Charge of the Light Brigade

2012 Cayman R vs. 2016 911 R

Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade 1
July 4, 2024

Generally speaking, making lightweight cars is a thankless endeavor. It’s often expensive, and hardly anyone thanks you for it. We know the advantages of less weight span all areas of dynamic endeavor, but that counts for diddly when adding power is so fantastically cheap and effective in comparison. Up goes the oh-so-tantalizing peak horsepower number, and down comes the quick-to-be-quoted zero to 60 mph time. Just don’t mention that the car may be heavier and worse at some things as a result. Cars fly out of dealerships, pats on the back all around.

But occasionally—and because there are still a few lunatics left who are not quite so easily pleased—a manufacturer will do a small run of cars more focused on the driver than the stat-hungry power grubber. Where do the origins of lightweight, driver-centric cars lie? Homologation specials, that’s where. And while neither the mid-engined 2011 Cayman R nor the rear-engined 2016 911 R you see here were designed to make a competition version eligible for racing, that’s what the little letter at the end of their name alludes to.

For Porsche, ‘R’ quite literally means racing, and long before an ‘S’ was appended to it, it was used for the first time in Porsche’s original homologation special, the 911R of 1967. And it’s only been used twice since, on the cars you see here today. We’ll set aside the fact the first 911R failed utterly to deliver on the very reason for its creation—it cost almost twice as much as the top-of-the-range 911S, so only 19 production cars (and four prototypes) were built, laughably short of the 500 needed to homologate it for GT competition.

Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade 2

Yes, both the Cayman R and 911 R are lighter than the cars upon which they are based, but by just 121 and 110 pounds, respectively, which pales somewhat against the 440-pound weight loss of the original R. And, as noted above, neither of the newer machines were designed with any form of homologation in mind.

As it turns out, that’s actually quite good news. Road cars make almost as bad race cars as race cars do road cars. Instead, what Porsche’s engineers were trying to do with both these cars was communicate with that small but core constituency of enthusiasts for whom pure driving pleasure was all they understood. That they felt the same way. That they knew who you were and, at slightly different times and dramatically different price points, had made these cars for you and no one else.

The first point to understand about these two is that they are completely different cars, and not just their respective power outputs set them apart. Both the Cayman and the 911 from which its R version was derived were launched in 2011, but while the latter was the very first of the 991-series, the Cayman R belongs to the earlier 987-series and is therefore partially derived from the second generation of 997-series 911s. Nice and clear?

Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade 3

The point of mentioning it is that the cars changed—whether it is Caymans or 911s we’re talking about—and in the most fundamental way. The 991 represented only the second time the 911 had been completely redesigned since the launch of the original in 1963, and it came with three fundamental changes, all of which would affect later Caymans: hybrid steel and aluminum construction, a sizably extended wheelbase, and electric power-assisted steering. So, the differences between the two Rs you see here will be more extensive than suggested by the respective outputs and engine locations.

Cayman R

Let’s look at the Cayman first. Like the 911 R, it was a proper run-out special designed to maintain interest in its model line right up to the moment of replacement by the next generation. But the Cayman was then and remains today Porsche’s slowest-selling car, so anyone expecting big changes over the Cayman S was likely to be disappointed. Buying the R got you aluminum doors from the Boxster Spyder, a limited-slip differential, a new front and rear aero package, sports seats, and the lightest wheels fitted to any Porsche to date.

What you lost were the cup holders, instrument shroud, about three gallons of fuel tank capacity, the air conditioning, and infotainment, though these last three could all be optioned back in at no additional cost. But you gained a 22 mm (0.9 in.) reduction in ride height, firmer springs, uprated dampers, sundry badges and labels, and an aerodynamics package that reduced lift at the front by 15 percent thanks to a new lip spoiler and 40 percent at the back courtesy of that fixed rear wing, and 10 horsepower from a re-chipped engine with a freer-flowing exhaust system.

Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade 4

What people perhaps don’t appreciate about the Cayman R is just how rare it is. Figures vary depending on where you look, but the most often quoted by reliable sources is 1,421 units (only 110 more than the number of F40 supercars made by Ferrari!).

Climbing aboard this Cayman is like meeting an old friend. You’ve not thought of them much in the interim because there have always been other interesting people to chat with, but the moment you reconnect, you instantly remember why you got along so well in the first place. There’s no need to adapt your behavior to the company you’re keeping: from the absolute outset, you can relax and be yourself. You know this car, and it appears to know you, or at least what you want.

It feels small and compact, light and accurate—a precision instrument. So, after all these years apart, you can just turn left out of the parking lot and drive hard from the outset. There’s nothing to relearn here because it was never a remotely difficult car to pilot; your muscles have somehow retained the memory, and there is nothing to fear. It is a machine in which you feel instantly at one, as if your most recent drive was last week, not over a decade ago.

Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade 5

All of that is just fine, apart from the fact I want more; more from a Porsche, much more from one bearing the fabled ‘R’ badge. I don’t just want it to be easy; it must be engaging too, enthralling even. And so it proves. The foundation stones are the 330-hp, 3.4-liter flat-six engine and the six-speed gearbox to which it is attached. Neither is perfect: the former lacks low-down torque, and the latter’s short ratios force you to make the most of what’s there. But once you’ve learned to keep the revs high and the gears low, it simply flies from place to place.

There are a few reasons for this, one of the less important ones being the amount of mechanical grip available. It has more to do with your ability to place its easily judged extremities to the inch, to feel the road through the fabulously intuitive steering, and know that, in the dry at least, traction is practically unlimited. It rewards a driving style of similar precision and will tap you gently on the wrist if you try to lob it into a slow corner. Still, the most that will happen if you push a bit too hard is a touch of diff-induced understeer, easily and instantly killed with a quick lift of the foot. Few cars have ever offered this combination of raw pace and such a rich vein of easily accessible fun.

911 R

Right off the bat, the 911 R is quite different from the Cayman R. There’ll be no flinging this up the road at the first time of asking. It feels bigger, more intimidating, less immediately welcome, and harder to understand—all of which it is. But first, let us remind ourselves of what we have here today.

Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade 6

This 911 R is a car made right at the end of the first generation of 991 production, and it’s no coincidence that just 991 examples were built. At the time, we got most excited about the fact that unlike the GT3 (whose standard width body it used) or the GT3 RS (whose 4.0-liter engine it borrowed), it had manual gears. Not only that, it was Porsche’s fantastic six-speed transmission, not the seven-speed unit found in the other 911s. But there was far more to it than that.

Visually, the R lost all the aero addenda even of the GT3, let alone the RS. The less aerodynamic drag meant it was and remains to this day the only naturally aspirated 911 with a top speed beginning with a ‘2’. And don’t be too sniffy about the fact the 911 R only lost 110 pounds, because remember, that’s compared to the GT3 RS, which already came with a serious weight removal program behind it, such as carbon front wings and hood, and a magnesium roof, not to mention the usual smoke and mirrors game with the air conditioning and infotainment.

Therefore, the R’s major weight savings came from losing the wing pack, making ceramic brakes standard, reducing tire and wheel size front and rear, and, of course, fitting the lighter manual six-speed gearbox. Other refinements exclusive to the 911 R included a bespoke tune for the dampers (with springs taken from the GT3), a new steering map, and recalibrated rear-wheel steering. A single mass flywheel was an option fitted to the car seen here.

Photo: Charge of the Light Brigade 7

The moment you’re aboard, you know the 911 R is no mere plaything, and that’s before you’ve dwelt too much upon the fact it is today worth between seven and eight times as much as the Cayman R. It may not have a ‘GT’ badge, but you know this it is a pure Porsche Motorsport product with a pure Porsche Motorsport engine. With barely more than half a liter’s extra displacement than the Cayman, it manages to conjure up an astonishing 168 additional horses, raising the Cayman’s already impressive 97.1 hp per liter specific output to 125 hp per liter.

It’s a wider car with a longer wheelbase and greater front and rear track. Given there’s room for four in here (if not the absence of the back seats), it’s remarkable it weighs only 172 lbs more than the Cayman. It is also worth remembering that it has a better power-to-weight ratio than the current GT3 and GT3 RS. It may not look like a serious machine. But looks can be highly deceptive.

If you didn’t know better, upon first acquaintance (or reacquaintance, in my case), you might be left wondering what all the fuss was about. Yes, the engine sounds lovely, and the gearbox is even sweeter than the Cayman’s, but driving it seems a more deliberate process, requiring you to spot braking and turn-in points and think harder about where and when to reapply the power. In place of the sweeping brushstrokes that feel so natural in the Cayman, this is more join-the-dots motoring.

Why might this be? Well, I have to concede that the roads we chose for this comparison were of a size and shape more suited to the Cayman’s dimensions. But the Cayman felt far more agile, too, and not just because it was lighter. Its major mass is concentrated within the wheelbase, yet despite that, its wheelbase is 1.6 inches shorter than that of the 911’s. And then there’s the steering: no question, the Cayman’s hydraulically assisted helm puts you in closer touch with conditions underfoot, providing you with the confidence to push on that bit harder, that bit sooner. After a while, I wondered if I was not looking at the biggest upset to the form book since I placed a Ferrari 348 bog last in a four-car comparison test more than 30 years ago.

But so, too, did a part of me know there was a whole side to this story that had not yet been told. So we took both Rs out again and drove harder. And faster. And the Cayman R was not one whit less brilliant than before. But the 911? Oh my goodness! At the point on the graph where the enjoyment to effort curve of the Cayman plateaus, the 911 is still skyrocketing, accelerating and getting steeper all the time. You have to work it: get the engine beyond 8,000 rpm, put some heat into those Michelin Cup 2 tires, lean on those ceramic discs, and suddenly, it all comes together, like the various and disparate instruments of an orchestra coming into tune at the same time.

Then, it will take you to a place the Cayman cannot reach, where the fun and games are left behind, and serious driving begins. Your senses sharpen, your focus narrows, and your brain starts shutting out all extraneous data not directly relating to the job at hand. The sound of the tires, a painful tooth, the fact your fragile computer is being thrown around in a bag in the trunk…all irrelevant. What’s left is you, a Porsche, and the road. Nothing else matters.

The Verdict

Reach the end of your drive in the Cayman, and you hop out, wreathed in smiles, eager to chat about how much fun you had. In the 911 R, you roll to a halt, switch the engine off, and don’t move. You sit there, alone, replaying the experience in your head, hoping that by so doing, you’ll convert those flighty electrical memories whizzing around your brain into something more based in chemistry and, therefore, enduring. Days later, screen grabs from that day will still appear in your mind, the most welcome pop-ups you’ll ever see. They’ll all be of the 911.

Given the disparity in their pricing, there seems to be little point in trying to decide between them. No one will ever be weighing buying one against the other, though some might want to own both. The Cayman R is exquisite, offering arguably the best blend of lightness and power of any Cayman. It’s worth bearing in mind that the closest thing there is to a modern equivalent, the 3,157-lb / 394-hp 718 Cayman GTS, is 308 lbs heavier and, despite an additional 64 hp, has a power ratio just 0.6 lbs/hp stronger.

But the 911 R is something else, and it’s no wonder that so much of its spirit went on to be encapsulated in the 911 GT3 Touring that followed the second generation of 991. The 911 R is one of the two greatest 911s, at least among those cooled by what you drink rather than breathe. The other? The 997-generation GT3 RS 4.0. It, too, is a 4.0-liter, 500 hp, manual, limited numbers machine, and I’d need to drive the two together to decide between them. Which is probably something we should do…

Also from Issue 311

  • 2025 992.2 Carrera & Carrera GTS
  • 959 Restoration
  • 959 Development History
  • 1958 356A Speedster
  • Market Update: 924/944/968 & 928
  • Facelifted Taycan Prototype Drive
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