Ever since they were launched, something has been holding these two cars back. In the Cayman's case, it's Porsche. That its engine is in its middle theoretically means it could be a better-handling, technically superior car to the company's own 911. And on Porsche's watch, that ain't going to happen. Porsche tacitly admits that the Cayman has never been allowed to be all it could be, lest it puts the squeeze on its rear-engined, range-topping (and, coincidentally, surely more profitable) sibling.
The Lotus Evora has had its own, arguably more serious issues. The Evora, which is scheduled to make its North American debut at the New York auto show on April 21, is a car which its maker put everything into, but wasn't sufficiently complete. It's a car for those who love their handling, but also one for those who are prepared to overlook issues relating to drivetrains and interiors. And, one suspects, there aren't quite enough of those people around.
The two cars here – suffixed by an R and an S, respectively, might change some of that. I say "some" because, in the Porsche's case, you can't help thinking, it'll never be "all." Think of the $66,000 Cayman R as a Cayman S plus, rather than a Cayman GT3. Power is up by just 11hp to 326hp, still appropriately less than a base 911 Carrera 2. The real tweaks lie elsewhere.
The R has shed 119lbs over the regular Cayman S – and you can feel that some of it has come via the removal of noise insulation. It sounds like a door has been left ajar. There's more wind, road and engine roar than I remember from my last outing in a Cayman S. Maybe some of that's down to the aluminum doors. Some of the rest of the weight is down to the removal of the air conditioning and the stereo. There are the lightest wheels currently fitted to a Porsche, too (shared with the Boxster Spyder). Mostly though, I reckon, it's the removal of heavy-duty foam.
The $75,000 Lotus is no lighter than the regular Evora. But the S's power hike is rather more substantial than the Cayman R's, thanks to the attachment of a supercharger to its 3.5-liter Toyota-sourced V6. Some 345hp (that's more than a 911 Carrera) means it has had a 70hp power increase and, unlike the Cayman, that is the significant part.
Lotus couldn't resist tweaking the chassis; there should be a touch more grip, but more importantly less roll at the rear and an increase in stability around the straight ahead. But ride and handling were never the problem with the Evora. We knew it could handle more poke. Now it has it.
From the start, the Evora also needed a finer interior for the price. Today? Well, it still does. There's now little wrong with the way it's built, but as we drive it into the country – a not unreasonably lengthy journey – you still can't help but notice a few areas that could be improved. Readouts are poorly resolved and hard to read in sunlight. Switches are obscured by the steering wheel. The pedals are offset. And if the Porsche sounds like you've left a door ajar, so too does the Lotus. Its extruded aluminum chassis tub feels like it has been lined with carpets. And even though the seats are leather lined and should be more comfortable than the carbon fiber-backed Porsche items, the reality is that the Cayman has the superior driving position.
The Porsche cabin, for all its mainstream-finish materials that could furnish the inside of any German hatchback, feels the more civilized, more mature environment. Not sure I'd specify some of the body-color trim, though, and I'd keep the optional air-con and stereo; even if you're a track-day enthusiast, on a long summer drive I reckon you'd not get far before regretting leaving them out. It doesn't sound like much, though, does it: 119lbs on what's now a 2,855-lb Cayman? A tank of gas, a very small passenger. But still, if you've driven Caymans S and R back to back, you can feel it combining with the 10 extra nags, or maybe an improved engine response. Definitely, there's a touch of extra urgency to the way it goes. It's a rapid car, too; 0-62mph takes a claimed 5.0sec, and Porsche's claims are usually conservative.
To top it off, the Cayman's engine is a peach. The 3.4-liter flat six sounds sharp, hollow and smooth. Standard on the R is Porsche's short shift for the 6-speed manual, which gives the box a short throw. Very short, actually – and coupled with a touch of notchiness on the way through, it's not the most satisfying of gearshifts, although it's positive and accurate enough, and you'd find it hard to mis-shift.
It's also leagues better than the Evora's gear change. Such a pity, this, because the Evora is a properly fast car. In one direction while figuring this very car for our road test, nearly full of fuel and with two occupants on board, I returned a 4.36sec one-way 0-60mph sprint. Traction, engine response and power aren't the problem. The problem is that damned gearbox. We're confident future Lotuses will get a twin-clutch unit but, for now, the Toyota manual is at the limit of what it can do, and it's just not up to scratch for a $75,000 car.
This particular Cayman R was fitted with Porsche's carbon-ceramic brakes, which may be a $8,150 option but are superb. They're accompanied by brake pedal feel that's firm, but pleasingly so if you're leaning on them heavily and ripping through downshifts.
The Lotus's steel discs resist fade admirably, too, but there's some slop at the top of the pedal's travel, an issue if you're braking gently. Under harder braking and downshifting they're fine, as is throttle response (albeit slower than the Porsche's), then it's just that gearshift again. By the time we arrive at the test track, it's the Porsche occupants who are more satisfied (albeit hotter and more bored, perhaps).
It's never that easy, though, to dismiss the magic that Lotus can work with a chassis. All right, trying it on the company's home turf may seem an advantage, but it works wherever we've driven it. Our road tester and astute car-picker Vicky Parrott asked, just as we headed out onto the dry handling circuit: “Would you really have one over a Cayman, though?” “Nah,” we thought, making our way out on track. “Yes,” we reckoned, on the way back in, having stayed out way beyond our allotted time slot.
It's that good, the Evora S's chassis. The way it rides would shame plenty of executive cars. And on these roads it's just sublime. It's not a hilly place, but there are dips, crests and awkward cambers aplenty and the Evora S is utterly unfazed by them.
The key to its brilliance, for me, is the way it retains its composure and your intended cornering line even when several different things are asked of it at the same time. Brake for a corner, start to turn in while the front is loaded with braking forces and then introduce an off-camber or a pothole, and where most cars jar through the steering or need correcting, the Lotus just does what you originally wanted it to, without corruption to its steering. Its body is immaculately controlled and the steering is the best system on the market today at filtering out the bad bits while retaining solid road feel.
There are few cars that could compete with the Lotus. Not just here, but anywhere. We're accustomed to Porsches – especially the more sporting ones – being harder-riding than Lotuses, of course, but the Cayman R has a pretty deft chassis setup of its own. It rides lower than a Cayman S by 22mm and has firmer springs and dampers, while a new aero pack also gives it greater negative lift than other Caymans.
So it must be down to the tuning and those lighter wheels that mean, while it's bumpier over lumpy asphalt than the Lotus, it settles quickly and its steering seems lighter, slicker and more free from static and friction than a regular Cayman setup. It steers marginally less fluidly than the Lotus, but we're talking margins here; there are things to like about both, and the Cayman is similarly loaded with road feel. I far prefer its all-around steering wheel rim, too. On challenging roads, the Cayman runs out of chassis compliance slightly sooner, and you'll be slightly less amazed by its depth of ability – but you'll be having no less fun.
Standard on the R (and unavailable on the Lotus) is a limited-slip differential. So, although the Porsche responds to turn-in demands with greater enthusiasm than a standard Cayman, or the (heavier) Lotus, it nudges into understeer sooner, even on the road. To find out how much sooner, we took them both to Lotus's new Hethel test track and, to even up the home advantage, the Lotus to MIRA and the Cayman to Porsche's experience center at Silverstone.
Frankly, you take your choice on this one. The Lotus grips for longer and resists the onset of understeer for longer. It can be balanced on the throttle in a nicely neutral position, but trail the brake or lift the gas and then give it a satisfying bootful and the Evora slides playfully and progressively.
The Porsche, thanks to its more aggressive differential, is more eager to do one or the other. It's satisfying enough – and plenty fast – to drive up to its limits and nudge into understeer. But it's better, although snappier, to similarly give it a lift or trail a brake and bring the rear into play. There isn't the quite the Evora's outright playfulness, but it's sharp and rewarding. Definitely not a Cayman GT3, but certainly a Cayman S plus a worthwhile 10 or 15 percent of extra loveliness.
Which is where we came in. In S form, there's little holding the Evora back. Over a standard Cayman S, I'd be as tempted as anyone to pick the Lotus. The extra power liberates even more of its chassis' brilliance (though it could take more still) and, even though the rest of the drawbacks remain, it's as good a car as it's going to be.
The Cayman R, on the other hand, is a car whose maker is still holding it back. It could be better still, were it allowed. Even so, this few extra percent are enough to clinch it for me. It's the first Cayman I've desired as well as admired. The Evora S is a great-handling car. The Cayman R is just a great car.