Dan tries the Porsche Driving Experience

caymans2_2_49271ac308012-lightboxMy gas boiler had blown up a few days ago and the engineer had arrived at 8.30am, but the repair was proving tricky.

My futile pleas of “I really must leave by 10” soon gave way to pragmatism and a delayed departure time of 10:35am. I now had to cover 85 cross-country miles to the PDE venue in less than two hours, and it had been chucking it down with rain since dawn. A serious driving mission was called for. Excellent.

Highly-committed progress through the deluge on the first part of the route (precipitating my biggest PSM-saved moment in the car to date) was followed by some squirt-brake-roundabout action through Milton Keynes. By 12:26pm I was crunching down the gravel drive of Flitwick Manor hotel in Bedfordshire, to be greeted by the visual delights of a phalanx of 911s on the left and a collection of Caymans outside the hotel, garnished with a sinister-looking black 911 Carrera 4S. It had also just stopped raining.

I was introduced to my instructor and we discussed the format of the PDE over lunch. I would be driving two different Caymans: the first being a manual on the standard 18-inch wheels, and the second a Tiptronic on the 19-inch Carrera S wheels. Disappointingly, neither car had the PASM or Sport Chrono options.

Driving the first car from the hotel to Millbrook also gave me the opportunity to compare the standard suspension with my own steed’s PASM set-up. I’m now glad that I went for the PASM option – the standard suspension felt significantly less composed on the road, and the car rattled and jiggled much more than mine would have done. Perhaps, however, this particular example was just a little ‘loose’ – more of which later.

Millbrook itself is quite some venue. The site covers 800 acres, and the earth excavated during the construction of the two-mile high-speed bowl was then put to good use in creating the hill routes and off-road circuits.

We started off with a throttle control exercise on the high-speed bowl. Ease out into the fourth lane (of five), settle into a 75 mph cruise and then take both hands off the wheel. The test was to keep the car in the middle of the lane, purely by using the accelerator pedal. Too much throttle and the car moves upwards, too little and it moves downwards. Anticipating how the car will react and lightly flexing your toes is the key to smooth progress, otherwise you end up fishtailing very gently from one side of the lane to the other. You get the hang of it after a lap or so.

We then moved up into the outside lane and I was encouraged to press on until the car was circulating at around 130 mph – the posted speed limit around the bowl for non-helmeted drivers. The manual car on the 18″s felt surprisingly fidgety at this speed and I was quite relieved to be given the nod to come down after a couple of laps. By contrast, the Tiptronic car on the 19″s felt rock-solid and was much easier to drive at that pace.

Next stop was the mile straight for acceleration runs. Nail the car through the gears, ease off at the ¾ mile mark and then slow the car down. On my first run I mistakenly shifted from 2nd into 5th, which didn’t exactly enhance my credibility with the instructor! I’ve never done that in my own car, so again perhaps this particular Cayman was less than representative of the breed. In the Tiptronic car, this exercise was simplicity itself but lacking in involvement and drama.

On the return pass, we did three braking exercises. First, accelerate to 100 mph and stand on the brakes, decelerating to walking pace. Then accelerate to 60 mph, stand on the brakes and steer right, then left (to demonstrate the control you still have with ABS). Finally, accelerate to 65 mph, take both hands off the wheel, and then brake hard. This demonstrates how the PSM stability control works, with sensors monitoring out the yaw angle and adjusting the braking force on each wheel to keep the car in a straight line as you slow. Impressive stuff.

We then tackled one of the hill routes, which included the ‘yump’ that’s used as the vehicular launch pad for many a magazine photograph. The instructor drove the course once, to show me the lines – but unlike most racing circuits, the hill route is difficult to learn quickly because of its topography. Constant hairpins, dips and crests mean that you can’t see very far in front of you.

After my first run through, the instructor said he’d make it harder. I had to leave the car in third gear, and try not to touch the brakes – the idea being that you concentrate on your lines, anticipate the next corner and match your entry speed. But on your second run through, you don’t really know where the route goes next, and consequently I had to brake twice. I would have liked more time here, to perfect the lines and lean on the car.

The last exercise took place on the steering pad. Select second gear, align one of the painted concentric circles with the middle of the bonnet and circulate clockwise applying a constant steering angle. Open throttle a bit more. Feel the car understeer (surprisingly early). Open throttle wider still. Feel the car oversteer (very progressively). Disable PSM and boot the throttle. Experience the car spinning (well, what else is it going to do).

It was all very predictable, but actually rather unsatisfying. I would have preferred to have spent time trying to keep the car on-line at increasingly higher speeds using steering and throttle inputs – but that wasn’t in the script for the day.

Finally, the instructor took the wheel for two high-speed laps of one of the handling loops. He was quick, neat and tidy – but as a keen trackday driver and passenger I didn’t find this in the least scary or exciting. I just wanted to have a go myself.

So after the gas and water episodes of the morning, did the afternoon’s PDE provide the electricity? Well, only sort of. It serves as a good introduction to the car’s ability and characteristics, but doesn’t really offer the chance to explore its dynamic repertoire more fully.

I was a little disappointed for two reasons.
Firstly, I had deliberately chosen to wait until I’d had my car for a couple of months and got to grips with its on-road dynamics so that I could use the PDE to find out how the car behaves at and beyond the limit in a safe, controlled environment. But I feel the course was aimed more at the novice Cayman owner or prospective owner.
Secondly, Porsche UK knows the specification of each customer’s car and could have put more thought into matching the two Caymans allocated on the PDE to the preferences of the customer. When I rang to make my booking, I was asked whether my car was a manual or a Tiptronic, and yet I was still allocated a two-pedal car for half the time on my PDE.

Consequently I felt that the day was a bit of a missed opportunity, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone paying the £550 that Porsche charges for a guest to take part at the same time as the owner. The PDE wasn’t as enjoyable, nor as real-world useful, as the Palmersport day at Bedford Autodrome which VX220 Turbo owners received ‘free’ with their new cars. Now that was fun with a capital F!

 

 

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Dan Duke