The voice comes over the tannoy: ‘‘Thank you, crew. That’s ten minutes to landing. Ten minutes to landing.’’ Bing. The fasten seatbelt light goes on.
I return to gazing out of the small double-skinned window to my left. So many possibilities have been sliding past in the last couple of hours. So many roads I could choose to drive during the next two days have passed beneath the belly of this plane. It’s Sunday afternoon and in an hour I should be outside Malaga airport, behind the wheel of a Porsche 718 Cayman GTS, manual gearlever resting snugly under my right palm. The Alboran Sea will be to the south and all of the land we have flown over will be stretched out to the north. Our objective: return to square one, London Heathrow, by Tuesday evening. I could go anywhere. Or at least that’s what I thought when I first sat down to plan this journey…
You see, two and a half days sounds like a long time. Even when you’ve got about 2400km to cover, it still sounds like a leisurely schedule. But (and I’m sorry if I’m taking a sledgehammer to the fragile fourth wall of magazine production here) add in a day’s shooting and suddenly the schedule starts to look a bit skinnier.
Surveying the landscape from our still lofty flight path I can clearly see the mountains of the Sierra Nevada National Park to the east. This is where I had initially thought we should go in search of a great driving road, but I just couldn’t make the logistics work. We would have got there with only minutes of light left this evening, then shot all tomorrow, leaving an impossible time/distance equation for the drive on Tuesday. In fact, the more I looked at maps and did the maths, the smaller the number of roads that we could shoot on became. Fortunately, nearly all those roads lay in one place: the Pyrenees.
But where to go in that wonderful mountain range? Sometimes the answer is almost too obvious. Type ‘Pyrenees’ into Google and the pin it drops on a map to mark the centre of the mountain range is next to a serpentine squiggle of corners that looks too good to be true. I’ve never even heard of the road, which makes me suspicious, but equally it’s impossible to ignore.
An hour later the PCM has been set and we’re heading away from the rather impressively light and airy structure that is Malaga Airport’s Terminal 3 (designed by Bruce S Fairbanks, since you ask). Porsche’s GTS models are really little more than a collection of the juiciest offerings on the options list all bundled up for a knock-down price. Yes, the 718 Cayman GTS gets an extra 12kW over the Cayman S (plus an additional 10Nm if you choose the PDK gearbox), but that’s not really enough to make a truly tangible difference on the road or temporal difference on the track. However, we also know that the GTS cars are often somehow much more than the sum of their parts and frequently end up being inordinately desirable as a result. Just to add to the appeal, this particular GTS also has the optional carbon-ceramic brakes, reducing unsprung weight, and the 20mm-lower Sports version of the PASM suspension.
Not that much of this is put to any meaningful use on the first part of our journey through Spain. It is unremittingly uneventful aside from an engine which sounds a bit rough (but clears as we pile on the kilometres), an incredible sunset, a Citroën C4 By Loeb (surely the worst automotive tribute ever? And ‘By Loeb’? Did he really do the chassis set-up? I think not. In fact, I imagine the usually unflappable rally champion going all Basil Fawlty and getting a bit thrashy with a branch every time he happens upon one. I digress…) and a petrol station that sells sweets, sandwiches and suits of armour. Eventually, after almost exactly 1000km on the road, we roll into our chosen town of Barbastro at about 11pm and agree that apart from being a little loud, the GTS has fulfilled the GT part of its assignation very well. Tomorrow we will see about the S…
In spite of my big down coat, I shiver slightly as I step out into the cold air next morning. The temperature makes it feel like we’ve travelled a long way from Malaga. It’s a short walk to the underground car park where the ray of Racing Yellow Cayman is waiting, and the hushed, still atmosphere in the streets whispers of a town still very much asleep. Consequently I feel a bit self-conscious a few minutes later as the pale grey concrete walls of the car park amplify the reverberations of the turbocharged flat-four as it wakes up, all bassy with a breathy growl.
Manoeuvring out of the automotive bunker the sound then changes. With light throttle applications and low revs the engine takes on the aural characteristics of perhaps the most famous turbocharged flat-fours – those under the scooped bonnets of Subaru Imprezas. It’s uncanny, yet it’s really only at these specific revs and loadings that you find yourself wondering whether some gold wheels would look good on the Cayman.
Outside the hotel, photographer Damian Blakemore loads up both boots and then we set off north once more. The road we’re following this morning is the N-230 and it’s typical of Spain, being nicely wide and smooth with an almost natural racetrack feel to it. Although it’s not the reason we’re taking this route to Calais, it’s arguably worth the journey in its own right.
With an inky blackness still fringing the headlights and heavy remnants of sleep still clearing from my head, I’m not pushing hard, but the car feels wonderful. I’m not accelerating quickly or braking heavily, I’m just carrying speed, focusing on the way the chassis and suspension load the tyres through the corners. I’m trying to be as economical with my inputs as possible and really listen to what the steering is telling me.
I’ve heard various driver coaches talk about ‘telling the car what you’re going to do before a bend’ and the GTS really lets you do that. A small input through the steering wheel has a subtle but definite response, weighting the springs and sidewalls subtly before you increase the loadings for the rest of the corner. It’s quite an intimate feeling of connection. As mile after mile of the N-230 pass beneath the GTS’s tyres I find I’m getting smoother and smoother, the darkness hiding the potentially distracting scenery and allowing me to concentrate very specifically on how I’m adding and taking away lock to match the road’s twists and turns.
If it was daylight, I’d be aware of towering cliffs and, to my right, a large reservoir called the Pantà d’Escales. If it was daylight, there would also almost certainly be more traffic, too, as this is one of very few ways to get across the Pyrenees to France if you’re driving a truck. But we’ll be staying in Spain for a while longer. In fact, the road we’re heading to is the only one that is on the northern side of the Pyrenees but still in Spain.
At the town of Viella we turn right, off the N-230, leaving most of the traffic to continue to the French border 25km up the road. Now for the moment of truth: is the pass open? Snow has been falling in abundance this winter and I’m fearful that there might have been an overnight offloading. I can see the sign in the distance. It is slowly scrolling through BERT… BIERTO… OUBERT… OUVERT… OPEN. Phew.
Damian has been dozing for the last 90 minutes but is now keen to see what we’ve driven all this way for, and as we head out of town I decide I had better offer a word of caution.
‘‘Just to let you know,’’ I say rather hesitantly, ‘‘they have been trying to reintroduce brown bears to this area.’’ There is a pause.
‘‘They’re probably all hibernating at this time of year, aren’t they?’’ says Damian.
‘‘That’s the spirit! I’m sure it’s quite safe…’’
The C-28 (for that’s what we’re now on) initially takes a while to get going. We can see the mountains, but there are about half a dozen ski villages of varying sizes before it feels like the pass is starting to really get into its stride. But when it does, boy is it good. Initially it’s wide and pretty fast, with a big valley to the right and a wall of bleached beige rock to the left. Then it narrows considerably and begins to switchback up through the trees.
The hairpins themselves are fun, with the Cayman happy to indulge in a bit of oversteer and make use of the limited-slip differential that comes as standard on the GTS. But it’s the longish sections between each one-eighty that show off the chassis to its breathtaking best. At one point there is just a sliver of daylight visible through the snowbanks as the road shimmies one way then the other and the 718 only requires minimal inputs to jink from right to left and back again. The road’s camber also wobbles back and forth underneath the car in time with the direction changes to further highlight the car’s composure.
Suddenly we’re out of the trees and the reason for this road still being accessible and not left to the snowy clutches of winter comes into view. The 2072-metre summit of the Port de la Bonaigua Pass houses a ski station complete with a restaurant and ski hire shop.
With no ski villages to the east it’s even quieter on the other side of the pass, and believe it or not that’s actually an even better piece of road to drive. The way the tarmac finds its way down the mountain, tumbling through a collection of contorted corners, reminds me of standing at the top of the famous Transfagarasan Pass in Romania. Only there’s no red and white kerbing here and the surface is much, much better. Well, the surface that’s not underneath black ice, that is…
It’s a measure of the Cayman’s perfect balance that even on a long downhill hairpin when the car begins to go sideways on some unseen ice, it feels completely natural to simply steer into the slide and ride it out.
After reaching the bottom of the corners and continuing along faster straights, I turn back. Partly because I feel the best bit is now behind me, and partly because I dropped Damian at the top and he’s probably fighting off bears. Now cognisant of the lurking perils, I can attack the uphill return with more pace, and the GTS is certainly not wanting for speed. One of the benefits of the turbocharged engine is that you can short shift and enjoy the smooth but satisfying action of the six-speed manual more often, while still not feeling short-changed in terms of acceleration.
However, this means it’s easy to slip into a routine where you leave the higher reaches of the rev range unfrequented. But as the GTS ascends once again, I find I’m holding gears more and more, letting the red needle arc farther around the central dial. The higher I go on the road, the higher I venture into the revs and the more I’m shocked by just how fast the GTS is. Far from running out of puff, the blown flat-four pulls harder and harder, punching out of corners with real vigour.
There is no doubt that it is quicker than the old flat-six GTS. If only it had a soundtrack that prickled the hairs on the back of the neck and matched the majesty of the mountains… The old Cayman GTS was arguably all the car you needed: hard, if not impossible, to fault. The new GTS is still brilliant, but despite the sports exhaust, the lacklustre soundtrack means it’s now not quite the one-car quiver it used to be.
Nonetheless, the Cayman’s tactility under foot, hand and backside, combined with the sort of chassis that encourages you to find the limit, mean it’s an excellent companion on a good piece of road like this. In fact, this road is better than good. I tackle both sides of the Port de la Bonaigua several more times during the day and it always seems to offer something new.
Eventually, with the sun and temperature both dropping, we park up at the summit one last time. The slopes are quiet and the only sound is the gentle ticking of cooling metal on the Cayman. I could tell you about the drive back through France the next day (we avoided Paris and went via Rouen, the Eurotunnel was on time, it was raining at Heathrow) but I’d rather end our story here in the middle of the Pyrenees, with the sky turning vivid shades of pink and orange as though it’s competing with some of the ‘fashion’ on the slopes.
I shiver as the temperature drops back to its morning low. I like the cold – it brings a sharpness to mind and body – but were it summer we would still have another five or six hours of light left. In fact, it would probably be even quieter with no ski traffic. Seems like the perfect excuse to return. Perhaps the new, naturally aspirated Cayman GT4 will be around by then…
Engine Flat-four, 2497cc, turbo
Power 269kW @ 6500rpm
Torque 420Nm @ 1900-5500rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, LSD
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, 350mm front and rear (option)
Wheels 20 x 8.0-inch front, 20 x 10.0-inch rear
Tyres 235/35 ZR20 front, 265/35 ZR20 rear
0-100km/h 4.6sec (claimed)
Top speed 290km/h
Basic price $173,100