981 Boxster S – Progression is sometimes Regression
So you may remember not to long ago I had the chance to take a road trip in the 718 Cayman.
There’s not a lot to criticise it for. As an ‘everyday supercar’ it’s indeed very accomplished with some of the sweetest handling and puchiest, smoothest turbo kicks in town.
But I couldn’t help but think there’s a reason why the Cayman has become the cheapest way into a new Porsche, slipping being the Boxster. So naturally, I had to look for its convertible cousin to see how the experience was enhanced. But frustratingly as great as the 718 is, I feel like the lack of a Boxer 6 stripped the soul of what would otherwise be nigh on perfection. Like they’ve taken the Box out of the Boxster.
This presents a conundrum, as maybe newer isn’t necessarily progression. At least from a driver’s point of view. The chance presented itself to test this for ourselves with a 981 Boxster S.
Evolution not Revolution is a phrase synonymous with Porsche – the 911 and Boxster have constantly been fettled, shaved, bolstered into the modern day variants. The 918 doesn’t deviate from this ethos, visually still being very much a Porsche. It is however 35kg lighter than the version that precedes it, weighing in at around 1,320. Wider, Lower, Longer and slicker, it sits pretty on a larger set of alloys and visually it doesn’t look dated next to the newer 718. In fact you’ll struggle to count the differences visually.
Build quality is what you’d expect, top quality materials and buttons that give an assuring click with every operation. LED tail lights adorn the back end, straddling the active spoiler that nestles in the middle of the rear deck. This example being an ‘S’, it comes equipped with extra trimmings such as the sports exhaust and standard bi-xenon headlamps. Interestingly, Porsche have added an extra layer to the roof and with the wind-breaker sometimes you forget you’re even in a convertible. From the moment you click the Porsche-shaped key (which would look at home on a shelf somewhere) to lifting the door handle, everything exhumes a level of quality. Slip into the driver’s seat and the seating position, as you’d expect, is sublime. The wheel falls just at the right height, the right rake and the seats somehow grip you perfectly without ever feeling too tight.
The Porsche Entertainment Centre can be a bit daunting on first look; going from a BMW equipped with iDrive for example, there are a lot of buttons. But everything is strikingly logical in its layout, and the cockpit feels like a special place to sit. Some old-school cup holders are hidden in the silver trim that runs horizontally across the passenger’s side of the dash, and a small cubby sits beneath your arm rest. Emphasis on the word small – the car doesn’t make any effort to dwarf you in storage gizmos. The flat-bottomed wheel is a decent size, not too thick, not too thin.
Despite the ultra modern take on the key, you still push and twist like a traditional unit. And for your efforts, you’re rewarded in an authoritative raspy roar as the flat 6 awakens. And therein lies the point. From the get-go, the flat six makes its presence known and you get a strain of excitement that isn’t present in the 718.
This car has Porsche Doppelkupplung, or PDK if you’re charging by the syllable, which for the uninitiated is Stuttgart’s take on the gearbox. PDK is essentially two gearboxes in one, using two seperate input shafts. One of the ‘half gearboxes’ if you like drives the car, and then the power is transmitted to the other which has preselected the next gear. One clutch opens and the other in tandem closes. Basically, this means that gear changes take mere milliseconds.
Pulling away, the first thing that strikes you is how compliant and smooth around town progress is. PDK in automode makes piloting around town an effortless task. As much as an old school 6 speed has always been my preference, there’s a lot to be said about being able to cruise around in comfort when needed. Flick it into sport plus mode however, and revs pick up. The Flat-Six getting ever more vocal and murmering menacingly behind your ear. Throttle response is sharpened and a poke on the throttle will see you pulled back in your seat. The gearbox is so smooth. So crips. You find yourself taking any opportunity to auto-blipping-rev-matching-downshift as you tilt in to a corner, feel the steering progressively load up and the car rotate around you, before kissing the apex and squeezing the throttle. Lined up in the right gear, you’ll surge towards the rev-line, where the true excitement in this S lies.
The symphony of the flat-six as you flip up the gears adds more to the layer that dynamical prowess and cutting edge looks alone simply can’t achieve and given a serious drive it won’t be long until you see why. Roof down, sun shining, riding a perfect wave of grip through some twisty corners – all made sweeter by the echo of a roaring, burbling orchestra helped by the fact that the intakes of the mid-engined engine are closer to your head.
315 bhp is produced at 6,700 rpm, and delivery being predictable and relatively linear meaning that you’re not forever chasing the redline to make progress – but if you do you’re rewarded with an aural pleasure that makes you tingle. The S gives an urgent pull and can be a handful when pressing on, but grip just seems never ending. This is owing partly to the mid-engined layout which makes the car terrifically balanced. A truly different approach from the traditional rear-engined 911.
The handling is somewhat perfect. It’s just insanely composed as you blast through B-Roads, the nose points where you want it to and the steering is super sharp and as communicative as a couple’s therapy session. The turn-in with the PASM suspension allows you to make progress with rediculous speed. This is all despite the electro-mechanical steering, which, typically dulls things a little. The car changes direction majestically and you really get a sense of being one with the car. This is heightened by the small setting of the cabin which gives you that real sports-car feel. 100kph comes around in 4.8 seconds, which you can never say is slow; but is slower than what we’re used to in the modern strand of sub 4-second Supercars. That’s not to say it isn’t plenty fast-enough. In fact it will lap the Nurburgring a second faster than the base spec e92 M3. To put that into perspective, that’s up there with the Alfa 4c, 07 Audi r8 and 996 GT3, which lays waste to the calls of ‘Not a Real Porsche’ or ‘Poor Man’s Porsche’ that you will undoubtedly come across.
The end result is an ultra communicative car.
It’s a proper sports car – one which is somewhat without peers – the Z4 and SLK don’t deliver anywhere near the experience, the 911, different again and at a higher price point. A car that you can feel utterly comfortable in, whilst still feeling like you’re in something designed to tickle your emotions. Whilst it is obviously engineered so that it doesn’t impeach on the 911’s Halo territory, the little attentions to detail ensure that it is still engrained with Porsche DNA. But the fascinating thing is that it remains so nonsensically practical. The front and rear boots will see you hold at least 3 medium size bags (I’ve actually relocated and move states in a fully loaded one – no problem). Whilst it sits low, it isn’t too low to the point of tip toeing around speed bumps. The door pockets are perfect for a phone. The crisp bose stereo blares out your favourite tunes with gusto and clarity. During the trip, it rained. A lot. and we also came across some unsealed roads. The roof folds up or down in sub 5 seconds, and it’s double layer shelters you from the elements superbly. The ride, whilst managing to deliver handling in spades, never feels crashy or tiresome. Roof down, you can cruise along almost oblivious to the fact that you’re soaking in the sun thanks to the well crafted wind deflector. In the rain you have a quiet, warm ride.
We had the chance to take out the X51 996 911 just before jumping in the Boxster, which has a pure racecar feel and frankly I thought would leave the Boxster experience hollow and lacking in meeting expectations. But frankly rather than having missing the movie, you just have a different seat in the theatre. It’s a wholly different take on the sports car compared to the 911; and arguably, a more ‘fun’ one in the sense that it is more forgiving and well-rounded.
It feels that with the focus on climate change that we’re facing today, the environmental concerns are chipping away at the essence of the sports car and small capacity turbo engines are here to stay. And with the release of the Taycan, their time too may well be limited. But to the motorhead, Noise, Revs, Pops.. These are things that are a part of what we love. So while the 718 perhaps marks a peak level of greatness and perfection, the one that catches my heart is the one with the Soul.