First Drive: 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder drops a weight class and hits harder than ever
The blueprint goes something like this: Take an aging sports car and raid the corporate parts bin for a few high-performance items likely stolen from a flagship model. Tweak the suspension tuning, throw on some wider rubber, pare down the standard features, add a smidgen more horsepower and then make a few cosmetic changes so it stands out on the showroom floor. Finally, slap on a more expensive price.
We've seen it done many times, but rarely executed so well. Using the recently freshened Boxster S as a starting point, Porsche has developed an entirely new Spyder model that joins the Boxster lineup as its new flagship. While the two-seater follows the aforementioned recipe, we have to admit that it appears to be anything but kit-based and shortsighted.
Porsche recently gave us some seat time with its latest concoction in the mountains above Malibu. What has the automaker done to distinguish the Spyder from its lesser Boxster siblings? What key ingredients have been added – or are missing – to make it so special? Is it the best-handling Porsche model in today's lineup? This and much more to be answered after the jump.
Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
We are big fans of the Porsche Boxster, but so is nearly everyone else. With an optimal mid-engine design, near-perfect suspension tuning and famously effective brakes, the only thing the entry-level Porsche has been missing is long-term model-range excitement. We welcomed the special variants like the 550 Spyder 50th Anniversary Edition, RS60 Spyder and the Design Edition 2, but they seemingly went as quickly as they arrived.
Addressing the void, Porsche pulled out a Boxster S, opened up the age-old "enhancement" blueprints and then clearly followed the directions. Enter the all-new 2011 Boxster Spyder.
Let's take a look from the inside out.
Buried deep within the new Boxster Spyder is the same 3.4-liter direct-injected flat-six hidden amidships in the Boxster S. However, this smooth-spinning jewel is running the same engine map as the Cayman S coupe, giving it a slight boost to 320 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque (up from 310 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque in the Boxster S). The standard gearbox is a six-speed manual, but those who prefer perfect computer-executed shifting will seek the optional seven-speed dual-clutch PDK (interestingly enough, the PDK accelerates slightly quicker and is more fuel efficient than the human-operated transmission – even though it weighs a bit more). All Spyder models are fitted with a slightly smaller 14.27-gallon fuel tank (its EPA fuel economy ratings are 19/27 mpg, if that matters to you) and a genuine mechanically locking rear differential.
The basic suspension components are unchanged, but the chassis rides nearly an inch lower and the wheel camber (both front and rear) is a bit more aggressive. The standard 19-inch wheels (up from 18s on the Boxster S) are the lightest cast aluminum wheels in Porsche's inventory. They are wrapped in 235/40ZR19 tires in the front and 265/40ZR19 rubber in the rear. Stretching between them is Porsche's iconic logo from the 1960s that acts as a reminder of a time when sports cars didn't need to go on diets.
Stolen from the 911 GT2 parts bin are the twin carbon-fiber Alcantara-upholstered bucket seats (saving 26 pounds over the standard chairs), easily the most prominent change within the cabin. There are also GT3 RS-inspired interior door panels with red nylon pull straps instead of mechanical levers, red numerals on the gearshift (6MT models only) and black-faced instrument gauges. Like the limited edition RS 60 Boxster, the dash hood over the primary instrument cluster has been deleted.
Further distinguishing the Spyder from its siblings are several significant exterior cosmetic changes. Most obvious to bystanders is the new one-piece rear aluminum hood, with its curves beautifully reminiscent of the early "550 Spyder" (subtract 6.5 pounds). Look a bit closer and you'll find aluminum door skins (subtract 33 pounds), a revised front fascia, new LED running lights, a fixed rear spoiler, twin black tail pipes, and that very unique black cloth top.
The two-piece top is quite trick in design but only takes minutes to install. Manufactured with a carbon-fiber header and weighing less than 13 pounds, the well-engineered contraption locks rigidly into the windshield frame before being firmly tensioned with a cable behind the roll bars. If things are wet outside, a plastic rear window snaps into place to keep the weather out of the interior. It is interesting to note that the fabric flying buttresses, stretching back over the rear deck, are not under much tension (regardless of how things look). While the Boxster Spyder will hit 166 mph, Porsche doesn't recommend exceeding 125 mph with the fabric roof up (of course, the California Highway Patrol doesn't recommend exceeding 55 mph on Pacific Coast Highway, either).
Benefiting from the weight savings, the Boxster Spyder tips the scales at just 2,811 pounds. It's the lightest vehicle in Porsche's road-going lineup (176 pounds lighter than the standard Boxster S) and boasts a power-to-weight ratio of just under 8.8 lbs/hp. Take a quick look at the competition in the 300-plus horsepower roadster category – they've all packed on serious pounds over the years. The Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG is 3,472 pounds (661 pounds heavier than the Spyder), the Nissan 370Z Roadster Touring with Sport Package is 3,497 pounds (686 pounds heavier) and the latest BMW Z4 sDrive35is weighs 3,594 pounds (a whopping 783 pounds heavier than the Spyder). Compared to those porky pseudo-competitors, the Spyder seems like it was sculpted from a block of Aerogel.
The Boxster Spyder is a standard production model, not limited in production volume. It sits above the Boxster and Boxster S in the lineup. The standard Boxster (2.9-liter rated at 255 horsepower) starts at $47,600 with the Boxster S coming in with a base price of $58,000. As it builds on the Boxster S equipment package, Porsche has priced the new lightweight model slightly higher. The Boxster Spyder starts at $61,200.
As expected, customers are offered access to an extensive options list including seat belt buckles in leather ($535) or a floor-mounted fire extinguisher ($140). If you really like yellow calipers and expensive brake jobs, Porsche's lightweight ceramic "PCCB" composite brakes are on the options list too ($8,150). Our test model had special Arctic Silver Metallic paint ($710), self-dimming mirrors/rain sensing wipers ($690), bi-xenon headlights ($1,560), audio package plus ($700), automatic climate control ($1,760) and the Sport Chrono package ($960) for a grand total of $68,530. We would soon find it was worth every penny.
Like every other Boxster, the Spyder offers an intimate cabin for anyone taller than our 6-foot 2-inch frame. Never deterred, we fit perfectly into the supportive two-way adjustable sport bucket seats to find a very comfortable driving position behind the tilt/telescoping three-spoke steering wheel. With a twist of the traditional left-mounted key, the flat-six positioned just behind the small of our back kicks over and settles into a very familiar – but rather quiet – rumble. Order the optional Sport Exhaust. We would.
Our mission is to spend a full morning with the Boxster Spyder in the hills above Malibu terrorizing the botts dots along Latigo Canyon, the famed Mulholland Highway and Stunt Canyon road before heading back down the coast. Top stowed in the trunk, the sun shining brightly and temps in the mid-70s. No, it doesn't suck to be us.
Traveling up Pacific Coast Highway, the 3.4-liter pulls the lightened Boxster around very well. Don't expect the wheel-spinning torque of a V8, V10 or forced induction powerplant – this well-balanced engine instead rewards those who spin it to redline frequently. Porsche says the 2,811-pound Spyder sprints to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds with the six-speed manual gearbox (the PDK-equipped model with launch control will get you there in 4.6 seconds), and it feels every bit as quick as that sounds. Even if it isn't as quick as the dual-clutch gearbox, the manual transmission is nearly perfect in gearstick position, shift throw and driver feedback. Yes, it is our preferred transmission in the Spyder.
We must confess: Our initial expectations defined the Spyder as a lightweight Boxster-variant of the 911 GT3. The GT3 is damn near perfect, but a bit too hardcore and predatory for a daily driver. Looking over the spec sheet, we imagined the Spyder would share its suspension tuning, and steering feel, with that special 911. We couldn't have been more incorrect.
While it is one of the best-handling cars that we have ever experienced (especially in this price bracket), the Boxster Spyder doesn't rely on an abusively-firm suspension, sticky low-profile tires or twitchy fast-ratio steering racks. Instead, Porsche engineers masterfully blended shock damping, spring rates and sway bar settings with the lightest chassis in their model range. Praise the simple elementary physics. If he were alive today, Sir Isaac Newton would undoubtedly drive a Boxster Spyder.
The Boxster Spyder is every bit as friendly and pleasant to drive as its siblings. Its mannerisms are curiously polite – until you hit a corner at speed. While the Boxster and Boxster S both take a moment to "settle" as the suspension loads and hunkers down, the lightweight model takes to the direction change instantly (the turn-in isn't twitchy, but rather obedient and predictable). Once on course, it holds the line with tenacity. After a few samples, we begin to savor the Spyder's handling and enter every corner at double the posted speed with nary a concern.
After a few more minutes of chasing a curvy road through the Santa Monica mountain range, this mid-engine sports car has us simply giddy. Light, communicative and agile – it is an absolute joy to drive.
What sets the Spyder apart is the way in which it delivers raw driver involvement in a completely modern sports car. It is a throwback to the old-fashioned roadster experience that most automotive enthusiasts crave: right foot taps the brake, left foot engages the clutch, right hand downshifts, left hand turns into the corner, ears hear the gravel under the tires, eyes notice the crack in the pavement, skin feels the warmth of the afternoon sun and the nose smells the drying sagebrush on the side of the road. This is intimate motoring.
As mentioned, most automakers follow the same "enhancement" blueprints, but they blow a step or two along the way (e.g., suspensions are set far too stiff, interiors are bland and cold, the graphics and cosmetic enhancements are too gaudy). Porsche has ingeniously honed and polished the Boxster Spyder to a fine state without marring its original finish.
Without question, the Boxster Spyder is one of the most enjoyable enthusiast-oriented cars we've driven in a long time, but is it for you? Cars like the Lotus Elise SC are much lighter and more nimble, but not nearly as comfortable or forgiving to drive. On the other end of the spectrum, the Nissan GT-R offers blazing speed, but it weighs an astonishing 1,000 pounds more and most driving sensations are lost in its computerized all-wheel drive wizardry.
When it comes to extremes, it wasn't Porsche's intent to set any new records. This two-seater isn't the lightest production car on the road, the quickest car at the light or the fastest car on the track. It isn't the least expensive, quietest or the most comfortable. But toss all of those measurable objective accolades aside, as the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder excels in the most important category of all – it captures your soul.
Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.