Sideways glance

Nick Faure is Britain’s most famous, and spectacular, 911 driver. What then would he make of the rather tamer Boxster? Roger Bell does the introductions

If Porsche is pinning its future on the Boxster, I think it has got it wrong.” It was the trader in Nick Faure who spoke first, not the driver. “Ask people what a Porsche is and they’ll say 911.”

The veteran of some 600 races, 11 Le Mans and more deals in 911s than you’ve had visits to Tesco’s, was expressing his doubts about the new Boxster. “Once the hype is over, will people really buy a two-seater Porsche? My customers want rear seats. There aren’t enough buyers around who can afford to be that impractical.”

People certainly want the Boxster right now. What’s more, they have the money.

Silly money. Seated at a big, paper-strewn table that serves as his desk, Nick Faure a burly, bearded, 54-year-old with a ready laugh and an artist’s eye tells us of the punter who had just paid £52,000 elsewhere for one. Loaded with extras, it retailed at £45,000 (up from a basic £33,950) and the rest was premium.

“I cannot understand the mentality of people who get into the overs market for the sake of a few months’ wait,” says Nick. Not that Nick Faure, car dealer, is complaining. “I have just sold a £21,000 Lotus Elise in the trade for £24,000. And it was left-hand drive, at that.”

Here we go again, I thought. The market is on the verge of madness. The world is awash with new sports cars and, for the moment, everyone seems to want them. Me included. My first drive in a Boxster had been so bewitching that I considered ways of raising the cash to run one for a year or so before selling it on without suffering any loss. Singing through the gears over the South Downs en route to Nick’s place in Milford, Surrey, he works from home beside a golf course I wish I had, even though my order would have been at least a year too late.

I was hooked, no question. But then I don’t make a living trading in used Porsches. What would Nick Faure, Britain’s best-known exponent of Germany’s rear-engined icon, think of the new ‘affordable’ Porsche? As it happened, Nick had just returned from Germany in a current 911 which left him waxing lyrical about a car that everyone agrees just gets better and better. Surely the less powerful Boxster which Nick had yet to drive would prove something of an anti-climax.

“I cannot see why Porsche is even thinking about killing this 911 which is both roomier and smaller than the Boxster. In Germany, they’re already saying that the 996 (the 911’s replacement, based on the Boxster’s floorpan and powertrain) is a disaster… It’s a modern 928, and look what happened to the old one. It never sold that well. People have very short memories.”

Nick is puzzled by talk of the Carrera 4S being retained, against expectations, as a third-string model alongside the Boxster and 996. “Why the expensive 4S? It’s never been that desirable,” he says. The no-frills 3.2-litre 911 Classic Nick would love Porsche to build for Boxster money would make far more sense. Amen to that.

Commercially, the 914 and 914/6 the Boxster’s mid-engined precursors never made much impact, either. “They had diabolical handling,Nick recalls. “You needed to spend a lot of money to make them safe. The standard set-up was quite dangerous, with terrible understeer…”

I’d never considered the 914/6 that had, so was my admiration for the Boxster misplaced? Nick was about to pass judgement. The first thing he does when settling into the hot seat is to pull the wheel right out, as close to his chest as possible. “I always drove at Le Mans like this. It’s much less tiring.” No long-armed, boy-racer stuff for this old pro. “I feel wonderfully comfortable. The seat’s built for big Germans, so it suits me fine.”

Within seconds of departing, Nick is enthusing about the pedals hangers in the Boxster, not floor-hinged like the 911’s. “They’re the best Porsche has done.” He shifts quickly and smoothly, spotting the absence of clutch lag, praising the sharp responses. Nick is surprised there aren’t six gears (he later concedes that five are sufficient), but seems pleased Porsche has returned to a shift pattern that places reverse on the other side of the gate from first not dangerously adjacent to it, as on late-model 911s. “Novices have been known to move off smartly backwards at the lights.” He enthuses about the instruments and the traditional dominant central tacho which I always dismissed as pretentious nonsense, even with a supplementary digital speedo. Why bother with the analogue one at all? Nick also comments favourably on the view ahead. “It’s part of Porsche tradition to have wing pointers you drive between.”

First impressions? Very good. “I’m reminded of my first go in a 356.” And it was the 356 that gave Nick his taste for Porsches. He started racing 911s in 1967, after a ’65 debut in a Mini. In ’73 he won the British Production Sports Car Championship in the importer’s Carrera RS 2.7, with 16 victories. As the most successful sports car of the year, his 911 appeared alongside Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell at the Scottish Show.

Nick is immediately at home in the Boxster. “It seems to wipe the road,” he says, remembering how the late Denis Jenkinson once described the 356’s progress in MOTOR SPORT. “It gives you great confidence immediately, there’s no learning curve at all. Anyone could get in and drive it.” Not like a 911, then? Nick will hear little ill spoken of the current 911 which is very well sorted (and not, it should be said before time), though he concedes that earlier models are not so user-friendly.

At first, he describes the Boxster’s steering as incredible, even though it lacks the outright feel of an unassisted 911’s. “No modem car could have that much feel,” he observes. Pushing hard along wet country roads, Nick then concludes that the steering seems a bit detached, that it’s not as positive as he’d like. “A 911 isn’t like this. The Boxster seems to float over small undulations, as though the dampers aren’t doing their job properly. Didn’t you find that?”

Can’t say I did, Nick. But then again, with my reputation to uphold as the world’s worst passenger, my mind is by now only half devoted to NF’s pearls of wisdom. The other half is concerned with the speed with which waterlogged tarmac and muddy verges flash towards us, then swish beneath. We come to an open right-hander. Nick blips down to second under braking (he really is enjoying those hanging pedals) and buries the throttle. The inside rear tyre scrabbles harmlessly. What, no limited slip differential? “It doesn’t want to throw the back out. It’s as though the car was designed to sit there and just spin the power away.”

Nevertheless, Mr Faure is clearly enjoying the Boxster. “How could I not? I feel as though I’ve been driving it for 20 years. Clearly, it’s built by people who understand what the feel of a car should be… the brakes are fantastic.”

Anyone who’s seen Nick racing will know that opposite-lock power slides are a speciality, particularly in 911s. He soon has the Boxster’s beyond-the-limit habits logged and tamed. “You have to be quite aggressive to make it slide. Breakaway and recovery are far sharper than a 911’s.” That’s as it should be, given the newcomer’s midengined layout and light ends. “But breakaway is not so progressive. There’s no slow pendulum swing, which is what’s so splendid about the 911.”

Splendid eh? I wonder at this point whether Nick doesn’t underestimate his own skill at the wheel of a 911. What to him is characterful play is to lesser mortals a tricky sting in the tail. My own feeling is that the Boxster is the safer, more friendly car by quite a margin. Its limits are so high that no ordinary punter is likely to breach them unintentionally. As Nick found, simply backing off the natural reaction to getting out of shape is normally sufficient to restore the equilibrium. Brilliant though it is, the current-model 911 that gives Nick so much confidence seems to me a trickier animal than its young sibling.

Nick regrets you can’t see the Boxster’s lovely 24-valve engine hidden amidships. “Buyers like to be able to see the engine on a forecourt, not on a ramp,” he grumbles. To restrain performance to sub-911 levels, the Boxster has 2.5 litres and 204bhp though there’s a more powerful 3.0-litre variant on the horizon. Water-cooling jackets soften the flat-six’s raspy edge but, vocally, the Boxster is still classic Porsche. “It’s a lovely noise,” Nick says.

“The thing about Porsches is they always sound great to the driver.” So what about performance?

Nick zings the honey-smooth engine up to its modest six-five limit. “You don’t need anything faster than this for the road.” I had-expected criticism of the engine’s modest low-rev muscle, if not about its upper virulence. Not a bit of it.

“Driving a sports car is about using the gearbox,” says Nick, who praised the engine’s flexibility. Like me, Nick would not want the alternative Tiptronic auto. Why pay £2600 more for less fun? Why deny yourself the added involvement of a good manual box? And that of the Boxster is very good, provided you’re fleet of hand and foot.

Nick Faure, driver, sees the Boxster differently from Nick Faure, trader. “The more I drive it, the more I want it. Its appeal is immense. It’s the concept that’s limited.” What about structural integrity? “Brilliant. It feels far stiffer than a 911 cabriolet.”

I’d add to that a 911 Targa too. For an open car, the Boxster is uncannily taut. Given the shallow sidewalls and width of its low-profile tyres, it also rides well. Two-seaters don’t come much more comfortable than this, not even Merc’s SLK.

High praise, then, from Mr 911 for the upstart Boxster’s feel, sound, looks, safety, performance, brakes, hood, seats at the end of the day he’s even playing down criticism of thet front-end float.

“It’s all right the the road.” However, he still has misgivings about the car’s commercial role. “I don’t think that the Boxster will ever achieve as much as the 911. It’ll be a flash in the pan… but it would be nice to be proved wrong.”