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With an atmospheric flat six and all the expertise of Porsche’s GT division, is the latest Spyder a true great?

It’s a recipe with almost limitless appeal: just two seats, a modest kerb weight, rear-wheel drive and a naturally aspirated engine. Plus, of course, a manual gearbox.

Any one of these five ingredients is to be welcomed with open arms in the world of the driver’s cars but the truth is that, these days, seldom do we see even three of them together in the same machine. And four? Depressingly rare.

Lightweight roof features a flexible plastic window and stows beneath the rear bootlid to reveal artful buttresses. The roof can be deployed in five steps and the side fins clip into mountings in the bodywork.

The subject of today’s road test has the full quintet. Porsche is the manufacturer to deliver it, although not long ago, with legislation demanding ever-lower emissions and market research showing most buyers wanted the convenience and rapidity of the firm’s dual-clutch automatic transmissions, such a car appeared to be destined for the marque’s back catalogue.

How unexpectedly things can change. In recent years, Porsche has reversed not only its decision to banish a clutch pedal from its most popular GT-division model – the excellent 911 GT3 – but also its decision to ditch flat-six engines for the 718 Cayman and Boxster in favour of comparatively dreary turbocharged flat fours.

For an organisation historically so committed to driving pleasure, these acts were met with bemusement, but following the reintroduction of the manual gearbox for the GT3, a new naturally aspirated flat six has now been developed for the 718 twins. Both the new 718 Spyder (there is no ‘Boxster’ any more) and Cayman GT4, revealed together last summer, are therefore ‘quintet’ cars.

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Moving very much with the tide of popular opinion, Porsche has more recently made this 4.0-litre flat six available in the more attainable Boxster and Cayman GTS models, but it’s the third-generation (Boxster) Spyder tested here. With concept car styling, a mid-engined layout and a chassis that borrows heavily from the 911 GT3, it might just be the greatest road car Porsche currently makes.

The Porsche 718 line-up at a glance

As we’ve become accustomed to over the years, Porsche’s 718-series sports car is available in both hardtop Cayman and drop-top Boxster guises.

Encouragingly, the four-cylinder boxer engines that left many keen drivers a touch cold are now joined by 4.0-litre flat sixes in production-spec GTS models and the special-edition Spyder and GT4 cars.

Six-speed manual ’boxes are standard fare on all cars, while a seven-speed PDK can be had as an optional extra on all bar the Spyder, the GT4 and (for now) the GTS.

Price £73,405 Power 414bhp Torque 310lb ft 0-60mph 4.3sec 30-70mph in fourth 7.9sec Fuel economy 25.2mpg CO2 emissions 249g/km 70-0mph 41.1m

What Car? New Car Buyer marketplace - Porsche 718 Boxster

DESIGN & STYLING

Porsche 718 Spyder 2020 road test review - hero side

At the heart of the Spyder sits Porsche’s new 4.0-litre flat six, with 414bhp and 310lb ft. Despite possessing similar displacement, this is not a detuned version of the motorsport-grade, 9000rpm engine you’ll find in the 911 GT3 but a development of the 3.0-litre twin-turbo unit used by the latest Porsche 911 Carrera S. The old Boxster Spyder also used an engine from the contemporary Carrera S, although in that case the 375bhp 3.8-litre was directly swapped without undergoing major changes.

Here, the 9A2EVO unit has been bored, stroked, relinquished of its turbochargers and fitted with new cylinder heads, pistons, valves and con-rods. The crankshaft is also new and spins to 8000rpm. You may wonder why Porsche has gone to all this trouble when it already has an awesome 4.0-litre six at its disposal, and the reasons are twofold.

Its action might not be quite as slick as that manual gearbox, but even the cupholder feels as though it has been built to an impeccable standard. The engineering that has gone into this car is just mega.

First, with a 911 GT3-spec engine, the cost of the car would have been considerably higher, perhaps more than £100,000. Second, for a mid-engined application, that engine would have needed to be switched around 180deg, leaving no space for the external oil reservoir.

The engine’s efforts are put through a short-throw six-speed manual gearbox attached to a dual-mass flywheel from the 911 GT3 and then to the rear wheels via a mechanical limited-slip differential.

This is the first time the 718 Spyder has benefited from the same underpinnings as the track day-focused Cayman GT4, which itself is said to be some 12sec quicker around the Nordschleife than its predecessor.

Just three of those seconds are down to the new engine. The rest are accountable to the lightweight strut suspension, which uses the same inverted dampers, control arms and ball joints as the 911 GT3. The subframes are also from Porsche’s iconic GT car. Compared with the regular Boxster, then, the 718 Spyder sits 30mm closer to the ground and it touts a generous front splitter and rear diffuser, which are unique to the most rarefied of 718 models.

The result is not a heavy car but neither is it one quite so light as we’d have hoped. At 1420kg, the 718 Spyder is more than 100kg heavier than its forebear, despite retaining its manually folding canvas roof. Its power-to-weight ratio is strong, though, at 292bhp per tonne – more than the 911 Carrera S Cabriolet.

INTERIOR

Porsche 718 Spyder 2020 road test review - cabin

Although the 718 Spyder’s cabin doesn’t feel quite as affected by the ageing process as some models in the Porsche stable (looking at you, Porsche Macan), it’s showing its years in 2020. Compared with the swish, minimalist interior of the new 992-generation Porsche 911, the 718 Spyder’s architecture looks rather middle-aged.

An abundance of buttons on the centre console and central dashboard fascia are big giveaways here, as is the fact that the graphics for the infotainment display don’t look quite as sharp as they used to.

The 718’s cabin layout does look old in comparison with so many of Porsche’s other models, but I still love its instrument cluster. Nothing promises speed quite like a 180deg, 200mph speedo squeezed in next to that dominant central tacho.

Not that you’ll spend much time grumbling. In truth, the sense of occasion that comes from dropping yourself down into the Spyder’s snug, enveloping cabin remains as intact as ever. As is the Porsche way, material quality is excellent, with swathes of leather, Alcantara and polished metal-effect panelling dominating the majority of the Spyder’s interior surfaces. Plastics are generally sparse but are of a very high, solid quality in the places they are used.

The driving position is bang on, too. The delightfully uncluttered GT sports steering wheel can be adjusted to sit close to your chest, its thin, Alcantara-clad rim bristling with motorsport-derived intent. A minor rotation of your left elbow places the similarly tactile gearlever directly in the palm of your hand, while the optional carbonfibre bucket seat gently folds around your hips and torso to provide reassuringly firm lateral support. The seatback is fixed in place, but the height of the base can be electronically adjusted to help shorter drivers see out over the scuttle.

Cupholders and door bins improve interior practicality to an extent, although it’s likely that most bags will be stashed in the storage bins at the Spyder’s nose and tail. The front compartment has a maximum capacity of 150 litres and the rear has 120 litres. You need to partly disassemble the roof to access the one at the back, which is not much of a faff but would be likely to affect how often you used it. You need to exit the car completely to unclip its rear roof fastenings, and it’s a much easier job for two pairs of hands to ensure it’s securely stowed away.

Porsche 718 Spyder infotainment and sat-nav

Although it might not be as large or as sharply detailed as the infotainment systems now appearing in the likes of the Porsche Taycan, 911 and Porsche Panamera, the Spyder’s 7.0in screen suits it pretty well. It’s integrated exceptionally cleanly into the dashboard and its lower border is populated by useful, dedicated shortcut buttons that give quick access to its many submenus.

Satellite navigation, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity are all standard fare, as is Apple CarPlay. The Porsche Chrono package comes as standard on Spyder models, too, providing access to a digital stopwatch and lap timer.

A Burmester surround-sound system is available as a £2769 option and Porsche GB saw fit to add it to our test car. It’s pretty good, but your enjoyment of it is somewhat affected by the car’s refinement levels, which aren’t so good. And, by the way, you probably won’t much care.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

By replacing its four-cylinder turbocharged boxer engine with an all-new atmospheric flat six in its latest range-topping 718 models, Porsche has addressed the main bone of criticism that so many had with earlier 982-generation Boxsters and Caymans.

And you should be in no doubt: the engine it has ushered in here is well worthy of a GT department billing. Its throttle response, smoothness, high-range flexibility and linearity of delivery are all breathtakingly good. Particulate filter or no, it sounds like a great Porsche flat six, too.

This is the first Boxster ever to develop downforce over the rear axle and even features NACA ducts in the flatter underbody. The two exhaust tips could perhaps exit the rear diffuser a touch more elegantly, though.

Funnily enough, though, the longer you spend in the new 718 Spyder, the more you may be convinced that the car’s powertrain remains adrift of perfection by one frustratingly small yet annoyingly significant detail: its gearing. Both the Cayman GT4 and Spyder use the same six-speed manual gearbox, stacked with precisely the same intermediate ratios and then driven through the same axle ratio, as every other manual-equipped 982-generation 718 has used to date.

Having previously been attached to turbo engines that produce much more accessible torque and ultimately spin less freely, however, the gearbox now finds itself hooked up to a motor that needs 5000rpm wound into its crankshaft to hit full stride – and then goes on all the way to 8000rpm.

The upshot is that without at least a shortened final drive ratio to help it through the lower reaches, this is an engine that needs an awful lot of winding up before it makes the 718 feel really fast. Moreover, the car needs to be well beyond 80mph even in third gear to be within what you might call its ‘truly feisty’ operating range. With two more gears to go, it revs beyond 140mph in fourth.

Suffice it to say, the motor does feel a bit flat at normal road speeds in its upper ratios. It doesn’t make the Spyder quite as fast, both against the clock and in give-and-take motoring, as it probably should. And nor does it give you enough opportunities to close in on that 8000rpm redline, frankly. The performance numbers we recorded on this car are bang on Porsche’s claims and more than respectable; but with the gearing it deserves, this could have – and probably should have – been a sub-4.0sec 0-60mph sports car.

All of which may be risking overstatement of the drivetrain’s shortcomings. This is, rest assured, a generally very pleasing engine and gearbox with which to interact.

Shift quality bridges the gap on tactile appeal between robustness and slickness to a tee and every time you let the crankshaft spin beyond 6000rpm is something to savour. It’s just a shame that the car’s gearing so plainly puts a lid on your opportunities to enjoy it.

RIDE & HANDLING

Porsche 718 Spyder 2020 road test review - on the road front

Porsche will tell you that there is no difference between the chassis and suspension configuration of the 718 Cayman GT4 and the 718 Spyder.

The fact is, however, that a GT4 equipped with Porsche’s optional Clubsport package (with its half-sized rollcage) will have a considerably more torsionally rigid body than a Spyder (without a roof) – and that difference will inevitably have an influence on how the dynamic character traits of the cars compare.

Long gearing blunts some of your enjoyment of this cracking engine on public roads, but the car’s precision, poise and agility, plus its bump compliance, make it rewarding

The 718 Spyder has similar apparent chassis stiffness and integrity on the road to the Cayman GT4 we track tested at Anglesey last year. It certainly doesn’t suffer any traces of scuttle shake or betray wider evidence of structural strain. As we’ll go on to describe in more detail, the ride has decent absorbency of B-road lumps and ridges both large and small despite the 30mm drop in ride height. While you won’t instinctively reach to firm up the adaptive dampers very often during road driving, the balance struck here between superclose, effortless body control and practical bump compliance is very good indeed. As a compromise, it feels tauter and more poised than any Alpine A110 does but it is still accommodating of a nasty surface.

The Spyder’s steering is paced with measure and its handling responses are more progressive than aggressive, making it an easy, precise, fluent-feeling car to drive quickly. The chassis is agile and incisive, but not overbearingly so; and the more you explore its abilities, the more fun you’ll have, so it’s rewarding, too. Some might say that it could be more charismatic on the road – more accessible, perhaps – but it’s unlikely that the car’s first-rate on-limit drivability could be retained in quite the same way while moving it in that notional direction.

The 718 Spyder delivered a curious reversal of expectations at the track, showing marginally better-balanced limit handling on the narrow, slower MIRA Dunlop circuit than the Cayman GT4 we tested at Anglesey last year.

It has excellent mechanical grip once its Cup tyres are warm and carries lots of apex speed. It stays stable on a balanced throttle but becomes more suggestible than the GT4 was to shaking its rear end loose on a trailing throttle, allowing power-on oversteer to develop very controllably and benignly thereafter – with the stability controls disabled. Leave them on instead, and you can still have lots of fun and carry plenty of speed.

With heat building into the car’s mechanicals, however, some apparent and disappointing fade emerged from the car’s optional-fit carbon brakes, while a little bit of clutch slip was also evidenced by the transmission.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

Anyone who hops into the 718 Spyder and, with the roof in place, sets off with the expectation they’ll be as isolated from the outside world as they would be in a regular Boxster is in for a shock.

Much like a camping tent, that collapsible canvas roof is nothing more than an elaborate device designed to put a bit of distance between you and the pervading weather. But while it might be very good at keeping the top of your head dry, it’s little more effective than a Scout’s two-berth at insulating you from the sorts of aural intrusions that arise when travelling at speed.

At 70mph, our microphone recorded cabin noise at 77dB – 4dB higher than the standard four-cylinder Boxster we road tested in 2016. Road and wind noise at this speed are significant, then, and as a result extended trips at motorway speeds can be quite fatiguing. Then again, this is a GT-division Porsche, so perhaps a hardy tolerance for the hardcore temperament is to be expected of its owners.

Oddly enough, with the roof down, the difference in isolation isn’t really night and day. An extra bit of wind buffeting is an obvious consequence and it is perhaps a tiny bit louder. But again, this comes with the territory.

Ride comfort, meanwhile, is uncannily good for a car this focused. There’s obviously more of a terse motorsport edge to the way the Spyder goes down the road, but its ability to blend taut body control with suppleness over sharper secondary impacts surpasses your expectations for rolling isolation comfortably.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Porsche 718 Spyder 2020 road test review - hero front

The 718 Spyder is not a limited-run car, although anybody placing an order today at the list price of £73,405 should be prepared for a wait, because Porsche’s GT-car manufacturing potential is only a fraction of what it is for the mainline models, with a large portion of manufacturing resources dedicated to the assembly of racing cars.

If you cannot bear any delay, delivery mileage cars are nudging £100,000 at official Porsche dealerships, although the previous Boxster Spyder can be had for considerably less and, in a great many ways, is none the lesser of the two cars.

Porsche performs well in terms of residuals, although the Alpine A110 is expected to hold a greater percentage of its original value

In terms of options, as always with Porsche, there is endless scope, and to replicate our test car, you’d need to spend more than £92,000. The most expensive options are arguably the most desirable, particularly if you intend on track driving. Between them, the ceramic-composite brakes and bucket seats come to almost £10,000. Some other costs, such as £2769 for the Burmester surround sound, are avoidable but, slightly frustratingly, you’ll need to pay for cruise control (£228), electrically folding mirrors (£210), reversing cameras (£825) and a speed limit indicator (£236).

What Car? New Car Buyer marketplace - Porsche 718 Boxster

VERDICT

Porsche 718 Spyder 2020 road test review - static

Contrary to opinion quite popularly held by petrolheads the world over, there are some things that a really great Porsche flat-six engine cannot do. It cannot and will not, for example, automatically perfect the driving experience of a top-of-the-range 718 sports car, it seems – although this one undeniably does the 718 Spyder a power of good.

For its free-revving flexibility, sensory richness and so much more, the performance of this mid-engined Porsche is now very special indeed. Its ride and handling on both road and track are likewise brilliantly judged, creating a brand of dynamic appeal that’s more precise and purposeful than is any Alpine A110 but can also make you giggle at times.

New flat six rectifies most, if not quite all, of the 718’s shortcomings

Better-chosen gear ratios would, however, better-distinguish the real-world speed of this car and its capacity to thrill. It’s not often you drive a new Porsche and can spot one way in which you might very easily improve it; except where the 718 is concerned, of course – and, a cynic might say, that might even be for commercially strategic reasons.

What Car? New Car Buyer marketplace - Porsche 718 Boxster

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Porsche 718 Spyder First drives