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The Porsche 718 Cayman GTS 4.0 Made Me a Better Driver

·7 min read
Photo credit: Porsche
Photo credit: Porsche

The sign of a great sports car is neither agility nor drama, stats nor speed. Real quality is measured in confidence. Exceptional machines don’t just deliver a better experience; they give you the opportunity to be better yourself. Behind the wheel of the Cayman GTS 4.0, I finally felt like I rose to the occasion.

There’s some discomfort in the subject. I’ve always been quick to say that I’m far from the best driver. There’s no false humility here, just genuine knowledge, the sort of plain truth that’s unavoidable once you’ve seen what talent looks like. Amateur racers, other Road & Track staffers, pros; they all have a level of ice-cold composure at the limit, and that’s something I’ve rarely mustered. I’ve experienced just enough of it in three-lap sessions during Performance Car of the Year and random screw-arounds on autocross courses to know what I’m missing in the broader scheme. Years of taking every chance at instructed driving hadn’t put me where I want to be.

I never expected this would be how it happened. A chance invite to a familiarization event at the Porsche Experience Center in LA came down, mostly due to my inexperience with the brand as a whole. Instructed sessions were on the docket, but the PEC is clear that what they operate is not a race track so much as a “handling course.”

Photo credit: Porsche
Photo credit: Porsche

Still, days are what you make of them. So, after morning sessions exploring the unsurprisingly great 911 Carrera S and the shockingly quick Taycan Turbo in lead-follow groups with two students for each instructor, I made my move. Climbing into the Cayman GTS 4.0, which I knew from informed counsel would be the highlight of the day, I spotted a shot. An odd number in our group left one instructor alone with one student, a friend of mine. Since I would be writing specifically about this car, I asked to pull the ol’ switcheroo. He swapped with me, for which I will owe him forever. That opened up a 30-minute one-on-one lead-follow instructed session with a pro driver. To hell with the acceleration tests and the side dishes, I told him, I want to spend as much time on the “handling course” as possible.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan
Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Immediately the charm of the 4.0 sent shockwaves through every cavity of my body. The throaty tone of this engine is surpassed only by the energy of the sound itself, rippling through the air and making vision go wobbly. Turn one comes and the progressive bite of the brakes sheds speed as if they’d just spotted a Statie. The Cayman’s front end, unburdened by the weight of the engine, is among the most eager you’ll find at any price. Point and trust. Keep things tight as you apex and you can roll gently onto the throttle while you unwind the steering wheel, careful not to overdo it or risk the mid-mounted pendulum sending you on the wrong kind of ride.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan
Photo credit: Mack Hogan

We brake early for the back straight, far from the car's limit. The instructor’s feeling me out; smart given the circumstances. Few people piloting a $100,000 car they don’t own are eager to find out what happens when the $100,000 car behind them overdrives its limits. Plus, my coach can likely see in the rear view that I’m tense, with jagged steering betraying my hesitation and lack of comfort in the car.

Photo credit: Porsche
Photo credit: Porsche

During my Taycan Turbo session, that instructor’s only real concern was how stiff I was. “Relax,” he said. That advice may be easy to give, but in the fog of tension, it’s almost impossible to follow. Any exploration of a car’s limits is bound to raise blood pressure; doubly so when it’s a car you don’t know; triply when the car is expensive; quadruply when your professional fate is loosely tied to how often you bin it.

And almost infinitely so when your own ego is caught between wanting to be a serious driver, but never wanting to be the guy who overdoes it. Among those thoughts, it’s easy to forgive myself for holding on too tightly.

Untangling the whole experience from my own anxieties, I can see that real growth is only possible when you let go a little bit. Some of the fear, some of the tension, some of the mental safety. You don’t learn to swim by holding onto the edge. So, as the instructor picks up the pace, I loosen up, trusting my familiarity with the track and the car. By lap two we’re braking in the real braking zone. By lap three we aren’t braking for the chicane at all.

Photo credit: Mack Hogan
Photo credit: Mack Hogan

Suddenly I realize the relationship between my speed and my stress level has broken down. We’re getting faster with every lap, but my hands are loose, my heart calm. I’m thinking through my moves more than I have before, feeling the micro-vibrations of the wheel constantly sending dispatches about the state of the front tires. Time slows as I experiment with the way that even minor throttle adjustments maneuver the rear end. Gritting teeth give way to full-face grins. This, the serenity in the storm, the clear-eyed vision at triple-digit speeds, is what I’ve felt only in short bursts. Here, I’m living in it.

Lap after lap, my lines get tighter. I brake later, get on the power sooner, keep a tighter line through the toughest corners. Thoughts of invincibility start to creep in. A confidence I’ve never felt. Too much of it. I’m on power too early coming out of an increasing-radius sweeper, the back end breaking free under the strain of my ham-footed throttle. But quick countersteering and quicker stability control corrects the slide.

Photo credit: Porsche
Photo credit: Porsche

A mistake like that usually puts me on the back foot for the day. Humility that’s earned hits harder than that which is assumed, so naturally my previous unintentional slides have given me weakness in the legs, emptiness in the gut. Impostor syndrome flare-ups, symptoms of a mind all too convinced that it doesn’t deserve to be here, a mind forced to confront the consequences of failure and not all too pleased with the feeling. I wait for the walls to close in on me.

They never do. Today’s different. Because when I spend every second on the track tense and convinced of impending failure, even a minor mistake is enough to nearly break me in two. Yet when I spend the session feeling confident and in control, a slip is just that; a small mistake, a data point, a learning experience, one where my confidence briefly outran my skills.

Photo credit: Porsche
Photo credit: Porsche

The car has mechanisms for that. A warning, a feeling, and then a slide. When the same thing happened in a GT500 at Lime Rock, it was a brush with death. I knew that correction was a matter of computers and luck, not clarity and ability. Here, I don’t much care that stability control was still on. Because as soon as the back started to move, I started the correction. I knew what to do. It was always going to be all right.

Such is the benefit of a truly great car. To talk of speed and theater is to ignore the real magic buzzing behind me: the combination of a natural, linear, sonorous four-liter and a balanced, talkative chassis. Together they open up experiences simply unavailable in lesser cars. You can explore the limits of the car and of yourself without worrying about losing control. Tweak your inputs in every corner, secure that the Cayman will always react predictably. Gather speed until you feel it edging up against its limits. Repeat until there’s nothing left on the table. That’s what this car is about.

Surely you could find more power or quicker lap times elsewhere. But you buy a Cayman GTS 4.0 because of what it can teach you.

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