Seeking Porsche's Purest Sports Car
In 1996 when Porsche only offered the 911 Carrera for sale, choosing its purest sports car was easy. But today, Porsche offers five different models and the answer is rather muddy. None of its high performance vehicles, from coupe to roadster and sedan to sport utility, are easily dismissed, as each is capable of shattering the 60 mph benchmark in under five seconds and topping out at over 170 mph.
On one hand, determining the quickest is easy (911 Turbo S). And it takes only a moment to calculate the most expensive (Panamera Turbo S) or the one with the greatest cargo capacity (Cayenne). But on the other hand, how does one determine the company's purest sports car – the least distilled embodiment of performance motoring and maneuverability?
To help answer that nagging question, we flew to Barber Motorsports Park to spend a full day behind the wheel of the company's all-new third-generation Porsche Boxster. (As you may recall, we had a first crack at the little roadster back in March in Europe, but we wanted to get our mitts on a North-American-spec car for local impressions).
Nearly 20 years ago at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show, Porsche introduced the world to its Boxster Concept. The small silver roadster, with a mid-mounted flat-six and a soft top, was a big departure from the automaker's current lineup (Porsche was only selling the 911, 928 and 968 at the time – and two of those would shortly disappear). With styling evoking memories of the classic 550 Spyder and promises of agile handling and a lower cost of entry, the public quickly embraced the lightweight two-seater.
The first-generation Boxster (Project 986) was manufactured from model years 1997 to 2004. The second-generation model (Project 987) was not all-new, but a significantly updated version of the original platform that ran from 2005 to 2008. The Boxster was upgraded and modernized again in 2009. Add up all the variants, including the more recent lightweight Spyder, and more than 240,000 Boxsters have rolled off the assembly line in the past 15 years.
Hot on the heels of the all-new 2012 Porsche 911, the company has introduced the 2013 Boxster, or Project 981. The all-new and completely redesigned third-generation model is so significantly different from its predecessors that it makes the previous generation upgrades (from the 986 to the 987) appear embarrassingly trifling.
Every panel on the new Boxster has been resculpted, yet the new skin is instantly recognizable as another Boxster.
Aesthetically speaking, every single panel on the Boxster has been resculpted, yet the new skin is instantly recognizable for what it is. The new look is unquestionably much more masculine in execution, borrowing many of its aggressive character lines from the 2004-2006 Porsche Carrera GT supercar. Spotters will immediately note the new shape of the headlights, the door-mounted mirrors, large side scoops and integrated rear lip spoiler. Signature Boxster traits, such as the electrically operated pop-up rear spoiler and central exhaust outlets remain as they have for more than a decade.
Physically speaking, the Boxster's wheelbase has increased by 2.36 inches and its track is wider (the front track is up by 1.57 inches while the rear is up by .71 inches). The windshield is flatter, with its base moved further forward. The third-generation Boxster also sits .51 inches lower than its predecessor. But most importantly, and despite being torsionally stiffer and meeting more stringent safety requirements, the new model is lighter by at least 55 pounds – making it the lightest sports car in its class. The Boxster S with PDK dual-clutch gearbox, the heaviest model in the lineup, weighs a mere 2,976 pounds. The lightest is the Boxster 6MT, tipping the scales at just 2,888 pounds.
As expected, the cabin has also been updated to reflect Porsche's modern ergonomic theme (launched with the Panamera in 2009). The three-ring cluster remains, but there is a new multi-function digital display on the right. Gone is the old and aged center stack, replaced with a taller console that houses a larger multi-function screen and a sea of buttons, but unlike the heavily optioned Panamera, many are just blank plugs. The new look is fresh, interesting and upscale, yet it remains all Porsche – the ignition key is to the left of the steering wheel and a large analog tachometer prominently takes center stage.
The Boxster S with PDK, the heaviest in the lineup, weighs a mere 2,976 pounds.
It seems as if most luxury convertible manufacturers are moving toward electrically operated hardtops, except Porsche. The folding soft top remains, but it has been completely redesigned with an even larger heated glass window and improved acoustic absorption. The lightweight frame is constructed with magnesium and aluminum, as to not upset the center of gravity, and the whole mechanism automatically opens or closes (the locking mechanism is now automatic too) in less than nine seconds at speeds of up to 31 mph. For the record, that is very quick.
Mid-mounted in the chassis and hidden cleanly out of view is one of Porsche's classic flat-six 'Boxer' engines. Last year's base engine displaced 2.9 liters, but the new model arrives with a direct-injected, 2.7-liter flat-six developing 265 horsepower at 6,700 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. The Boxster S is fitted with a direct-injected, 3.4-liter flat-six rated at 315 horsepower at 6,700 rpm and 266 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. A traditional six-speed manual gearbox is standard, with Porsche's seven-speed Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (dual clutch transmission) PDK optional. (The seven-speed manual transmission, standard on the new 911 Carrera, is not offered on the new Boxster.) As has always been the case, all Boxster models are exclusively rear-wheel drive.
We could go on for another two thousand words describing the new Boxster's subtle engineering tweaks, enhancements and various equipment offerings. But the real question on everyone's mind is... how does it drive?
The seven-speed manual transmission, standard on the new 911 Carrera, is not offered on the new Boxster.
Barber Motorsports Park, in Birmingham, Alabama, is home to arguably the best motorcycle collection in the world (check out the Barber Motorsports Vintage Museum) and the Porsche Sport Driving School (where we attended the Porsche GT3 Cup Experience last year). As we are very familiar with its impeccably manicured 2.38-mile purpose-built road course (16 turns and over 80 feet of elevation changes), we couldn't wait to get on the track.
Customers will be offered the third-generation Boxster in four different models when it arrives in showrooms in early July: Boxster 6MT, Boxster PDK, Boxster S 6MT and Boxster S PDK. (The sublime Boxster Spyder was a second-generation model that is no longer in production.) Base price for the standard Boxster is $49,500 while the Boxster S starts at $60,900 (add $950 for destination fees).
To simplify things, Porsche only brought Boxster S models to Barber (several with some retro-cool wrapped vinyl livery, like the Gulf car in our lead image). Each was fitted with a variety of optional equipment, the most important being the PDK gearbox, 20-inch wheels, Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) and the Sport Chrono Package. The average sticker price, optioned in this manner, was just over $80,000.
Base price for the standard Boxster is $49,500 while the Boxster S starts at $60,900.
We slipped behind the wheel of a Boxster S in the hot pits with an open-face helmet strapped on our head. Despite the soft top being in the closed position (we were running the air conditioning on this warm and humid day) there were no clearance issues, even with our six-foot, two-inch frame. And, thanks to nearly an inch of increased legroom, we were sitting very comfortably.
Our left hand twisted the key and fired up the engine, and we felt it rumble in our backside. Our right hand moved the transmission lever into Drive, moved rearward several inches, and then hit the Sport Plus button (damping is firmer, steering is quickened and the thresholds for stability control are raised). We left everything else alone.
The first lap was at a moderate pace, an orientation lap for lack of a better description, but we picked up the pace quickly. By our third lap we were starting to have fun... then it started to rain. Not drizzle, not sprinkle and not shower – but pour – huge raindrops that splashed an inch off the ground when they impacted the pavement. It took but 30 seconds to soak the pavement, and after one minute, there was standing water in the corners. The water was coming down in buckets, but we stayed out. Thankfully, the soft top Boxster, like most modern convertibles, is as rainproof as a fixed-roof coupe.
By our third lap we were starting to have fun... then it started to rain.
Even though the wipers could barely keep up with the quantity of water falling from the sky, we continued to run laps in the wet and probe the limits of adhesion and overall balance. The wide sticky tires (Pirelli P Zero 235/35ZR20 up front and 265/35ZR20 in the rear) did a commendable job in the muck, but we were still sliding quite a bit and getting frustrated in the process. We pitted to wait for the storm cell to pass.
The clock was ticking, so instead of just sitting around, we left the main track and headed for the parking paddock where Porsche had set up an autocross for us. For the next half hour, we tossed the agile little Boxster rapidly through the orange pylons on the drenched course – and never hit a single cone. Like the new 911 Carrera, the Boxster arrives with electromechanical power steering. And, like the new 911 Carrera, the precise steering is a non-issue.
After lunch, the track had dried and we were back in business. We took the Boxster out for countless more laps, each time probing its grip, handling and braking characteristics.
The Boxster S with PDK will sprint to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 173 mph.
Horsepower is up just a bit from last year's model, but weight is also down, meaning acceleration has improved. According to Porsche, the Boxster S with PDK (and Sport Chrono Package) will sprint to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 173 mph. It feels slightly quicker and it pulls well, but our focus was on its improved handling dynamics.
Those very familiar with the most recent Boxster (986/987 platform) will immediately note the additional stability that the stretched wheelbase provides on the corners. Previous-generation models were twitchy at the limit, especially when cornering at 9/10ths, and they would rotate quickly around their axis (seemingly right at the base of the driver's derrière). The new car is much more stable, rotating more slowly and in a much more predictable manner. Turn-in is still every bit as quick and crisp (weight distribution is 46-percent front/54-percent rear), but there is less need to dial in some corrective steer on the exit.
Porsche's Torque Vectoring (PTV) system is new to the Boxster and the optional technology allows the little two-seater to pull some wicked moves. Technically speaking, PTV varies the distribution of torque to the rear wheels and selectively applies individual brake calipers to rotate the vehicle cleanly around a corner. In practice, PTV can be felt as slight pulses in the vehicle's cornering attitude as the system makes its minor adjustments. As long as the driver holds the wheel with confidence and applies constant gentle power throughout the corner, PTV will work its miracles – it's so good that it's almost like cheating.
Extending the wheelbase also delivers advantages under braking, as Project 981 feels significantly more stable than its predecessor. This was most evident during a quick braking transition at high speeds (when the sudden act of deceleration transfers weight forward and makes nearly all vehicles momentarily unstable). Last year's Boxster would give a little twitch as its rear end adjusted itself, but the new model is much more tolerant of the maneuver.
PTV can be felt as slight pulses in the vehicle's cornering attitude as the system makes its minor adjustments.
Now is probably a good time to bring up PDK. The automated dual-clutch gearbox is one of the best in the industry, and Porsche has refined it even further for the new Boxster. Shift times are quicker and it is more responsive on both up and downshifts. It can be as gentle as a traditional torque converter automatic or as brutal as a sequential racing gearbox. In its firmest mode, our head slammed rearward when it grabbed the next higher gear. Under heavy braking, it dropped gears rapidly, like a Tommy gun, with the exhaust booming in response. The PDK gearbox is nothing to be ashamed about, but we still cannot fathom why Porsche still fits the lousy Tiptronic-era gearchange ears on the steering wheel (proper paddleshifters remain an option, but they should be standard).
All of these things, from the car's lower weight to subtle tweaks in the electronics, contribute to driver confidence. Improved driver confidence translates to quicker lap times. According to Porsche, the third-generation Boxster S will lap the Nürburgring-Nordschleife in 7:58 minutes – a full 12 seconds quicker than its comparably equipped predecessor.
That time is quick, but won't strike fear in the hearts of current 911 owners, as their rear-engine sportscars are still quicker (according to the automaker, the 911 Carrera S, with 400 horsepower, laps the same circuit at Nürburgring in 7:40 minutes). Even on a much shorter and tighter course, such as the Barber Motorsports circuit, the experts admitted that the larger and heavier, but more powerful, 911 Carrera S picks up a few seconds per lap when raced against the third-generation Boxster S.
The experts admitted that the heavier but more powerful 911 Carrera S picks up a few seconds per lap when raced against the third-generation Boxster S.
Yet in our experience, lap times, horsepower ratings and sticker prices don't define the purest sports car in an automaker's lineup. True enthusiasts are captivated by vehicles that communicate their actions, obey every command with precision, make them feel completely at ease and put a smile on their face. This is precisely where a small and lightweight roadster excels.
Is the all-new 2013 Porsche Boxster the automaker's purest sports car? We are going to say yes... at least until the new Cayman arrives.
New Car Test Drive
New generation is lighter and more mature.
The 2013 Porsche Boxster features a lightweight new body with fresh styling and a completely revamped chassis that rides on a longer wheelbase and a wider track with larger wheels. Two six-cylinder engines are available, a 2.7-liter for the 2013 Boxster and a 3.4-liter liter for the 2013 Boxster S, each more powerful yet more fuel-efficient than the engine it replaces due to direct fuel injection and other technologies.
How far things have come since the original Porsche Boxster made its debut 15 years ago. Back then, it was one of an assortment of new German roadsters, along with the Mercedes-Benz SLK and the BMW Z3, aiming to carve out a niche above that most affordable of 2-seaters, the Mazda Miata. That first-generation Porsche was fun to drive and arguably the most sporty and competent of the Teutonic trio, but there was a massive gap between the Boxster and the classic 911. Each successive generation of the Boxster has gotten better and better, both in terms of looks and performance. And that's clearly the case with the 2013 redesign.
This latest version is more mature than the outgoing model. The new roadster is a significant achievement that takes what has long been the entry to the Porsche franchise and moves it up several notches. While it's by no means perfect, the new Boxster is good enough to give some Porsche aficionados reason to think twice before moving all the way up to the new 911, at nearly twice the price.
Like the seventh-generation Porsche 911, the new Boxster is longer, slightly wider and a half-inch lower than before. It makes extensive use of lightweight materials including magnesium and aluminum, which results in both a lower overall mass and a better center of gravity.
We were somewhat surprised when we first heard Porsche would downsize the base engine, which drops from 2.9 to just 2.7 liters. But that proved no reason to worry, the wizards of Stuttgart still managing to squeeze out 10 more horsepower than before, at 265 hp. Torque did slip, ever so slightly, but not enough to negatively impact performance, we quickly discovered.
Better yet, the 2013 Porsche Boxster winds up eking out a full 3 mpg increase in highway fuel economy: now rating an EPA-estimated 32 mpg Highway with the 7-speed dual clutch gearbox.
For those who want more performance, there's the new Boxster S which swaps for a bigger 3.4-liter package that takes power up to 315 hp, a 5-horsepower bump over the old Boxster S, while torque holds flat at 266 pound-feet. With the lighter mass and other improvements, the 2013 Boxster S cuts about a second off the standard Boxster's estimated 5.5 second 0 to 60 times.
If there are reasons to be disappointed they include the decision to make the optional manual gearbox a 6-speed, rather than offering the breakthrough 7-speed introduced with the all-new 2012 Porsche 911. The other gripe is with the new electro-hydraulic steering system. Okay, not a big gripe. It does pretty much everything you ask of it except deliver the sort of progressive build-up of resistance you might expect the faster and deeper you dive into a corner. That said, the steering feels slightly more precise than that on the 911, which a Porsche engineer explained was the benefit of launching the 2013 Boxster a half-year later.
But the bottom line for us is that the new 2013 Boxster is what we always knew Porsche was capable of. It's handsome, competent and as much fun to drive as the original. Okay, a lot more fun. If we hadn't seen how far the German maker could go with the latest 911 we might have thought this was the marque's flagship.
The Boxster ($49,500) features a 265-hp 2.7-liter six-cylinder engine, Boxster S ($60,900) uses a 315-hp 3.4-liter flat-six. A 6-speed manual gearbox is standard, the 7-speed PDK dual clutch transmission ($3,200) is optional.
2013 Porsche Boxster models come standard with partial leather/Alcantara seats with power recline, three-spoke leather-wrapped wheel with power tilt/telescope, 2-zone automatic climate control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 with 7-inch LCD, Bluetooth hands-free phone, power heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, HomeLink, cruise control, alarm, 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Options include PASM Porsche Active Suspension Management ($1,790); PTV Porsche Torque Vectoring ($1,320); Power Steering Plus ($270); Sport Chrono Package ($1,850); Infotainment with Bose Surround Sound ($3,860); leather interior, power seats, sports seats, seat ventilation, special interior trim; sports exhaust ($2,825); front and rear Park Assist ($860).
The 2013 Porsche Boxster has undergone significant revisions, including the development of a new chassis that anchors a vehicle with an added 2.4 inches of wheelbase, total length stretching a slightly more modest 1.3 inches. That translates to less overhang. The new roadster is also a wee bit lower. What's more impressive is the fact that the base car sheds 55 pounds, the Boxster S dropping 77 pounds.
The Porsche Boxster's mid-engine layout is a critical defining factor in design, but the design of the new 911, a rear-engine car, has clearly influenced the new Boxster's overall styling. We think some folks may mistake the new Boxster for a previous-generation 911 cabrio.
The windshield has moved forward by about four inches, while the new Boxster's tall front fenders and sloping headlamps bear a clear hint of 911 to them. The sculpted side panels, which flow into deep air scoops just behind the doors, bear the imprint of the Carrera GT. The 2013 Boxster features flowing LED taillamps that pinch in under the decklid just beneath the new integrated rear spoiler.
The overall look is devoid of excess ornamentation and presents a more mature look for the 2013 Boxster.
The Boxster is a roadster and it takes a brief 9 seconds to raise or lower the top, to our knowledge the fastest of any ragtop on the market.
The 2013 Boxster is roomier than the previous version. For those who have found the cabin a bit cramped in past generations of Boxsters the new model will come as a marked improvement.
The added wheelbase has largely benefited the interior, starting with seats that can travel an extra inch rearward. Those seats, meanwhile, offer substantial lateral support, as we discovered during both some aggressive track driving and a slightly more leisurely route through the Alabama countryside. But they're also pleasantly comfortable after even several hours behind the wheel.
And looking through the steering wheel you'll discover an attractive new three-gauge cluster reminiscent of both the new 911 and the Porsche Panamera. It was the Panamera that introduced the distinctive center console where the majority of the car's switches and controls are located. That new design layout carries over into the Boxster.
The overall look and feel, meanwhile, is decidedly more refined than the Boxsters of past. As with all recent Porsche offerings the maker has been recognizing that it is, after all, as much a luxury car maker as a manufacturer of high-performance automobiles. There's no reason to settle for chintzy switches, handles and knobs and the 2013 Boxster is proof in point.
The heart of any Porsche is its powertrain. The 2013 Boxster migrates from a 2.9-liter flat-six to one displacing only 2.7 liters. It's largely the same engine and, perhaps to a buyer's pleasant surprise, it makes about 10 more horsepower thanks to some cylinder-head and exhaust revisions. Output of the 2.7-liter is at 265 hp at 6700 rpm. Torque slips by 7 from last year to 206 pound-feet at 4400-6500 rpm. But that had no discernable impact on performance: The Boxster delivers solid 5.5-second 0 to 60 times with the manual gearbox, according to Porsche, 5.4 seconds with the PDK transmission, 5.2 seconds with Sport Chrono and PDK. Premium fuel is required. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 20/30 mpg City/Highway with manual gearbox, 22/32 mpg with PDK.
Boxster S, with its 3.4-liter flat-six, gets another 5 horsepower for 2013, at 315 hp at 6700 rpm. Torque remains 266 lb-ft at 4500-5800 rpm. Porsche says Boxster S can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds with 6-speed manual, 4.7 seconds with PDK, 4.5 seconds with PDK with Sport Chrono. Fuel economy for the Boxster S is 20/28 mpg with manual, according to the U.S. government, 21/30 mpg with the PDK. That's all using Premium.
We spent most of our time during our Alabama sojourn in a Boxster equipped with the Porsche Doppelkupplung, or PDK, or dual clutch, for those whose tongues twist into pretzels trying to pronounce German techno-speak. The reality is that the Porsche semi-manual package is so good and so quick it will be the option of choice for the majority of buyers, especially those who expect to spend significant time stuck in traffic. No clutch pedal with PDK.
We were disappointed Porsche didn't migrate the new 7-speed manual gearbox first introduced on the 2012 911 into the new Boxster, but the 6-speed manual is a fine compromise for those who can't fathom a car like this with anything but a stick.
Another debate centers around the 2013 Boxster's new electro-hydraulic steering system, a concept we first saw introduced with the seventh-generation 911. We fall somewhere in the middle of the discussion. There's no question it improves fuel economy. And, if anything, we agree with Porsche engineers that they had even more time to tweak and tune the steering system since the 911 rolled out. It is responsive and precise but it doesn't deliver quite the direct road feel of the classic hydraulic steering box.
The biggest weakness is that there is no progressive build-up, you feel the same degree of resistance in a tight, high-speed corner as you do during a moderate-speed, less aggressive turn.
Nonetheless, the overall road manners of the new Boxster are so good that it's easy to forgive that minor flaw. If anything, the new roadster only encourages more and more aggressive driving, as we discovered during our time behind the wheel both at the Barber race track, and during a couple hours of driving through the hill-and-dale Deep South countryside. We turned around after charging one particularly challenging uphill series of tight S-turns to see how much further we could press into the corner before hearing the tires chirp. It took several attempts and even then we were confident we hadn't come close to the car's limits.
Adding to our confidence was the Sport Chronos Package which features some trick magnetorehological transmission mounts. That's the same basic technology you'll find in a number of new high-performance suspension systems, including those from Ferrari, and on the Cadillac V-Series. By varying the power sent to electromagnets surrounding the mounts, which are filled with a ferrous-based fluid, it effectively stiffens or softens, all but instantaneously.
Another option introduced on the Boxster is the new Porsche Torque Vectoring system, or PTV, which uses both the locking rear differential and rear brakes to effectively shift torque from side-to-side to improve cornering.
Even without those options, the 2013 Boxster's wider track keeps the two-seater firmly planted and willing to respond to even the most demanding driver inputs.
We've always enjoyed driving the Boxster but nonetheless felt it was something of a toy, a wannabe 911 that just didn't quite have enough of the right stuff. For 2013, the new Boxster still has reason to look up to its big brother, the 2012 Porsche 911 having taken some giant leaps forward. But there's no longer reason to make excuses. The 2013 Boxster has, arguably, come even further ahead in its latest iteration. It's a far more classy package than ever before, with the refined details that a luxury buyer would hope to get in a far less competent driving machine. And once you fire up the flat-six and slip into gear you're going to find any excuse possible to keep on driving.
Paul Eisenstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Detroit after his test drive of the Porsche Boxster.
Porsche Boxster ($49,500); Porsche Boxster S ($60,900).
Options As Tested
Infotainment Package with Bose Surround Sound ($4,560); Premium Package with Adaptive Sport Seats Plus ($5,865); leather interior ($2,025); 20-inch Sport Techno Wheels ($4,475); PDK ($3,200).
Porsche Boxster ($49,500).
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