Cut to the chase




CALL IT the remnants of the cultural cringe: that belief that whatever we produce in Australia, Europe does it better. Its reach surprised me when I arrived Down Under in 2013. The Euro view of Australians is of can-do, salt-flecked superheroes, refreshingly shorn of neuroses. Truths, as ever, often lay elsewhere.

I was minded of this internalised inferiority complex when the motoring desk was discussing great driving roads. Many colleagues could name the iconic routes in Europe, but looked askance when I mentioned that certain Aussie roads were just as good, if not better. I’ve never driven anywhere that approaches the Targa roads of Tassie, and on mainland Australia there was a drive that I’d champion as easily having the measure of Romania’s Transfagarasan Highway, the road Jeremy Clarkson confidently pronounced the best in the world. Its location? The Victorian high country.

Regular readers of Wheels will know that the roads around the mountain resorts of Mount Hotham and Falls Creek are some of our go-to choices when we’re looking to stretch the legs of some serious performance cars. Link those two hill routes with the forested crest of Tawonga Gap to the north and the dementedly twisty Omeo Highway and the montane Bogong High Plains in the south and you have a 245km loop that delivers every combination of corner, surface and grade any keen driver could ask for.

To do such a circuit justice, we needed something elevated a long way above the plane of the ordinary. Porsche’s boxfresh Cayman GT4 seemed about perfect. A pure, normally aspirated coupe with a 4.0-litre flat-six, the innate balance of a mid-mounted engine, rear-drive and a manual gearbox is a recipe that seems a bespoke fit for this route, the Alpine Ring. That would normally be more than enough, but this time we also brought company in the shape of its big brother, the 911 Carrera. Why have one ‘best sports car in the world’, when you can bring two?

There’s a $29,700 gulf between the apex of Cayman ownership and the bottom rung of the 911 ladder, but throw in the options prices on our test cars and that blows out to a hefty $54,370 gap. Most of that options spend is typical press car dress-up; paint, carbon parts, better lights, stereos, trims and such like. Both cars carry the must-have chrono package and sports seat options and come with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) as standard. Neither has carbon discs. And, after spending a few minutes in both, neither seems a candidate for a cross-shop.

The Cayman feels claustrophobic, raw and highly strung. The jutting underbite of its front splitter has to be nursed obliquely onto drop kerbs and speed humps, while its engine chunters along at its resting 3000rpm lope with all the musicality of my Indesit on an eco cycle. Go any lower than three grand and the bass note turns your spleen to puree.

Jump from here into the 911 and it feels as if you’ve landed in a Bentley Continental. It’s airy and plush. The controls feel supremely slick, as if each input is luxuriating in an oleaginous bath of steamy fractional distillates. The engine whirs remotely, and the knurled metal controls contrast with the plastic touch points of the junior sibling. The 911 feels an entire generation fresher. Largely because it is.

The Ovens valley offers one of the few opportunities on the loop to ease back and take in the scenery. I’m in the Cayman, with editor Inwood ahead in the Carrera. The road tracks the Ovens river, its path delineated by tree species: the occasional stand of poplars, willows and river red gums. A seemingly impenetrable wall of mountainside rises ahead at Smoko, climbing 1500m above you to that most alpine of Aussie peaks, the 1922m summit of Mount Feathertop. And yes, in case you were wondering, the village was so called because it was here that the gold prospectors would stop to take stock of the task ahead and have a smoke.

On the fringes of Harrietville, the driving instantly changes. Head past the Tronoh dredge pool, where the 167-metre long ‘Tronoh Monster’ sifted for gold at the base of the local quartz reefs, and the road abruptly turns left and climbs hard. There’s no gentle ease-in. The 911 squats onto its broad haunches and goes, its 3.0-litre turbocharged flat-six delivering peak torque of 450Nm anywhere from 1900 to 5000rpm whereas the Cayman needs to be wrung round to 5000rpm to deliver its 420Nm quota. In the meantime, the 911’s dual-clutch transmission blat-blats seamlessly through its eight ratios, receding effortlessly.

It’s no great hardship, stirring the GT4’s six-speed ’box in an attempt to keep the needle between 5000 and 6800rpm. The engine’s a bored and stroked relation to the unit in the posterior of the Carrera, minus its forced induction plumbing so, like the last 3.8-litre Cayman GT4 from 2015, its mechanicals owe their lineage more to Zuffenhausen than Weissach, in philosophy at least. Like that last Cayman, the gearing is freakishly tall. First gear will get you to 83km/h and second somewhere around 140km/h. This is an engine you’ll want to feed revs to. That you can only redline it in first unless you want to end up in front of a magistrate is a major caveat.

What the 911 gains on the way out of corners, the Cayman claws back on corner entry. You can brake later and deeper, relying on the GT4’s crisper body control and the superior purchase of its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. The 245/35 ZR20 front tyre size is identical to that of the 911 but the Carrera’s Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 boots offer neither the sidewall stiffness nor the sheer area of carbon black in contact with the road as the racy Michelins, with their virtually groove-free centre section.

Thus, the gap between the two cars expands and contracts as they howl up the hill, as if connected by some vast celestial bungee. Inwood’s fast and smooth in the 911 and I suspect that the Cayman is delivering a far more intense and physical experience. We burst out of the trees and onto the Razorback just short of Hotham, the world turning from jade to azure, the road snaking up an exposed aręte. From the cabin of the GT4, the grey dash and yellow front guards look like physical extensions of the grey bitumen and yellow lines, almost as if the car has morphed bodily out of the road.

Remember what I said about the Transfagarasan earlier? What the photos of deserted Carpathian hairpins don’t tell you is that less than half of the road is like that. For most of its 90km length it’s a valley or balcony drive, and only in the sections around Lake Vidraru and Lake Bâlea does the road get really challenging. The Alpine Ring is the opposite. There’s a short respite either side of Tawonga Gap and across the high plains, but other than that it’s a bottomless buffet of bends.

As photographer Dewar starts snapping details of the two cars up at The Saddle, I attempt to process what’s just happened. There’s a lot to take in. The GT4 is four seconds a lap quicker around the Nordschleife than the deity that is the V10 Carrera GT from 2005. That I can understand: there’s a decade and a half of tyre technology and software engineering brought into that mix. What I’m finding harder to reconcile is that this GT-badged hellion isn’t really any quicker on give-and-take roads than the base 911.

Darkness falls up at Hotham Cross, Australia’s highest stretch of bitumen. Soft folds of weathered peaks blur in planes of hazy pastels until there’s no discernible boundary between the inky indigoes of earth and sky. The lights blink on in the ski village, the darkness enveloping us as we angle east, the last noctilucent feathers of the day rendered as a shining filigree of aquamarine some 80km overhead.

Whereas the road from Harrietville climbs Icarus-like to the sky, the other side of the massif releases its hard-won gradient coyly.

Some of the corners are so long you almost expect the road to loop back under itself. Here you can play with the balance of the car subtly, rolling gently in and out of the throttle. In the 911, you can feel that polar moment of inertia more clearly, a throttle lift requiring a little more remedial action at the wheel than in the GT4.

I’m grateful for the Carrera’s excellent brakes as we approach Omeo. A shrill whinnying from Dewar is my cue that all is not good. A huge grey kangaroo leaps out of the undergrowth to my right straight into the path of the Porsche. In that moment, I stand on the anchors and urge the ’roo not to do likewise. Thankfully, it keeps going across the narrow road, although I was certain until the last possible second that its thick tail was sure to clout the nearside guard.

The Golden Age Motel in Omeo has seen livelier evenings. Bushfires destroyed the original building in 1939 and the recent bushfires put the local economy onto its knees. Now the coronavirus restrictions are attempting to apply the coup de grace. I pick up a take-out parma from the deserted bar to eat in my room. With no cutlery, I pick it up and take a few bites, chewing balefully. How quickly we miss normal life’s little civilities. The sound of a travelling road repair crew downstairs and the tired chug of the split system is all that breaks the silence.

Day two, leg two dawns gin clear. From Omeo, the road meanders up its titular highway, or at least it looks to on the map. Zoom in further and those lazy loops up the road coalesce into a madness of high-frequency noise: switchbacks, sharp lefts and rights and barely a moment to take a breath on the straight. The hill roads may be the big drawcards, but nowhere else on the Alpine Ring does the road feel quite as malign in its intent as the section approaching Anglers Rest.

The 911 is mighty here, taking huge chunks of apex. It isn’t perfect, though. As sharp as it is, in Sport+ mode the downshifting can be clumsy. Just as you roll off the brakes to guide the car into the corner, the PDK ’box can throw another aggressive downshift, causing a pitching moment at exactly the wrong time. Better to marshal those shifters yourself in order to avoid this uncharacteristic dynamic oversight.

The road abandons the course of the Big River valley at an impossibly acute left up to the Bogong High Plains and Falls Creek. Now we see why the repair crews were in town. Several sections of this sharply ascending road have been ravaged by bushfires. It’s sobering to see the twisted guardrail, the melted bollards, the melt-freeze bitumen and the charred witness marks reaching into tree crowns 30 metres overhead. At one point, there’s a perfect alignment of downed trees, flattened by the 200km/h winds of a collapsing pyrocumulonimbus column.

The inferno ran out of fuel at the margins of the high plains. Here the scenery looks almost Welsh, high moorland pocked with peaty pools and basalt outcroppings. The road surface up to and across the plains is loose coarse chip, and the lack of sound deadening in the GT4 coupled with its extravagantly sticky rubber sends a constant fusillade of pings onto its underbelly. The corners here are worth exploring, though, as are the old cattlemen’s huts of Wallace and Cope located just a short walk from the road. We’re back up above 1700m here and, like Wales, it’s cold, grey, windy and spotting with rain. Currawongs sit like silent sentinels on the skeletal fingers of gnarled snow gums, watching the cars go back and forth for Dewar’s lens.

Fortunately the road surface improves as we enter Falls Creek. Still no coffee available, though – which, if you’ve ever spent much time in Inwood’s company, is a problem. Finally we get the opportunity to drive the cars back to back on the same piece of road. I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the GT4’s engine but don’t love it. Any Porsche 4.0-litre, naturally aspirated flat-six is bound to be compared to the Mezger engine in the late-departed 991.2 GT3, and that comparison doesn’t do the Cayman any great favours. The shortcomings of the gearing are such that, as heretical as it may sound, the outgoing 2.5-litre GTS with a PDK ’box would, for many, probably prove a more competent road car. Still, as product boss of the Cayman line, Frank-Steffen Walliser, has noted, “American customers aren’t asking for four cylinders, they’re asking for four litres.” Be that as it may, the GT4’s engine lacks the magic; the hysterical, operatic drama of the Mezger unit at full noise.

It’s hard to direct material complaint at its chassis dynamics, though. The upper reaches of the Falls Creek road are stunning, with seductive but treacherous tightening radius corners, deep cambers that vanish without warning, and forest amphitheatres that brim with phasing flat-six exhaust notes. The 911 demonstrates that it’s possible to cover ground just as effectively without the GT4’s compromises. Of course, were you planning to take your Porsche on-track on a reasonably frequent basis, the GT4 would be in its element, but as a road car, the Carrera has its measure. Coffee in Mount Beauty and a final spirited zip up and over Tawonga Gap only serve to reinforce this view.

Porsche has long been masterful at maintaining a hierarchy. Two days on mainland Australia’s most spectacular driving route has been instructive. The most extreme Cayman that has ever been sold still can’t quite hold a candle to a 911 pared back to its essence. That it comes close is praise indeed, and 245km on a world-class loop is enough to tell us all we need to know about the latest 911.

We roll into Bright and grab coffees and pies. Most of the shops are now shuttered, business owners giving up on the strangulated trickle of tourist dollars. These are strange times. I point the nose of the 911 towards home, gun the engine and grin. When the world seems to shift on its axis, it’s reassuring to know there are certain unflinching constants.


Clocking on


Sometimes you just know when you’ve nailed the perfect run. A sharp getaway in the Cayman GT4 with just the merest skerrick of tyre squeal, three crisp upshifts and we’re done. It’s not going to go quicker than that today. Imagine our surprise then, when the VBOX told us it had negotiated 100km/h in 4.7 seconds, exactly the same time we got from the base 718 Cayman 2.0 with PDK. By contrast, the 911 managed a blistering 3.9-second run through 100km/h and aced the GT4 through 400m too, stopping the clock at 12.1sec versus 12.8.


GT4: Evolution of the species

Porsche has already promised a PDK version of the Cayman GT4 (and its sibling, the Boxster Spyder) due at the end of this year. That ought to shave the 0-100 time nearer to 4.2 seconds with launch control and almost seamless upshifts. Beyond that, there’s the tantalising prospect of, for the very first time, an RS version of the GT4. Porsche engineers claim there’s more to come from the 4.0-litre unit, and aggressive aero and cooling, a big wing and centre-lock wheels are all on the agenda.