for a clear favourite.
In terms of dynamic capabilities, there’s hardly a night-and-day difference between the two Cayman GTSs. And, frankly, you’d really have to back-to-back the pair as I did to notice much of a difference. I’d happily plug either example around a circuit all day, but given a choice I’d clearly take the green version, because that extra five or 10 per cent of handling talent is difference enough in a model range that operates at its best beyond 90 per cent of maximum attack.
The ‘full’ GTS chassis feels a little crisper in response and a little clearer in control, mostly the utterly superb steering. It plants itself into the hot mix a little better, and inspires even more confidence to be wrung out a bit harder. But it’s this chassis's ability to recover from lost lateral traction – to resume the chosen trajectory after a slide, say – that allows a faster lap time because it encourages you to nudge closer to ten-tenths. Especially when it comes to tracking really fast lines through sweepers, such as Curva 2, the back straight kink or the Parabolica.
Would the turbo 2.5-litre four-cylinder 718 Cayman GTS be quicker here at Estoril? Perhaps. I don’t know for sure. And without a stopwatch in sight, in the game of chasing satisfaction primarily through driving fun and satisfaction, I really don’t care.
The 4.0-litre six and conventional manual combination in a gym-fit Cayman is so thoroughly rewarding on-track that I actually couldn’t fathom opting for the alternative turbo route myself.
That said, it’s not the Cayman for everybody. If you’re into more balanced driving, prefer more easily accessible low-end torque, more favorable consumption – the GTS is 10.9L/100km combined against the Cayman S PDK’s 7.4L/100km – and much less upfront outlay for a sports car just as quick to 100km/h, then the regular S starts to look the more pragmatic choice for a more road-centric Porsche sports car.
And given we’ve got the Cayman’s twin in a 718 Boxster GTS 4.0 for a jaunt around the Portuguese hills and coastline, that’s where we’re headed next… (read that story here)