First DriveLike the Boxster S, the standard version's ride, refinement and dazzling chassis make it easily the finest roadster within the reach of modest money
First DriveThe Porsche Boxster S is an astonishing car. Faster than ever but just as capable on the handling front.
It’s 8am before the Boxster S first plunges into my corner. The early morning mountain mist that threatened to spoil my fun and ruin our photo shoot has lifted. In the now-open cockpit, all my senses exposed to the rush of delights only sports car drivers understand, the Boxster is up for the challenge. The new Porsche’s deeper flat-six induction yowl echoes across the valley, blending into the exhaust note, the rev counter needle surging above 6000rpm, until they’re an inseparable howl at the 7200rpm red line, just a couple of hundred revs shy of the cutout. Snick to second, conscious the quick-throw gearlever’s travel is now shorter, the change more precise, though in truth the S feels no more accelerative than the outgoing model. Reminder: must check the numbers. The Boxster squats over the rear wheels, planted, secure, whipping into the sweeping right-hander. The new variable-rate steering filters out any surface irritations – no jiggling steering wheel here – but is also vaguer around the straight ahead. As on the new 911, there is a perception of needing more initial lock on turn-in, then an ever-quickening sense of added precision and accuracy. White knuckles, heart rate on the increase, time for a confidence lift. Pointless – there is so much grip, the gentle change in attitude is transparent, poise undisturbed, even over the small post-apex lateral ridge that’s upset the balance of many rival cars through this same favourite corner. Right foot nailed, lock wound on, understeer sustained, mechanical grip overwhelming power, the Boxster hunkers down and belts out of the corner in third gear. Hmm, do the (optional) 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, developed specifically for the Porsche, actually offer too much adhesion? Try again, and again, each run carrying more speed into, through and out of the corner and nothing, not even hard braking, truly upsets the chassis’ equilibrium. Yes, you can fine-tune the line via the throttle. Ultimately, though we are certainly travelling faster, I’m left wondering if Boxster Mk2 is quite as enjoyable, as involving, as inspiring as the old car. At least on the 235/35 front and 265/35 rear ZR19 rubber that, through sheer competence, introduces a shade too much understeer. This car, I suspect, is going to be an even better drive on the smaller, standard, 18s. Is the Boxster now too good? Doesn’t stop me pronouncing to photographer Papior that, ‘This is still the sports car in the class.’ From 986 to 987, from first- to second-generation Boxster, this is evolution Porsche-style. Eight years and 140,000 mid-engined roadsters later, here’s a new Boxster that, at first glance, looks little changed over the old, though every exterior panel and even the windscreen is different. Our day together gradually snuffs out the perception that old and new are virtually indistinguishable. It may take a few viewings, but I reckon you’ll go through the same process before reaching the point where the two cars are instantly recognisable. Porsche’s betting is that its philosophy of evolutionary familiarity will transform the Boxster into a second timeless classic, like the 911. Clearly the new Boxster’s nose borrows heavily from the Carrera GT supercar’s, but there is also a definite hint of Toyota’s mid-engined MR2. Ironic this, for the MR2 was Toyota’s take on the Boxster look. Now you could accuse the Germans of reverse-copying the Japanese. Haunches pumped up to accommodate the wider track and, for the first time, 19in alloys, mean the new Boxster’s styling is more curvaceous and Coke-bottle in the way the doors (no strange concave curves this time) are well in-board of the higher, hippier, wheelarches. The headlights are moved further back and are more vertical, like the last 911’s, though the lens covers are flatter and the foglights now separate across the upper section of the large front cooling vents. The S also gets a signature, thin central front vent and twin oval exhaust pipes. We like the new look, but just don’t expect non-car oriented friends to notice you’ve swapped 986 for 987. Though the Boxster is mid-engined and the 911 rear-engined, they are inextricably linked, of course. Back in the early ’90s when Porsche was struggling to survive, the only way Weissach could afford to develop the two ranges was through a policy of component commonality wherever possible. The last 911 and last Boxster shared 38 per cent of their parts. That’s now slipped to under 30 per cent, but includes items like the U-shaped alloy bonnet, the doors (if not their windows) and even the windscreen. So when one Porsche sports car changes mechanically, inevitably the other follows. The new 911 adopted variable-ratio rack-and-pinion steering, the new Boxster follows suit. Likewise with the optional adaptive damping, four-way adjustable steering column, optional carbonfibre brakes, the new seats, and the lower section of the dashboard, with its massively upgraded electronics for the multi-buttoned, Cayenne-like sat-nav and communications management. All come to the Boxster from the new 911. No bad thing, especially given that the visual divergence between the two is now so much more obvious. Knowing Mercedes planned a 355bhp 5.4-litre V8 version of the new SLK, Porsche has resisted the temptation to become embroiled in an all-out power race, in part because Weissach continues to insist no Boxster variant can match the performance of the base 911; don’t anticipate the arrival of a Boxster Turbo. Revisions to the induction and exhaust systems flatten out the torque curve, and increase maximum torque on the S from the old model’s 229lb ft at 4600rpm, to 236lb ft across a plateau from 4700-6000rpm, while raising peak power by 20bhp to 276bhp at 6200rpm. Increased equipment and safety levels (the Boxster is the first roadster to get head airbags), the wider body, and bigger wheels and brakes all take a toll, however, and weight increases marginally by 25kg to 1345kg (unless you order the eye-wateringly expensive £5349 ceramic brakes which save 20kg). Small enough, claims Porsche, for a performance increase. Zero to 62mph is cut by 0.2sec to 5.5sec – hard to sense through the backside. Increased frontal area accounts for a mere 2mph boost in top speed, to 166mph, despite the S achieving a reduction in drag coefficient from 0.32 to 0.30. You open the doors by the same lift-up handle as in the new 911. The cockpit looks classy, more modern, and better finished, though the four oval air vents – the 911’s are rectangular – are vaguely out of place. Drop down into the wider, taller and more supportive seats (buyers get the choice of four styles, ours have the welcome full-electric adjustment) and, despite lowering the seat’s hip point by 25mm and moving the pedals 10mm forward, tall drivers still struggle to stretch their legs. Still, the compromise behind the now fully adjustable steering wheel is less restricting. The problem is that where the rival all-new BMW Z4 and SLK get notably bigger cabins, courtesy of longer wheelbases, the Boxster’s is stuck at 2415mm. And the manufacturing hard points, even when almost 80 per cent of the car is new, force the use of the same small 64-litre fuel tank. Still, with the spare wheel eliminated from the front boot, we’re surprised to find that all of Papior’s camera gear and our soft bags fit in the twin boots. I collected the Boxster from Zuffenhausen earlier this morning in the dark. Buckled in, seats and mirrors positioned, absorbing the new three-spoke wheel with multi-function controls, notice the instruments – still dominated by the central rev counter – are light-grey on the S (black on the Boxster), and set the now-standard trip computer. The clutch eased out – no dual-clutch DSG gearchange for at least a year – and I’m immediately impressed by the drivetrain’s fluency, from barely above idle, and total lack of slack. It’s as if gearlever to rear tyres and everything between is a single, mechanically-linked component. The engine’s a gem, of course, but then we expect nothing less from a Porsche flat six. More mature, less given to blatant induction highs and lows, yet happy to chase to the 7200rpm red line, it kicks in aurally, and acceleratively, at 4000rpm and again just over 6000rpm. Yet it is just as capable and responsive crawling through peak-hour traffic at 1500rpm in fourth. As the Boxster eases out of the gates, and we turn left up the hill to the autobahn – the ritual, every time you drive away from Porsche’s HQ – everything is taut; the body, the ride, the weighting of all the controls beautifully balanced, in typical Porsche fashion. All except the steering. At low speeds, the steering feels lighter, fuzzy around the on-centre position, so that on first turning the wheel the steering seems slower and the car less agile. It’s a product of the new variable steering rack that, Porsche says, helps make the new models more manageable, by speeding up the ratio when the wheel is turned beyond 30 deg in either direction. Yes, you quickly get used to the change and, accept that when pushing hard, the steering works as an aid to nimbleness on twisty roads, while greatly helping stability above 120mph-plus on the autobahn. Yet I suspect long-time Porsche owners – of both Boxster and 911 – are going to miss the intimate liveliness of the old set-up; a built-in sneeze factor on a Porsche? Hard to believe. At 75mph on the speed-limited autobahn south towards Munich, the ride is firm, expansion joints between the concrete surfaces felt and heard through the 35-aspect ratio tyres, though general tyre rumble is much reduced. Otherwise refinement is terrific, progress relaxed, the triple-layered roof containing wind noise so driver and passenger can converse normally. The roof’s magnesium structure makes it lighter, but the real trick is still the ability to open or close the lid, in just 12 seconds, at speeds up to 31mph. That’s automotive show business. Porsche’s optional active suspension management (PASM) lowers the car 10mm compared to the standard suspension, but the highlight is the adaptive dampers, developed with Bilstein. PASM offers a range between the comfort of normal, which subjectively matches the ride of the old S on 18-inch wheels – and is better able to cope with small irregularities, or sport. Five infinitely variable maps tailor the dampers to suit the conditions, even firming up the settings during hard braking to reduce dive. Sport mode is clearly intended for the track, as it fights even on normally smooth German roads. We’ll bet, after a bit of experimentation, that most owners will settle for the default comfort mode, at least through London. The lovely mountain roads south-east of Stuttgart are something else. Sport selected, the Boxster slices beautifully from apex to apex, body moving exactly in unison with the suspension, flowing across the road and beautifully balanced, able to access all its performance even more often than a new 911 Carrera 2. That could be part of what I hate to call The Problem. The Boxster’s chassis is so complete, so talented, it cries out for more power. That’s not going to happen soon, so a better (cheaper) answer is to go for the smaller, and therefore less effective, tyres and wheels. As explained earlier, it’s not so much a question of grip, but balancing out the understeer. Steering inputs need to be early and definite, or the S displays more understeer than Porsche drivers expect, even with the recalibrated stability control system switched off. In such circumstances, you need to be prepared to back off momentarily to adjust the car’s stance into a more neutral handling zone. Which confirms that, of course, it’s quick – quicker than any previous Boxster – and an astonishingly capable driving machine. The speed is matched by the brakes, even without resorting to the ceramic discs. Pedal pressures are lighter, yet more progressive and consistent. These are great brakes. Porsche’s ambitions for the Boxster seem surprisingly modest, at just 14,000 in 2005, when annual sales of the first generation peaked at 25,000. But this is Zuffenhausen’s way. Given a price increase of only £390 over the old S, I suspect the UK will contribute more than its fair share to the total. One last attack, before returning to Stuttgart. Approaching the corner from the opposite direction, the Boxster’s entry is swift, driver and car engaged, moving as one. Dab the brakes, one decisive wheel movement, right foot hard on the throttle, lateral forces building with the gentle understeer. Feather the power. Change of attitude, understeer contained. That’s better. Expect to have a big say in how the Boxster corners, and you can’t help but love this Porsche. That’s the secret. The quicker you go, the better this car becomes. Peter Robinson