Porsche’s Boxster has always been more about show than go but that’s set to change. No you can buy one with all the performance and handling of a proper Porsche. Andrew Fraknkel welcomes the Boxster S
Ever had the impression that you were in a minority of one? You, then, will know how I felt when Porsche first released the Boxster. I thought the world had gone mad; I sat and watched as the me-too press read and bought Porsche’s hype. This was not unexpected but when friends and colleagues for whose opinions I have limitless respect raved about the thing I was worried. They all drove a 21st century Porsche, the most exciting proposition to come from Stuttgart since the first 911 back in 1963; I drove an overweight, unattractive and underpowered machine that pandered precisely to all those things to which I’d hope this marque would never stoop. It was a marketing man’s Porsche, a fashion victim’s Porsche. If the 911 was a triumph of development over design so equally did the Boxster mark the day when style finally overwhelmed substance at Porsche.
It’s not that the original Boxster was a bad car, nothing as dynamically fluent, beautifully built and cleverly engineered could ever qualify as such but a Porsche needs rather more to its appeal than relentless pleasantness and here it fell down. The Boxster S, however, should be different. It may share the still disappointingly pudgy shape of the original but, where it matters, this is a new car. It matters in the engine, which has grown from 2.5 to 3.2-litres and it matters in the transmission which now boasts the six ratios it should have had from the start. It matters in the suspension which has been entirely reworked and in the braking system which is now based on that found in the latest 911. It may be that its twin tail-pipes and badges are the biggest clues to the true identity of the Boxster S but that, in fact, is exactly as it should be. You may not have liked what you saw but there was never any lack of showiness about the Boxster.
What it needed was more go and, that, emphatically, is what it has received. At last, the Boxster has become a fast car. While the old 2.5-litre version would not look at 140mph, the Swill top 160mph and if this is not important you, the fact that it will reach 60mph in about 5.6sec instead of 6.5sec should be. These figures may sound academic but, from within, they are anything but It’s the difference between a strong surge and a kick in the back; a pleasing experience and a genuine thrill. The six gears count too, not because you need them — no car weighing just 1270kgs and possessing 2211b ft of torque at 4500rpm needs six gears — but because they contribute to the sense of occasion, to the suggestion that today is going to be different, different in a way you and I expect from a Porsche.
And, of course, there’s 252bhp, a considerable rise from the 204bhp of old. That’s more power than 911s had in the early ’90s. This is promising.
Yet its static qualities continue to disappoint.
Despite the car’s considerable size (a last generation 911 looks tiny next to it) there is still a miserable amount of room inside. A six footer will need all the rearward travel and rake the seat provides and if you’re taller, tough; you’re going to be uncomfortable. I am just a little less than 6ft 4in and this could be the best car in the world and I the richest man in it and for this reason alone I’d no sooner buy one than vote Green. Still, proper Porsches have never been about sitting still and you don’t need to travel far or fast in the Boxster S to see the dark clouds starting to race away. Even on city streets you notice the steering feels sharper, the car more ready to react to the helm despite the fact that it is inevitably a touch heavier than a standard Boxster. It’s down to the revised suspension, particularly stronger bushing control and it suggests from the very start that this is a fighter, more agile Boxster.
Yet it’s still civilised. Despite firmer springs, dampers and roll-bars, the Boxster S rides with considerable grace while the enlarged, water-cooled flat six gently whirrs away with just enough conviction for you to know Porsche spent a lot of time trying to replicate the sound of the old, air-cooled motor. And, by and large, it’s a job well done.
The car works well in other ways too. I drove it in often sub-zero temperatures with the hood down, not because I am a masochistic die-hard but because so good is the heating and so well managed is the airflow over the cockpit that with the wind deflector behind you and a hat on your head, it was simply the best way to travel. The hood works as well as you’d hope and, save a slight whistle from the driver’s door at 90mph, it will take you down the motorway not only in comfort but also something approaching refinement, indeed an unusual achievement for a soft-top car.
It is also staggeringly rigid. Leave the motorway and take the cross-country route and several things occur about this car, almost all at once. First, Porsche engineers seem to have banished what we once called scuttle-shake to the history books. If this car lacks the torsional strength of a car with a metal roof, you’ll be reminded of it so rarely it is simply no longer an issue.
Next, you notice this Boxster not only possesses a turn of speed quite out of keeping with its push-me-pull-you looks but it also sounds superb. Purists will note a certain contrived note in the yowl emanating from the engine bay but they said as much of the Honda NSX a decade ago and that never stopped Japan’s only supercar sounding better than anything else on the road at the time.
So quick and sonorous is this car that you often find yourself a gear lower than ideal just to hear more of it and get in one more gearchange as you race up the swift, accurate but ever so slightly notchy ‘box. And the good news is that the best, emphatically, is yet to come. It surprises me to say it but the Boxster S is the best handling Porsche you can buy. Naturally its handling has been improved over the stock Boxster but, as the miles flow under the car you realise it is wildly more fun than a standard new 911 and a sight more predictable on the public road than a GT3. On a race track, the tables would be turned in Porsche’s current flagship’s favour but, for now and on the road, the Boxster S’s handling is Stuttgart’s best.
The reason is simple. The suspension modification has been aimed not simply at firming up the Boxster but also eliminating almost all the understeer inherent in the standard car. Driving it in the truly treacherous conditions that coincided with our time in the car it was joyous, its ever-brilliant Pirelli P-Zero tyres biting through the damp, salt and grime to claim an unquestioned purchase on the road when required; and when you felt in need of a frisson of excitement, they would allow the Boxster S to be driven on the throttle in a way entirely alien to the car on which it is based. If there is any danger at all in its chassis it is that, after a while, it starts to suggest it will let you get away with anything. Maybe it will; on public roads I felt disinclined
to put it to test.
All I can tell you is that I pushed it harder in such conditions than any other mid-engined car I can recall simply because it was safe, easy and fun to do so.
If there’s a problem in all this, it is that all this extra ability — and believe me, the car is transformed — is not cheap. The Boxster S costs £42,161. If you want a cheaper option, the standard Boxster now benefits from a 220bhp, 2.7-litre engine and great things are said of it. £34,232 will secure.
For me, however, the Boxster S is the one. It has been some years since I was so encouraged by a Porsche. While the GT3 is thrilling and showed the company had not, as some had suspected, become lily-livered, so it is also built in tiny quantities and sold for vast money. The S is not cheap but it is a mainstream Porsche model and more indicative of the way the company is really moving than the GT3 ever could be. I remain disappointed by its appearance and its cramped cabin but, in every other respects this is a fine car which, in its handling balance, truly touches on brilliance. It is, in short, a proper Porsche. Thank heaven for that.