Here’s progress for you. When the Porsche Boxster was launched in 1996, the quickest normally aspirated Porsche you could buy was the RS version of the last of the aircooled 911s — the famed 993RS, no less. It was a fabulous car — I know, I owned one for a couple of years and still kick myself for selling it to finance some inconsequential racing. Compared with the 300bhp 993, the 201bhp Boxster was a pedal car. Spool forward to the present day and here’s a very different Boxster, one that in `S’ trim now has 311bhp. Moreover, now it weighs just 40kg more than the 993RS did then and, with advances in brakes, tyres and suspension technology, it’s quite clear that this Boxster would now trounce that old 911 in a straight fight.
We know this not merely thanks to basic maths, but to another strange statistic: in 1999 Porsche produced the first of its mad 911GT3s, a very specialist piece of equipment designed primarily to homologate the racing version of the all-new water-cooled 996 series of 911. It became the first Porsche ever to lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife in less than eight minutes. Today this common-or-garden Boxster, aimed as much at fashionistas as hard driving-road warriors, will also duck under the eight-minute mark. Put another way, Porsche’s tamest car of today is as quick as its wildest of just a dozen years ago. At this rate, by 2024 the standard Boxster will have around 450bhp and lap the ‘Ring at a rate you’d once have required a Group C car to match.
We shall see. For now, however, Porsche has other things on its mind with the new Boxster. The brief was an interesting one. Now that Porsche has been wholly absorbed into the Volkswagen colossus, you might have thought the Boxster likely to become pigeon-holed. It happens all the time: when Haymarket bought this very magazine back in 1996, its new proprietors very sensibly looked around its stable and saw others dealing with road cars old and new and with modern racing. So Motor Sport became dedicated to old racing cars, this being the only space left in the portfolio. It was only when it was sold on and into the hands of its current proprietor that it was able to broaden its appeal to re-embrace modern racing and extensive road car coverage such as you are reading now.
But the Volkswagen Group has always taken a contrary view of what appears to be simple common sense, and it has never shied away from a spot of in-house competition. Indeed, if you look at the ways various VWs, Skodas and SEATs are marketed, inter-marque rivalry seems to be actively sought. The same is true of the Boxster. However much faster and more fun it may or may not be relative to its predecessor, these differences are little compared to the changes wrought in the car’s essential character. This is a calmer, quieter and more comfortable Boxster, a more overtly styled car designed to appeal to those as keen on being seen in a Boxster as actually driving one. Indeed, if there is a better reason not to buy an Audi TT roadster than this, I have not driven it.
It would be understandable if you were disappointed by this revelation. In this corner of the market there has always been a straight choice for the customer: he or she either took the line of least resistance and bought a TT or a Mercedes SLK because it was good-looking, absurdly easy to drive and covered the ground with the ease of a saloon, or chose a Boxster, gladly accepting some compromise to comfort for the knowledge that they’d enjoy themselves every time they climbed aboard. Any attempt to combine the best of these two worlds tended to result in rather unsatisfactory compromise, as the BMW Z4 bears witness.
But Porsche appears to have found a way around this, a means of planting a foot firmly in each camp without doing the splits.
Like the new 911, with which it shares a large (but undisclosed) number of parts, there is something slightly conflicted about the Boxster. Many owners will spend their entire time with the car delighted that it’s so much better suited to their everyday lives without ever realising (or, probably, caring) that when the traffic dies back and the road opens up, there is a scintillating driving experience lurking beneath that breezy all-purpose ability.
Faced with a choice of weapons at its launch in southern France, I selected a manual Boxster S with a 311bhp, 3.4-litre motor and six-speed ‘box and headed for the hills. Interestingly and significantly this is the old gearbox and not a version of the new and disappointing seven-speed manual created for the 911. Paired to a chassis of exceptional rigidity and damping perfectly tuned into the most difficult of surfaces the result was a level of point-to-point fluency that, at times, had you gasping at its brilliance.
The point is not that it feels like a racing car, for that would be entirely inappropriate, but that it summons such grip, poise and precision in a package that’s now at least as sensible as an Audi TT.
Porsche has figured out a fact that still continues to elude most other manufacturers of sporting cars. True driving pleasure lies not in how hard it kicks when you accelerate, nor how quickly it reacts to each movement of the wheel, but in providing the driver with the equipment to make the most of his or her abilities. So you need an engine with deliciously precise throttle response and power delivered evenly across a wide rev range. You need a gearbox that allows you to drive smoothly without thinking about it. You need steering that is linear in response from lock to lock so your every input is met with an entirely predictable response. This is what the Boxster does to a standard no rival can even approach, let alone match.
So what is wrong with this new roadster? Well, it’s expensive and meanly equipped for the money, while the steering is not quite so lucid in the feel it feeds back to the driver. But that’s about it.
I shall watch further Boxster developments with interest. In time it will be made available with a 2-litre flat-four turbocharged engine because of the fuel consumption, CO2 and, therefore, tax benefits that would result. Lighter, and probably still with around 240bhp, it should evoke the spirit of the 356, though whether even Porsche can make a turbo four a worthy motor for such a car remains to be seen. A normally aspirated screamer would be far more evocative, but at the price of the fuel efficiency that is the reason for its creation in the first place.
For now, however, this Boxster is another fine accomplishment from a car company as on top of its game as I can remember it ever being. Though I will always prefer a Cayman or a 911 because of my fundamental belief that fast cars gain more from being closed than they lose, if you believe the merit of a machine can be measured by how it performs relative to its rivals, it is the Boxster and not the new 911 that is now the best car Porsche makes.