2017 Porsche 718 Cayman S: So close, yet so far

With a sports car you need a few things: looks, speed, relative comfort and noise. Fuel economy, while important, isn't really a concern for most Porsche buyers -- and if it is, a Prius will do just fine.

With the 718 Cayman S, Porsche's managed to get nearly all of the key points right, with one glaring misstep. Let's start with the good bits, shall we?

With every new iteration of a car there's always going to be a fresh look. It can be minor or quite significant. The 718 Cayman's facelift is somewhere between the two. It's still recognizably a Cayman, keeping a familiar silhouette, but it's more refined than its curvy predecessor. Most noticeably, its front end now has a sharper nose that announces the car rather nicely. Its sides and rear have been firmed up as well, with the rear being given some smoothing cream.

2017 Porsche 718 Cayman

Its new face is rather fine.

Porsche

The only part of the exterior that may cause people to recoil is the needless black strip with "Porsche" emblazoned along it. It looks a bit aftermarket. In fact, only bits of roof and hood are shared with the outgoing car. The rest is all new.

The cockpit has been given a gentle going-over as well. The biggest change is the infotainment system -- where once there was a clunky interface, there's now a shiny 7-inch touchscreen with a fresh UI. You can control the inputs with traditional button presses from the center console, but the screen itself is a joy to prod. It's fast, intuitive and responds well. It comes with Apple CarPlay, so if you're an iPhone type, you're in luck.

Both the trunk and frunk have enough space for hefty (if squishy) bags, and there are a few cubbyholes in the cabin for phones and the like. Porsche says the 718 Cayman (I'm going to stop writing the '718' bit now for reasons that'll become apparent later) is a usable sports car for every day duty. In this respect, it is.

So far, so pretty. What about the comfort? Well, depending on what you spec, there are a number of settings. The Cayman we tried has Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) and the Sport Chrono pack on board, so it had adaptive damping and a 10mm lower ride height than normal (it can be lowered by 20mm if you spec the S-only PASM Sport). In its normal setting, the Cayman is quiet, not too jarring and all-around pleasant. Being a sports car, it's never going to be Rolls-Royce levels of plush, but after a day's driving, my back and buttocks didn't hate me. That's a bonus.

2017 Porsche 718 Cayman

Want comfort? You got it.

Porsche

Flip the switch to Sport mode and the car gets a little angry -- the steering gets heavier, the tailpipes sing a little louder, and the throttle response sharpens up. However, the real fun happens in Sport Plus. Take all you get with Sport, throw in a more sport-oriented ride, and it feels like a proper sports car, the kind of car you thought cars felt like when you were a kid. Direct, tight, fast, fun. Porsche. You can even knock the stability control down a notch to get some lateral movement out of it if you're feeling brave.

The Cayman's steering is phenomenal. No, it's not as sharp as the good ol' days before electrical assistance, but it works well. You get fantastic feedback through the wheel, more so than most.

To stop the thing, the Cayman S gets the brakes from the 911. They're huge for such a small car and work beautifully. Easy to modulate, easy to use...just easy. Lovely stuff.

Being a sports car, we thought it best to try the stick shift. The PDK auto will be brilliant, I'm sure, but for some there's no greater thrill than changing gears yourself. Porsche's manuals have often seemed a touch loose, their clutches long with irritatingly high bite points, but not so in the Cayman. The shifter's short throw felt tight, and the clutch was better than most other manual Porsches I've tried.

Now, on to the headline: its engine. The 2.5-liter, turbocharged flat-four in the Cayman S delivers 345 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, a significant increase over the old, naturally aspirated car. Zero to 62 mph takes 4.2 seconds in a Sport Chrono and PDK-equipped car -- 4.6 in the stick. It'll top out at 177 mph if you're feeling brave as well.

Porsche's turbo tech from the 911 Turbo have come in to play with the S' engine -- it gets use of the variable-vane turbocharger tech that gives the 911 Turbo quite a punch. It works wonderfully here, allowing for a linear but hella-punchy power delivery. Get the car above 2,500 rpm and you get the full whack of thrust. It's utterly fantastic to feel. Low down there's a hint of turbo lag, so you're better off keeping the revs high.

2017 Porsche 718 Cayman

Beware the noise falling out of this end.

Porsche

Because of the turbocharger you get an MPG boost over the old N/A car -- it'll manage up to 28 highway depending on which model you go for.

So it's the best thing since sliced bread, right? Well, it looks good, it's comfy enough and it's fast, but oh my, does it sound awful. The flat-four engine in the S sounds like a canal boat at standstill, like there's a swarm of Spitfires about 500 meters behind you at highway speeds, and downright unpleasant when you're pushing it.

The howl of the old car rose and fell as you pushed the car. Its hollowness rang happily in your ears for days after a spirited drive. The latest Cayman S doesn't leave a great aural impression. At all. It clatters, bawls and scrapes its way along the road. You do get a bit of turbo whistle, then it's quickly drowned out by a hateful...noise. That's precisely what it is: it's a noise. And you're trapped in the cabin with it. It's just horrid.

2017 Porsche 718 Cayman

The interior's been given a light working over.

Porsche

There's another problem with the car, albeit one that can be solved with a badge delete: the name. The 718 Porsches were race cars way back when Porsche was starting out. They were giant killers -- light, nimble, quick things that won races all over the world. They also had turbocharged flat-four engines, but the cylinder count is where the similarity ends.

I don't understand why Porsche felt the need to call the new car '718' when just 'Cayman' worked just fine -- it was the name for the small coupé made by Porsche, this 718-izing seems like a cash-in on Porsche's rich and brilliant history to legitimize a decision to downsize its engines. I'll stick to calling it a 'Cayman' and leave the brilliant 718 where it belongs -- on a slice of motorsport history.

Here's the thing about the new Cayman S: It's a fantastic car. A brilliant one, even. It's fast, it's comfortable, it can just about be practical and it feels simply wonderful. If you want that, take some serious time looking at it. But if you want an aural treat, as well, maybe you should start looking for a last-generation Cayman GTS.

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