2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 First Test: Sharp Performance

Perked up yet, Porsche purists? It’s another game of PDK versus manual, with the former now offered in the 2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 and Boxster Spyder for the first time. Pick one, pick both—you’re a winner either way. But how much of a winner are you? Let’s run down just how much quicker the dual-clutch is compared to the stick. Oops, spoiler alert.

Well, both come with a rear spoiler, but that’s not important. As we said, the 718 Cayman GT4 and Boxster Spyder now get Porsche’s wicked-smaht and laser-quick seven-speed PDK dual-clutch transmission as a $3,210 option over the standard six-speed manual transmission. For the those unfamiliar with the GT4 and its lineage, this new optional gearbox is a bigger deal than it might seem on the surface.

2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: The Basics

Think of the 718 Cayman GT4 and crop-top sibling 718 Boxster Spyder as Porsche’s GT3-ification of its entry-level sports cars, all stitched together by the Alcantara mitts of its semi-autonomous skunkworks GT division. That’s the dream factory that handles every Porsche with, well, a “GT” prefix in its name, among other hot stuff like the 991.1 911 R and 991.2 911 Speedster. Everything on the GT4 is either tightened up or stripped out, starting with but not limited to revised suspension, brakes, and aero. Oh, and there’s a hot new engine, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

In Stuttgart-speak, that makes the GT4/Spyder sibs the most track-focused and capable members of the 718 clan—for now. A harder-core RS variant of the GT4 and Spyder is allegedly a few corners away, and for the purists, a future Cayman R is just starting its out lap and should be here between two and three years from now.

2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: Still Sandbagged?

So, it stands to reason Porsche left a lot on the table with this “regular” GT4 to make room between the forthcoming RS and the new 992 GT3. Maybe, but unlike the prior 981 Cayman GT4, this feels nothing like a half-caf version of anything. From an experiential standpoint, it runs rings around any 911 without that aforementioned “GT” decklid scrawl, a hierarchy disruption that would be shocking a decade ago.

While it was still in production, enthusiasts accused Porsche of sandbagging the first-gen GT4 in an attempt to keep its precious 911 as the spear tip. The six-speed manual transmission and its long-ass gearing was a major sticking point that made wringing out that delicious 3.8-liter engine on the street a test of legal bravery. Short gears are a common mod for the first-gen car, but splitting open that gearbox usually runs above the five-figure waterline.

Did Porsche get the memo with the new 718 GT4? Er, no. Hello new engine, hello same ol’ long gearing—at least in the manual. As we enumerated in our First Drive, this is hardly a dealbreaker, but even Porsche itself isn’t super jazzed on the War and Peace intervals between shifts. Porsche motorsport and GT boss Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser admitted in an interview that the team wanted to incorporate shorter gearing in the new car, but the carryover six-speed manual didn’t have the room. “We would have loved to have seen [the gearing] a little bit shorter, but technically there was no way. We have an answer, which will come later this year and that’s very nice then,” he told WhichCar.

That answer he speaks of is the aforementioned seven-speed PDK dual-clutch that not only adds an extra cog over the manual, but whose top gear is a smidge shorter than the seventh gear found in lesser PDK-equipped 718 varietals. With another gear to play with relative to the manual, everything should be spread out more evenly, and that’s good news no matter how you look at it, especially when you get an earful of the engine this PDK is hooked up to.

2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: What an Engine!

Nestled between the rear wheels is a 4.0-liter naturally aspirated flat-six jewel that rips and thrums like a compilation album of Porsche’s greatest flat-six hits. Although it shares displacement and natural aspiration with the GT3’s 4.0-liter banshee heart, the two sixers aren’t even remotely related. The flattie found in the GT4/Spyder and new 718 GTS 4.0 is an enlarged, de-turbo’d version of the twin-turbo 3.0-liter found in every non-GT, non-Turbo 991.2- and 992-generation 911, now with uprated critical componentry like new heads, crankshaft, and manifolds.

It doesn’t have the same 9,000-rpm Eldritch howl of the 991.2 GT3, but if that 4.0 is Porsche’s crown jewel, this is the six-figure replica out on loan to museums. Its 414 hp and 309 lb-ft happen on the way to the 8,100-rpm redline, a good 64 hp up on the four-cylinder 718 S and an even 20 hp over the GTS 4.0.

2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: Triumphant on the Test Track

These are healthy numbers, but is it enough to run up the tailpipe of the 992? Let’s pit the new PDK versus the shift-it-yourself 718 GT4 first. Ditching the third pedal certainly paid dividends during our testing; 0-60 mph rips by in a 3.4-second whip-crack, bettering both Porsche’s official rating of 3.7 seconds and our prior test of the six-speed manual 718 GT4 by a whopping 0.7 second. The PDK also cuts 0.5 second from the quarter-mile time at 11.8 seconds compared to the 12.3-second rush of the manual car.

Not quite the 3.1-second 0-60 run and 11.2-second quarter-mile of the PDK-equipped 991.2 911 GT3 we tested back in 2018, but we’d be shocked if it came anywhere close. The difference between the old GT3 and new GT4 is further illustrated in our instrumented handling tests, where the GT3 cut through the figure eight at 22.7 seconds at an average of 0.93 g to the PDK GT4’s 23.1 seconds at an average of 0.87 g, and slid around the skidpad at 1.07 g to the GT4’s closely matched 1.05 g. Most surprising is how the GT4 can’t seem to really trounce the torque-rich 992 Carrera S, as the hottest Cayman just barely beats the Carrera S’ 23.2-second lap at an average of 0.89 g but still nips at the heels of the 992’s 1.07-g skidpad performance.

Still, the dragstrip is where the major differences begin and end between the two transmissions. Our figure-eight test of the 718 GT4 with the six-speed manual took just 0.1 second longer but pulled 0.01 g harder and matched the PDK GT4’s lateral 1.05 g on the skidpad.

2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: How It Drives

So, it seems the 911 is still the parent’s favorite—on paper. Making the jump from the 718 GTS 4.0 to the GT4 is nearly the same leap between a Carrera GTS and the GT3, despite the 718s sharing a common engine. A simple appearance and power package, this is not; the front axle and much of the rear suspension is shared with the 991.2 GT3, with two-mode PASM shocks as standard that cut around 1.2 inches of ride height when compared to a bog-standard 718. All drive systems are rejiggered for the GT4’s max-attack attitude, and a mechanical limited-slip diff and Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) are all standard fare.

All this hotshot hardware adds up to a three-quarter-scale GT3 experience both on and off the track. It might be the baby GT, but it feels every bit as special and honed as every other GT-ified Porsche to leave Weissach. Beyond the wild wings and teeth-splintering soundtrack, time in the GT oven bakes in an outrageous dose of golden confidence; the 718 GT4’s learning curve is on par with that of a stationary bike. Not really, but it’s so approachable we’d almost—almost—feel comfortable tossing the keys to a freshly licensed 16-year-old. Maybe. Probably not.

Every input dazzles. The steering is preternatural and perfectly weighted, the optional carbon-ceramic brakes return flawless bite and ear-folding stopping power, and the new PDK matches the prior GT3’s unit with its slick shifts that seemingly take just a picosecond. Picking the PDK over the stick reveals what you probably already expect: less of an emotional sports car and more of an Alcantara-wrapped cocoon for chasing decimal places.

The speed at which you can slice through the squiggliest of roads is astounding; you catch yourself screaming, “It was built for this road!” on every bit of paved canyon. The front grips as though it were shod in duct tape, with beautifully progressive suspension damping that is tough to upset. Breaking the rear end loose via reckless corner entry or large road lumps leads to oversteer you can catch with a sheet of wet tissue paper. What a weapon.

2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: A Tale of Two Transmissions

Wait till you see how it pulls down the straights. Pulling the ripcord on that 4.0-liter buzzsaw hits like a palmful of wasps to the neck—uh, in a good way. Like all great free-breathing Porsche sixers, it twangs, rattles, and thrashes its way to the top of the tach, which is something you’ll do often thanks to a rather lofty powerband. Peak torque doesn’t arrive until between 5,000 and 6,800 rpm, and all 414 horses aren’t in play until a peaky 7,600 rpm. You have to keep the revs high most of the time, made all that much easier by the PDK’s no-worry operation, but it seems the ratios are only marginally shorter than those of its three-pedal counterpart.

The differences are minimal; second gear tops out at 79 mph, and third only cuts fuel at 108 mph, a difference of just 4 mph in second and 6 mph in third when lined up next to the manual. This was particularly evident on the figure eight. “The ratios appear to be the same that I experienced in the manual,” road test editor Chris Walton said, though he was more impressed with the new transmission’s laser accuracy. “Second gear gets you nearly to the other skidpad, but the PDK will upshift to third and down to second much quicker than I could in the manual that I just left in second,” he said.

2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: Which One Should You Buy?

A dealbreaker? Quite the opposite. Look, we fly the manual transmission flag loud and proud, but the PDK fits the character of the 718 Cayman GT4 better than the six-speed manual. It’s significantly quicker, slightly less legally dangerous to wring out, less tricky to keep in the powerband, and is far more tractable in traffic and on city streets when you’re finished goofin’ around in the canyons.

It’s going to be a riot either way. Want the manual? Get the manual. Want the PDK? By golly, get the PDK. Or, if you’re a (wealthy) genius, you’ll get a 2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 with PDK and a matching 2021 Porsche 718 Boxster Spyder with three pedals. Give us a call when they arrive—we’ll help you keep those batteries topped up.

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