Arriving at Willow Springs is an almost spiritual experience to racers who know it well. It starts when you leave the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and begin making your way out toward the Mojave Desert. The traffic gets thinner, the speed limit goes up, green turns to a sandy shade of brown, and the air gets hot and dry.
After driving through Palmdale and Lancaster on Highway 14, you eventually get off on Exit 55, which, maybe not so coincidentally as the universe would have it, happens to be the same turn-off for Edwards Air Force Base of test flight glory from an era gone by. Willow doesn’t have high-class facilities and each of its different courses are known for being particularly unforgiving in their own ways, but as a racer, it’s just somewhere you like to be. There’s something primal about the place, out in the desert, after a drive that gives you a little time to think.
I was happy to be there, quickly locking in on a breakfast burrito from the always-underrated trackside catering, to drive the new Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS. Oddly enough, I’d never put tire to track at the Streets of Willow course where I’d be getting behind the wheel, but I looked forward to sampling the smaller and more technical circuit in a car that seemed like it might be perfect for it.
I found out that we’d be driving the track in reverse layout (counter-clockwise), a decision made to avoid some blind kinks at high speed, but much to the chagrin of Porsche driver hosts Pat Long and Mark Hotchkis, there were still plenty of places to get in trouble – and maybe even some new ones. As it should be at Willow Springs.
Gallery: 2022 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS: First Drive
There were two GT4 RSs on-hand for the day, both Euro-spec cars – one draped in Racing Yellow and another with the Weissach Package in Arctic Gray sporting a striking set of magnesium center-lock wheels in Satin Indigo Blue. The Weissach Package is mostly cosmetic with the hood, rear view mirrors, side air inlets, and the rear wing all in clear-coated tight-weave carbon fiber as opposed to body-color paint, but it’s also a pre-req for the forged magnesium wheels that account for a whopping 5 pounds per corner of reduced unsprung weight. That’s not nothing as far as performance goes.
The gray car also had 935-style titanium exhaust tips and a partial rollcage behind the seats tied into the rear frame structure. We can’t have such nice things in the US (because of some regulatory this-or-that) so don’t bother getting caught up in it. Both cars certainly looked the part.
These things don’t need to scream “RACECAR STUFF!” in bright red with 50 different settings for you to know the car is absurdly capable.
Something I’ve grown to love about modern Porsches is their sense of purpose. It’s nothing new for the brand given its DNA, but compared to many of its contemporary competitors, there’s a simplicity to the way the cars work from the moment you start getting acquainted with the cockpit that instills an instant sense of ease and confidence.
The carbon fiber seat is ergonomically supportive but comfortable and only moves forward and back. The steering wheel placement is manually adjustable. In the GT4 RS you have the suspension, transmission, and exhaust either in track settings or not, and both stability and traction control are either on or off, all with clearly labeled buttons just aft of the PDK shifter and lights on the instrument display.
Ignition comes via a turn of the keyfob plugged into the dash to the left of the steering wheel, out of sight and out of mind after the moment of fire-up. These things don’t need to scream “RACECAR STUFF!” in bright red with 50 different settings for you to know the car is absurdly capable. The car, the brand, the people behind it – they know themselves without needing to convince you of anything. And you, in turn, feel a sense of knowing what you want and how you want to drive once you strap in.
The lack of fanfare dissolves, however, as soon as you turn the key. The same four-liter flat six that powers the mighty 992 GT3 roars to life right at your back. Cars that have a great exhaust note are one thing, and this certainly has it with echoes of the screaming 911 RSR just like it’s big-brother GT3, but when you can hear the air flowing through open intake ports then feel it combusting with directly-injected fuel through the seat in that unmistakable 1-6-2-4-3-5 firing order it creates a 4-D experience in the cockpit that’s hard to match. It makes you want to drive.
Grasp the Race-Tex–wrapped shifter – updated to the same feel and more spherical shape of the one found in both the manual and PDK-equipped GT3 – to find the click-button on the front-side, drop it all the way down into drive, and either leave it there to let the PDK do its thing or tap it to the left to engage manual mode. From the first time I sampled one on track several years ago, it’s been clear to me that the Porsche PDK gearbox is an outlier.
Most every performance car is faster on track with an automatic compared to a manual but the PDK, in combination with the smooth power and torque curves found throughout Porsche’s lineup, is unquestionably the most intuitive and user-friendly. It doesn’t feel like it’s over-thinking what it’s doing on your behalf. It will give you an off-throttle downshift as soon as it’s available and still gives you a nice kick when the dual-clutch system engages the next forward gear on the way up the ladder, which is everything I want from a car that’s shifting itself. I want to know that it’s going to be as aggressive attacking the track as I would be.
The GT4 RS is only offered with the PDK, like all other Porsche RS models, tailored specifically to this car, because it’s simply the highest performance transmission available for it. Full stop.
Be A Lap Star
Rolling out to do some reconnaissance of the track in lead-follow formation behind my pal Pat – who was aptly equipped with a new 992 Turbo S for his part of the gig – you instantly notice the clatter of dirt and rocks being picked up by the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. Optional, though, are the holy grail of all street tires: the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 R. They’re made all the more heroic by the long-standing relationship between Porsche and Michelin that enables this particular model of Cup 2 R to be perfectly matched to this car. It’s part of what you’re buying when you buy a Porsche.
Bigger cars on such a race-bred tire slip and slide all over the place engaging traction and stability controls right and left for a lap or so until the tire warms up into its proper operating window, but the smaller size and reduced weight of the mid-engined GT4 RS riding around on this rubber made it feel almost immediately ready to hustle. And thankfully so, because, of course, Porsche’s first and only North American factory driver (mic drop) was not going to wait around for me to get my act together.
The course is a fun, undulating mix of on- and off-camber connected corners that really make you and the car work to extract speed. Before long, I was in manual mode with the PDK to play around with gear selection at my own whim and had the TC and ESC completely off, with full confidence that the car was underneath me no matter what.
After crossing the Start/Finish line you have wide open space to brake as deep as you dare into a second -gear hairpin left. Between the giant 16-inch front rotors clasped by six-piston calipers on RS specific pads, warmed up Cup 2s, and Nordschleife-tuned ABS, I could still manipulate the attitude and placement of the car even at maximum threshold braking force.
Out of the hairpin left is a quick right-left where the agility of the small, high-grip package is delightfully apparent as you briefly ramp to full throttle between each of the short direction changes. The car dances on all four contact patches through the tight and tricky section of track, totally synced with your deliberate inputs. You get a brief punch of full throttle while on the pipe in second with a couple raps off the rev limiter if you’ve carried enough speed, then brake into a 90-degree-right onto the first real straight, up through the gears.
At the end of it, you just grab fifth before setting up the approach for one of the hardest corners to get right in recent memory – the long, 20-degree banked, decreasing-radius left-handed “Bowl Turn.” This kind of corner separates the pretenders from the real things, and the GT4 RS showed off.
The GT4 is a great track car. But as I carried more and more speed into and through the Bowl the RS kept asking for more.
Compared to the standard GT4, its chassis is stiffer and more supported around the front axle with the benefit of the 991 Carrera 4S front clip. Spring rates are higher on all four corners and the shocks are tuned to match, providing another layer of support and stability. The front track is wider, the whole car is lower, and the adjustable front diffuser and swan-neck rear wing account for an increase in downforce by roughly 25 percent. And the GT4 is a great track car. But as I carried more and more speed into and through the Bowl the RS kept asking for more.
You exit the Bowl into a long third gear right that switches back into a 90-left over a slow rise in the track that falls away. You then immediately connect into a tighter long right into an even tighter 90-left. This section really challenges the quickness and overall balance of the car. You have to be able to carry speed into and through the steady-state right-handers and keep the car set up on the right side of the road for the switch-back direction changes. It’s so easy in these situations to get behind, either by carrying too much speed into the direction changes or by being out of position for them.
Ultimately, it’s on the driver to make adjustments, but the GT4 RS was both forgiving and responsive. If I was pushing off-line on partial throttle through the long rights, a momentary and miniscule reduction in throttle would plant the nose and get me back on the right path where I could get right back to it. And when I had everything lined up, the agility of the car to rapidly change directions with neutral balance was fantastic.
For the last two corners of the track the car’s balance and handling in the absence of TC and ESC were worth the price of admission alone. Out of the previous 90-left, the track goes downhill into a 180 banked-bowl right that shoots back uphill on a short straight into an initially sharp, increasing-radius left with a long, opening exit onto a downhill straight. Both of these corners are taken in second gear, and both offered their own variety of opportunity to squeeze on early power and drive the car with your right foot to the exit of the road with that little bit of glorious yaw that relentlessly pumps dopamine throughout your entire body.
When you experience oversteer in a race car it tends to be progressive and predictable on a track like this. Race cars have a flatness to them when they slide that makes the yaw of the car manageable, even at the limit. Street cars, because of their higher ride-heights, higher weight, and typically more compromisingly designed suspension settings and alignments for use in both performance environments and the street are rarely so straightforward to drive when fully committed.
To purposefully trick into a drift, sure, but to have oversteer while pushing at ten-tenths that doesn’t instantly put you on high-alert? Very rare. And yet, here I was, able to make some little input adjustments, unleash the 493 hp and 331 lb-ft of torque out of that beautiful naturally aspirated engine mid-corner, and listen to it sing just under the 9,000 rpm rev limit laying an ever-more-apparent patch of rubber to the edge of the track, lap after lap. It’s a joyous sensation that you don’t easily forget.
A Driver's Instrument
And that’s precisely what this car is about. Is it a purebred performance car? Absolutely. It’s more than 23 seconds faster than the standard GT4 around the Nordschleife at a staggeringly fast 7:09.3 via roughly equal parts increased output, mechanical grip, and downforce, and it gives you all the feedback of a serious weapon. Is it as fast or as good on track as the GT3?
No, not quite. Even though it shares the same powerplant, you have to appreciate that the GT3 is almost literally a real racing car underneath the Race-Tex with double wishbone front suspension and a chassis that’s holistically designed in the same way a low-volume homologation car would be. But, in many respects, that’s the beauty of the GT4 RS. It exists to be the most extreme manifestation of the always fun and punchy 718 by bringing as much of the performance parts from the 911 stable to bear as Porsche could.
There is no questioning the possibility that this generation of performance road cars could be the last to hit the streets with great internal combustion–only powerplants – and certainly with naturally aspirated mills. It’s being talked about in public forums just as it’s being discussed behind closed doors. Is it an inevitability? I think not. But for every model, and particularly those that are special to us as enthusiasts, it’s become a new lens through which we’re viewing each new car.
Will this be the last great naturally aspirated Cayman? Will it be the last great small internal-combustion Porsche? If you’re especially concerned about the answer to this question then I’m afraid you’ll have to wait and see. But fortunately, this GT4 RS doesn’t depend on that answer being one thing or another to be a car we’ll recognize years from now as one of the greatest ever to be offered to enthusiasts. It’s exactly what drivers are looking for. It’s packed with all the goodies that Porsche could possibly manage to wedge in the 718’s perfectly compact frame. And it’s just that good.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the yellow car was a US-spec vehicle when both cars were European specs. It also stated that both cars used the optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 R tires, when they actually wore the standard Sport Cup 2 tires. We regret the errors.
2022 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS