Monday 29th November 2004


PORSCHE BOXSTER

Steve Bennett takes a shine to Porsche's second-generation roadster

Note to any manufacturer either currently in the roadster market or looking to join: get hold of the new Porsche Boxster. Drive it, take it to pieces, and examine in minute detail. Ask: "Can we compete on any level?"

Shuffle off with tail between legs.

Note to prospective buyers currently in the market for a roadster: there can only be one reason for not buying a Boxster. You don't like Porsches (although not quite liking how it looks is just about acceptable). On every other level the Boxster has the opposition well and truly stuffed.

From sheer outright pace, handling and performance to build quality and stunning attention to detail, the Boxster kicks dirt in the face of its other Teutonic rivals not to mention the likes of the Honda S2000 and the Nissan 350Z Sorry, did someone say TVR?

That good, huh? Yes, it's that good but even we would concede that, in some parts of the UK, there are just too many of them around and that, perhaps, they do attract a certain 'type.' Ah, but don't all roadsters? There's a definite 'look at me' appeal to a roadster.

However, this isn't a sociology debate. Sports cars have always attracted poseurs as much as those of us who love driving. But you know that, when Porsche develops a new car, it's not for them it's for us - if you see what I mean.

Exterior

Typically, the new Boxster is all about evolution than revolution. No great surprise coming, as it does, hot on the heels of the 997. Porsche has taken flak on both counts but you have to admire the company's commitment to design and concept in these fickle times.

And before you accuse me of brown-nosing I have to confess that I'm not even a fan of the shape. That said it is less 'blobby' and rather more muscular than its predecessor - rather like the 997 over the 996. The wheel arches are more pronounced as are the sills, sideskirts and air scoop, oh, and of course the headlights. Other than that, though, you really would be hard-pressed to spot the difference.

Under the skin

It's all under the skin. Just as the previous Boxster shared parts with the Previous 911, so does the new car. Indeed the new car shares 30 per cent of its components with the 997 including most of its front end, the doors and a fair amount of the interior including the excellent seats. Still it's difficult to get sniffy about it in the way that, for example, dim-witted Jaguar drivers might get upset when they discover their Jaguar X-Type is a re-bodied Ford Mondeo. Besides it's this parts sharing that keeps prices in the 'within reach' area.

Other bits in common with the 997 are the optional active suspension system and the ceramic brakes, both of which have a big dynamic influence on the Boxster. However first acquaintance comes from actually climbing and settling in.

Interior

The interior is stunning, taking the Boxster way beyond current Mercedes/BMW levels with a new look in leather and high quality coated surfaces, of which Porsche is particularly proud.

Engine and performance

Naturally there are new engines, although here we'll concentrate on the 3.2-litre engine in the Boxster S. changes include:

  • Revisions to inlet and exhaust systems.
  • Power up by 20bhp to 276bhp at 6200rpm.
  • Torque up to from 229lb-ft at 4,600rpm, to 236lb-ft from 4,600rpm to 6,000rpm.

Rest assured it feels good and chunky. Inevitably, though, the Boxster has put on a few pounds so outright performance has barely changed: top speed is now pegged at 166mph with the 0-60mph sprint coming up in 5.5 secs. 

While there wasn't much wrong with the old Boxster dynamically, it's fair to say that much is expected of the new car. A stiffer bodyshell is a good starting point for the Porsche chassis gurus to work their suspension magic, although the choice of 19-inch wheels might be a questionable one for Brit buyers. However, that's the package we happily jumped into at the Boxster launch in Austria and, to be fair, there were some fairly gnarly roads to contend with.

Driving dynamics

With the component parts dealt with, as ever it all comes down the way they work together. After the glowing intro, you won't be surprised that they all get on rather well in a chatty, convivial sort of way -- although some have accused the steering of being somewhat introverted.

The days of stroppy supercars are long gone and typically actually driving the Boxster is no more demanding than your average saloon. The relationship between throttle, clutch, gearbox etc is precision Porsche. Light, direct but in no way awkward and above all obviously linked. It makes for a fluid, satisfying driving experience from the outset and with so much electronic gubbins involved itís actually a pretty neat trick. So straight off the Boxster flatters the driver.

We're still in the 'getting to know you' stage here. Flicking through the gears, getting a feel for the clutch and exploring the engine's power band and torque curve. Sharp bursts of acceleration in second and third, feeling the unique noise and thrust of the trademark flat six. 

Push a little harder and the incredible balance of the Boxster - mid-engined rather than rear-engined like the 911 - is obvious. This is where the PASM starts to work its magic. Dormant at cruising speed, it wakes up when it senses the driver is pushing on a bit. Each damper then effectively does it's own thing, responding to what each individual wheel is doing and controlling the stance, roll and pitch of the car. This continues through cornering into braking and acceleration. Brake up to and into a corner and the PASM supports the front of the car, keeping the weight transfer in check. Combined with the effective braking capabilities of either the 318mm steel or ceramic discs, the six pot calipers, plus the inherent mid-engined balance, and you have a braking set-up that inspires a level of confidence beyond most.

The PASM can be selected manually and is complemented by a sports setting that sharpens up throttle response too. Given that PASM can work out for itself when it's required, and that the throttle response feels about as sharp as the new razor I sliced myself on this morning, then it seems hardly worth it. Particularly since it just makes the low speed ride fairly unpleasant.

The engine, while not having the sheer grunt of the 3.6 and 3.8-litre units in the 911, still has that elasticity that allows you to hang on to a gear from low to peak revs, handy on the Austrian mountain roads that we're climbing. It sounds fantastic too moving the air with a sort of hollow ripple rising to a full of yowl.

String together a sequence of bends whether known or unknown, and the blend of steering input, chassis response and power delivery contrives to produce something as close to sports car nirvana as we've yet to experience. The engine doesn't smother the chassis or vice versa, while the electronics, for once, feel analogue rather than digital.

So there you have it. It's that good. The undisputed king of the roadsters and now the standard reference point for what makes a sports car.