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Payne: Porsche Cayman GTS sings sweet music for the sports car purist


Hell — In this age of rapid technological change, we crave analog experiences. We enjoy unplugged instrumental music. Or cozying up with a page-turning novel rather than a digital Kindle. In the auto world, the normally aspirated, rear-wheel-drive manual sports car is the purist’s choice. MX-5 Miata, Mustang GT, Subaru BRZ.

The summit of the art form is the Porsche Cayman GTS.

With its howling 394-horsepower flat-6 engine amidships, six-speed manual shifter and tight chassis, it is the Stradivarius of pure automotive instruments. On the writhing roads of Livingston County west of Hell, the Cayman proved why you have to take this thoroughbred out of the city to fully realize its potential.

Hadley Road swells and dips like a roller-coaster with blind turns and long straightaways. The Cayman GTS stuck to every undulation like a fly to flypaper. Its steering is telepathic, hitting my marks — the front and rear ends a symphony of balance. Speaking of symphonies, the six-cylinder chambers breathe in natural air like God intended — no turbos or superchargers here — then exhale through twin pipes with a passionate wail.

Like listening to Springsteen belt the chorus of “Born to Run,” I kept the volume on high — habitually driving a gear lower so I could maintain revs over 3,000 RPM. 

Yet even as the Cayman GTS has achieved iconic status, it is under assault on multiple fronts.

The greatest threat are government killjoys who aim to strangle the flat-6’s vocal chords. In order to meet increasingly restrictive global emissions rules, Cayman (and sister Boxster convertible) had to downsize to four pistons in 2017 — resorting to the turbocharger to maintain power.

Robbed of the six’s siren call, customers went elsewhere and U.S. Cayman sales dropped by half in 2019. Under Communist China’s strict mandates, the 4-banger is all that’s available, but in the USA, Porsche heard customer demand and rallied to offer the flat-6 where possible (matched with a manual to sweeten the deal).

The result is the GTS and Cayman GT4 models, which represent the mid-engine terror’s rebel soul.

At M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway in Pontiac, I paused at pit exit to engage launch control. WAAUUUUGGHHH! The engine spiked at 5500 RPM before I dumped the clutch and leapt into Turn One, clicking off upshifts with short, precise throws.  

The lap is an enthralling carnival ride with multiple thrills: neck-straining G-loads, lurid power slides, heart-stopping brakes. The aural highlight comes on the back straight where I exit the hairpin in first gear, then open the throttle to 8,000 RPM as I row the box — BAM, BAM, BAM — to fourth gear. Some people like Carmen, I’ll take the Cayman’s operatic notes.

But as European nannies further turn the screws, Car and Driver reports that the next-gen Cayman-Boxer will be electric — a radical move that could fundamentally change this storied athlete. Battery weight (the Cayman GTS weighs a mere 3,042 pounds) is the enemy of sports cars — not to mention the lack of audio thrills.

Porsche has made known it will not mess with its iconic 911, which will remain gas-fired. Perhaps they learned the lesson of Mustang, which compromised its own sports car halo with a four-cylinder weakling in response to federal nannies in the 1970s. It was reviled by purists.

But if reports are true, Porsche seems willing to experiment with its mid-engine icon. It’s “That ’70s Show” again, and automakers are in a tight spot. Who do you anger, bureaucrats or customers?

Cayman is no longer alone in the sub-$100K mid-engine supercar space.

Chevy’s Corvette has gone mid-engine, too, putting its own heavenly, naturally aspirated V-8 soundtrack just behind your right ear. The V-8 is no-less addicting than the Cayman’s flat-6, and designers nailed the car’s proportions on their first try — bringing the ’Vette’s signature sharp design cues in contrast to the Cayman’s spare, bullet shape.

The ’Vette dropped a rung on purists’ wish list when it sacrificed its manual transmission for its eighth-gen car. But it's no great loss, as the last-gen Corvette C7 manual was a mushy, three-gated 7-speed that often left drivers with a bag of neutrals. The Porsche is crisp, notchy — gear changes require nothing more than a flick of the wrist.

It’s pure sports car.

But interior technology matters, and Cayman lags the ’Vette. The Porsche is tidy, ergonomically friendly — especially with regards to performance, where the brand has pioneered a steering wheel-based mode selector so you can rotate into SPORT PLUS without taking your eyes off the road. Corvette has learned the lesson with tools like Z mode.

Yet the Cayman interior relies on flimsy cupholders that retract from the dash (hang on to your drink before zipping through Hell!). The ’Vette has access to the full GM toolbox, and brings Apple Carplay/Android Auto and an array of digital instrument displays — even an optional head-up display — that wear well on long trips.

Cayman is more accommodating in the luggage compartment. There is ample space in the frunk for a carry-on bag (or helmet if you’re headed for a track), and the rear hatchback can swallow lots of stuff, including a golf bag. As I'm a proponent of Golf GTIs and Mazda 3s, the Porsche’s hot hatch warms my heart.

As does the styling.

Given the 1970s-like regulatory upheaval going on today, many customers will be holding on to their flat-6 Caymans/Boxsters for years to come. Cayman helps with its timeless looks. It’s a German thing (my son’s 2012 Golf GTI still looks relevant even as the V-dub has evolved two generations since), and the Cayman should wear well just as 911s and 928s before it.

For Cayman fans with even more need for speed, Porsche offers a winged GT4 with sticky Sport Cup 2 tires. The Cayman GTS — in the tradition of performance “tweeners” like the Corvette Grand Sport or Cadillac V-series — is a happy medium between full-on track rat and base car.

Base is a relevant term and the Cayman starts at a Corvette-like $61,850. Stuff it with the GTS’s glorious flat-6 and the price jumps to $88,750. Don’t expect that number to decline much in the years ahead.

Porsche has crafted an icon, a classic that will be more appreciated over time as a benchmark for handling and gas-powered performance.

Dancing on the edge of adhesion around Turn 10A at M1 Concourse, I flicked the Cayman’s stick into third gear and the Cayman sang. Simple, repeatable, thrilling. What purists crave.

2021 Porsche Cayman GTS

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-passenger sports car 

Price: $88,150, including $1,350 destination fee ($100,990 as tested) 

Powerplant: 4.0-liter Boxer flat-6 cylinder

Power: 394 horsepower, 309 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.3 seconds (mfr); Top speed, 182 mph 

Weight: 3,042 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA, 17 mpg city/24 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Flat-6 music; precision handling

Lows: Infotainment tech lags; gets pricey with options

Overall: 4 stars 

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.