How Porsche Got Its Roofs Back

To satisfy performance-minded drivers, the German automaker set about reengineering its popular convertibles. With the Cayman S and Targa 4S, satisfy them it has.

By John Tayman, Business 2.0 Magazine columnist

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Allow me a shameful confession: I don't love convertibles. (I'll pause a moment while your gasp subsides.) This is not a dislike, precisely, but rather a heightened sensitivity to minor annoyances. Open-air motoring, grand though it may sound, too often results in windburn and the accidental inhalation of bugs, neither of which is much fun.

Also, there's the conundrum of convertibles. To wit: Ragtops may be sexy, but hardtops drive better. The physics are unforgiving - peeling the roof from your ride makes for a sloppier, less aerodynamic car.

OPEN AIR: The $71,500 Cayman S will blow you away - figuratively speaking.
SPEED DEMON: The $105,000 Targa 4S tops 179 mph.

Now, if you're shopping for a PT Cruiser, such compromises don't much matter. But if you happen to be an auto geek preparing to drop significant coin on a performance vehicle, they do. Which is why Porsche, clever company that it is, took its two convertibles and tweaked the dickens out of them, attempting to have the best of both worlds.

What they ended up with is the Cayman S, otherwise known as a Boxster with a roof, and the 911 Targa 4S, which is essentially a glass-roofed 911 Carrera Cabriolet.

A star is (re)born

Let's deal with the latter first, shall we? Forty or so years ago, Porsche released a car it called the Targa, a peppy two-seater with a rectangular roof that could be unhinged and removed, like a coffin lid. (Porsche is said to have created the car because it was spooked that convertibles were about to be banned in America.) The Targa was a blast, but, sadly, the roof sucked - prone to leaks, to rattles, and to popping free at high speed and kiting into the distance.

Eventually Porsche tired of the troubles and shifted its attention to the 911 Cabriolet, and the Targa moseyed toward obscurity - until several months ago, when the company announced that the Targa was to be reborn.

The site of the happy occasion was the Algarve coast, a bosomy sweep of vacationland in southern Portugal. There, Porsche gathered a passel of engineers and marketing types, along with 20 newly hatched Targas, ready to be tested.

Well, I'm an obliging sort. I popped behind the wheel of a $105,000 midnight-blue Targa 4S, turned the key, and promptly zoomed away toward the sunny interior. A few facts as we ride: The Targa 4S has a rear-mounted 3.8-liter engine, permanent all-wheel drive, a leather-on-leather bespoke interior, GPS and assorted other niceties, and a top speed of 179 mph.

Although it uses the same body as the 911 Cabriolet, its skeleton has been made beefier and its suspension sportified. Most significantly, the Cabriolet's cloth drop-top has vanished, replaced by jumbo panels of high-test safety glass, which create a convertible-like atmosphere in the Targa (or perhaps a terrarium-like one).

Since the A- pillars and roof rails have been strengthened to compensate for all that see-through stuff, there's little loss of what engineers call torsional rigidity, a term used to describe a vehicle's noodlelike tendencies (bad) or lack thereof (good). In overly simple terms, higher rigidity equals a surer stance in twisty conditions, so you can go faster without killing yourself.

At 150 mph, surprisingly wind-resistant

In any event, the views of Portugal from this virtual convertible were very nice. Porsche's location scouts did a fine job, laying out a 200-mile test route that snaked about the country's wine- and fig-producing region. Every downshift switchback opened onto a scenic agrarian tableau, perfectly finished with black-hatted farmers and their faithful yellow hounds.

I zipped from hamlet to burg soaking all this in, happily scooting free of one turn before dropping into the next. Since Porsche was kind enough to outfit the Targa with dynamic all-wheel drive, which metes out proper percentages of power to the axles based on speed, road condition, driving style, annual income, and so forth, it's difficult to go haywire in the car.

Thus the Targa bestrode the mountains with ease and remained spookily assured even after the highway flattened, compelling me to push it along at 150 mph through sweeping curves and past Peugeots creeping along at 90 in the gentle Iberian breeze. At such velocity a convertible would surely have buffeted me to death - or deaf - but the Targa's wind management is so adept that the car is as pleasant and safe to drive with its massive 5-foot sunroof open as closed.

Well, almost as safe. When I finally made the beaches at Albufeira, my heart was aflutter, my flesh warm and atingle, and my scalp burnt a lovely volcanic red.

A perfectly peppy newcomer

Which brings us to the Cayman S, Porsche's sop to basal cell carcinoma and its other convertible reclamation project. The Cayman is a direct descendant of the Boxster, a vehicle that has been a hit since its debut in the late '90s - last year it accounted for a quarter of all Porsches sold in the United States.

Even among aficionados, though, there was griping. If Porsche could build such a terrifically fun mid-engine runabout, why couldn't it construct a hard-core mid-engine machine, a true rocket to compete with the rear-engine 911?

As it happened, Porsche could, and did.

Though the resulting Cayman S shares the majority of its components with its ragtop sibling, Porsche supplemented the newcomer with a steel roof, swooped-up styling, and tighter chassis. Add to this mlange Porsche's active stability management and a few other electronic enhancers, and you have a wowsa little burner that zips along as if vacuum-sealed to the road.

It's a great car: quick, sprightly, and supremely well balanced. (And in fact the Cayman S was named "world performance car of the year" almost instantly upon its release.) After a happy week with the car, nipping about in midday traffic and on predawn freeway zooms, I was loath to return it to its corporate minders.

And thus one last confession. On the day they came to take it away, I found myself wishing that the Cayman S was, yes, a convertible. Just so it wouldn't sting so much to let it go.

John Tayman, a contributing writer for Business 2.0, is the author of "The Colony" (


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