CAYMAN S ON OHLINS
Can you improve perfection? Given that perfect doesn’t exist, then yes as we prove with an Ohlins suspended Cayman S
Nowt if not an opinion splitter on several levels. That’s the 987 Cayman. Take the styling. Is it pretty enough for a modern mid-engine Porsche coupé? That’s been debatable from the moment Porsche pulled the wraps off this Boxster with a roof back in 2005. Then there’s the performance. Some say it’s simply not quick enough, that it’s been held back to protect the iconic 911. But nearly everybody can agree on one thing. The 987 has a very sweetly balanced chassis.
In other words, the 987’s handling ain’t broken. So, why would anyone try to fix it? Enter Ohlins with their Road & Track suspension technology in long-awaited 987compatible form. We’ll come to what makes this Ohlins kit stand out from the obvious Bilstein and KW alternatives. But the first obstacle Ohlins has to hurdle is why you’d mess with a factory setup that has generated widespread praise.
The argument for having a fiddle goes something like this. In simple, objective terms, the dampers Porsche fits to mainstream models like a cooking Cayman constitute pretty ordinary hardware. That’s not to say the standard struts on a 987 Cayman are junk. But Porsche didn’t exactly throw a lot of money at the damping, let’s put it that way. Aftermarket products like the Ohlins R&T offer an opportunity to bolt on something a bit more special.
Another significant factor involves personal preference. Unavoidably, the chassis setup on the 987 Cayman is a one-size-fits-all compromise. In achieving that compromise Porsche must accommodate a very wide spectrum of owners and drivers. The result needs to be safe for everyone and it needs to be user-friendly for as many potential customers as possible. In short, it can’t scare off mainstream car buyers.
No question Porsche is best placed to achieve an optimal compromise given that remit. But you don’t need to think you’re better than Porsche at setting cars up to decide you want to go after a chassis that’s tuned to your own personal preferences. In an ideal world, one could argue, you’d have Porsche set the car up to your preference. But that’s not an option. If you’re after something a little more focused, something more particular, that’s where hardware from Ohlins and outfits like setup-specialists Center Gravity can make a difference.
It’s also where Charlie Craft and his rather delightful second-generation 987 Cayman S comes in. A serial owner of a number of very serious driver’s cars, including a mega-power Lotus Elise with a supercharged Honda engine, Charlie is the kind of guy who recognises the kind of trade offs above but isn’t afraid of going after a more tailored driving experience.
“My main intention was to build something along the lines of a budget Cayman R,” explains Charlie, “something which could dual purpose as a daily but also be enjoyed on track occasionally. I considered the Bilstein PSS9 kit but saw some mixed reviews, while the KW offering seemed a bit hardcore for daily use. But the Ohlins R&T kit with its DFV technology had a good reputation for meeting my remit when fitted to other models and marques.
“I've also always thought the standard Cayman an attractive car but one that rode too high for my liking. My car is now just a little lower than a Cayman R but still copes well with speed bumps and car parks.”
We’ll come back to how the Ohlins has worked out for Charlie in a moment. But let’s drill down into what, on paper at least, makes the Ohlins R&T damper kit something special. A key feature is that DFV technology Charlie mentioned. It stands for dual-flow valve and in really simple terms the clever bit is the capability to ‘blow off’ extreme oil pressure inside the damper. That’s handy when the damper piston is suddenly compressed, for instance when hitting a sharp bump in the road.
For a little more insight into this aspect, we spoke with Pete Leason at renown Porsche chassis fettlers Center Gravity in Warwickshire. Indeed, it was Pete who installed and set up the R&T kit on Charlie’s Cayman. The result of that ability to quickly release extreme pressure, says Pete, is a brand of on-road compliance that’s pretty extraordinary. “People often call it a ‘magic carpet’ ride,” he says, “where the car glides over bumps rather than crashing into them.”
Pete says the Ohlins R&T kit has another advantage over the competition. “The spring preload is set when fitting,” he explains, “and allows the ride height to be adjusted without altering the pre-load. That means you can set the ride height very low while maintaining full damper travel and compliance. Going very low with other kits that don’t support this ability
The 987’s handling ain’t broken, so why would anyone try to fix it?
can result in a crashy mess.”
Pete also reckons the Ohlins kit is proving very reliable. “We’ve fitted 40 to 50 cars with the R&T kit so far. So that’s around 200 dampers in total. But we’ve only had to replace a single bush on one damper and that was on a car being driven 70 miles a day. We just don’t have problems with this kit,” Pete says.
If that’s the theory behind the R&T kit, what’s it like when expertly fitted to the 987 Cayman? The first thing you notice is that compliance. Most intrusions are dismissed with remarkable comfort. But it’s not just the smothering of the initial impact that’s impressive. It’s the way the car regains composure so quickly following a really big lump in the road. Drive, say, a Cayman R back to back with an Ohlins-suspended Cayman and you’ll notice how the R takes that little bit longer to regain full body control, how the body will bounce or pogo down the road almost imperceptibly after hitting a bump.
You also notice that the occasional near-limit edginess you sense in a standard Cayman R has been banished. The Ohlins kit really does hang together when loaded up at higher speeds, that’s for sure. So are there any downsides beyond the cost of having the kit fitted? Certainly, you won’t be able to run Porsche’s Extended Warranty cover with this kind of fairly extensive modification.
The other issue is not so much a problem with the Ohlins kit itself but the knock-on effect it can have in terms of other aspects of the car. With the dampers providing greater control on Charlie’s car, for instance, the relative lack of precision of some aspects of the 987’s standard rear axle suddenly become more apparent. Whether it’s the central bush in each of the standard rear coffin arms, the engine and gearbox mounts, or some combination of all those parts, you can feel a slight loss of control at the rear when the car is under both heavy lateral load and hard acceleration. It’s momentary, but it’s something you just can’t pick up on in the standard car due to the lack of damping control and the relatively large body movements.
Charlie’s car is also running 19 inch wheels, which generally don’t do much for steering or chassis feel. Indeed, they probably also contribute to a tendency for the front axle in particular to get crashy in response to particularly sharp and nasty potholes. A 987 Cayman running the Ohlins kit and the smaller 17-inch factory wheel option would be a very interesting proposition, that’s for sure.
The way this particular 987 is set up, the front axle is also rather mute. There’s a transient lack of information just as you turn in that saps a little confidence in what the car is doing. Just for a moment it feels like it doesn’t want to turn. That’s a subjective observation, but the point about it is that once you start fiddling with these cars, you have to be aware that achieving a final setup that ticks all your boxes won’t always be straightforward. Put simply, this stuff isn’t easy and it could take a little time and a few iterations of both hardware and setup before you really nail it.
The rewards, however, are significant and it can be fun as well as an educative process along the way. Charlie is certainly very happy overall with the result. “I’ve now completed around 1200 miles with the R&T kit fitted and the overriding improvement is the quality of the body control, particularly at speed,” he says. “The car now has zero float and feels totally planted where the old suspension could at times lose composure. The faster you go the better it seems to get.
“The rebound damping is on another level to the stock setup, too, so mid-corner bumps and crests are handled with minimal fuss. The ride quality seems about the same as the factory setup even though the spring rates are a lot higher – roughly the same as a 981 Cayman GT4. On track the car also feels relatively at home and traction out of corners even without a LSD and standard ARBS is more than acceptable. The only downside so far is the front units can be a bit crashy over bigger potholes and send the odd shudder through the cabin.”
As good as the standard 987 Cayman chassis is, then, it’s certainly possible to make unambiguously positive changes even if there will likely always be a little give and take. It turns out you can improve on near perfection after all. PW
It perhaps takes a brave person to question any Porsche suspension set-up, let alone that of a Cayman. But, if you want bespoke handling, then you have to plough your own suspension furrow
Ohlins’ quality speaks for itself, but it’s how they perform bolted on to your car that counts
A win-win on Ohlins? Largely, yes. Of course there are compromises, but the R&T kit makes a good job of improving the Cayman’s handling and body control, while retaining ride quality
Thanks to Charlie Craft for providing his lovely gen 2 987 Cayman S and to Pete Leason of Center Gravity for talking us through the Ohlins install.