- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Porsche got it backwards, but nobody’s complaining.

The German purveyor of superb sports cars and expensive high-performance sport utility vehicles doesn’t always follow convention when it comes to introducing new models.

Usually, a manufacturer will bring out a standard version, followed later by a higher-performance model. Cadillac designed the CTS, and then brought out the CTS-V. Mercedes-Benz typically introduces AMG models after the base car is established. Porsche has even done some of that itself.

But with the Cayman, it started with the hot car, called the Cayman S. Now it’s introduced the base model.

The 2007 Cayman is derived from the popular Porsche Boxster roadster, which also comes in two versions: base and S. Curiously, despite the fact that the Cayman is a coupe, it is priced higher than the Boxster.

That’s also the reverse of common practice, where convertibles are priced higher than their hard top variants. For example, the 2007 Boxster’s base price is $46,460. But the new Cayman starts out at $50,195.

Ordinarily, those two figures are wildly off the mark because Porsche has an options list that stretches to the horizon, so a base Boxster or Cayman is a rarity. That’s because, Porsche says, its buyers are intent on personalizing their cars, often spending tens of thousands of dollars to make their personal conveyance one-of-a-kind.

For example, want to make your base Cayman a bit snazzier? How about a custom paint job at $4,315? They’ll even match your bedspread. Or leather dashboard trim at $2,050? Check out the “natural leather” option. It’s $3,605. Want Carrera Classic 19-inch wheels? They’ll set you back $3,175. Hanker for a more robust exhaust note? A sport exhaust system is available for $2,100. Special trim on the dash vents? It”s $1,290. Or maybe the steering wheel rim is too thin for you. A thicker one will set you back $930.

The list goes on and on, mostly for appearance items, although there is an active suspension system option. It’s priced at $1,990. If you don”t want to shift for yourself, the Tiptronic automatic transmission checks in at $3,210.

But guess what? The tested Cayman was an honest base car, with only one tiny option — and one that you could easily eschew. The car was bright red — one of only three colors you can get without paying extra. The others are white and yellow. If you want other colors, aside from the custom paint, they”ll set you back anywhere from $690 to $3,070.

The single option on the test car consisted of seat belts that were the same shade of red as the exterior paint. Even that extra bit of color was pricey at $340. With it, the test Cayman topped out at $50,650.

The good news is that you don’t need any options unless you want to get into the personalizing one-upmanship game. Sure, there are a few things you might want, like automatic climate control or satellite radio, but the basic equipment works well enough, and the expensive frosting doesn’t much affect the basic goodness of the Cayman driving experience.

For example, the Cayman has manual adjustments on the driver’s seat for height and fore-and-aft. But the Porsche people have thoughtfully provided a power seat back adjuster, which is where you really need the fine tuning.

Like the Boxster, the Cayman is a mid-engine car, which means the engine sits forward of the rear axle, right behind the driver’s back, and drives the rear wheels. More expensive Porsches, like the 911, are rear-engine cars, with the motor behind the rear axle.

The mid-engine layout provides some booming resonance inside, but also near-perfect balance. Mid-engine Porsches are some of the sweetest handling cars on the planet. Flick the steering wheel to lop an arc from a curve, and the Cayman simply waltzes through.

There’s plenty of power for anything you might want to do on the public roads, or even occasionally on a race track. The engine is a relatively small 2.7-liter affair, with the cylinders horizontally opposed and lying flat instead of standing up or leaning sideways.

It delivers a robust 245 horsepower. Linked to a five-speed manual gearbox, it can launch the 2,866-pound Cayman to 60 miles an hour in slightly less than six seconds.

If you feather-foot it, the Cayman can deliver 23 city/32 highway miles per gallon on premium fuel, according to the EPA’s tests.

There’s no question that a substantial number of enthusiasts will argue for the Cayman S, with its 295-horsepower, 3.4-liter engine and six-speed manual transmission. But you don”t need any extra power unless you’re the sort who simply likes to say you have it. The base Cayman can easily get you arrested anywhere in the United States.

This is the sort of car that you wear like a tailored suit. The driver’s seat envelops you, the steering wheel, pedals and shifter are placed where you expect to find them, and the car feeds back marvelous tactile sensations that are rare and special in the driving experience.

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