Under Pressure

FIRST FANG Porsche 718 Boxster

by SCOTT NEWMAN

Having lost two cylinders but gained a turbo, the Boxster is faster than ever. But is it still the sports car of choice?

eads turn as a small eruption of sound reverberates around an underground carpark at Portugal’s Lisbon airport.

Eyebrows rise when it becomes apparent the culprit for this guttural explosion is Porsche’s new Boxster, the latest model to succumb to regulatory pressures and switch to a downsized, turbocharged engine.

It’s a reminder that preconceptions can be dangerous. Turbocharging is supposedly anathema to sports car purists who crave the crispness of naturally aspirated engines, but the 911’s transition to forced induction has been more or less seamless.

The Boxster, however, has decreased not just its capacity but also its cylinder count, but Porsche has plenty of experience in the four-cylinder arena – including turbocharged models like the 924, 944 and 968 – and a reminder of this prowess is writ large across the new Boxster’s rump. Its proper designation is the 718 Boxster, a reference to the iconic mid-engine roadsters that dominated circuits and racetracks in the late-1950s/early-'60s using, you guessed it, just four cylinders.

In true Porsche fashion, the evolutionary styling gives little hint of the significant change underneath.

Externally, only the bootlid, windscreen and soft top roof carryover from the 981, but it’ll take a keen-eyed enthusiast to spot the new model. The most obvious changes are to the rear, with 'three-dimensional' taillights and a mini ducktail spoiler wearing bold PORSCHE lettering. New twin-louvre air intakes adorn the sides while the front sports larger air intakes and redesigned bi-xenon headlights with integrated LED daytime running lights, while full LED headlights are an option.

Inside, it’s a similarly familiar story in terms of design however Porsche’s latest touchscreen infotainment system brings with it the ability to use various smartphone apps such as Google Maps and Apple Car Play when optioned with Porsche Connect.

The new kit partially explains price rises of $8800 for the Boxster and $13,300 for the S, but the new engines also play a part, as does Porsche's decision to position Boxster above Cayman for the first time.

Harking back

The story behind 718

LONG BEFORE the 911 hit showrooms, Porsche was already dominating European motorsport with its lightweight, four-cylinder 718. A development of the famous (and infamous) 550A Spyder, the 718 made its racing debut at the 1957 Le Mans 24 Hour.

It was stronger, faster and handled better than the 550 and over the next five years the 718 would win more than 1000 races, including the 12 Hours of Sebring, class victory at Le Mans, consecutive European Hill Climb Championships and the greatest road race of all, the Targa Florio. Converted to a single-seat layout, it even formed the basis of Porsche's entry into F2 and F1.

A large part of its success was the legendary 'Fuhrmann' quad-cam engine. It was tremendously reliable and produced 119kW from just 1588cc, but its technical complexity meant a rebuild was an 80-hour undertaking, more than double that of your typical 911 engine.

Porsche would revive the midengined roadster concept with the Boxster in 1996.

The Boxster displays an uncanny knack for smothering rough roads

Fourteen-way electric seats come standard, with optional fixed-back buckets making up in support what they lose in practicality. One option well worth ticking is the smaller 360mm GT Sport steering wheel. Spending an extra $660 on a steering wheel might sound crazy, but it fits your hands perfectly and effectively quickens the steering ratio.

That ratio is already 10 per cent quicker thanks to the adoption of the 911 Turbo’s steering rack.

It’s one of a number of chassis changes primarily aimed at containing the extra power of the new turbo engines. Half-inch wider rear wheels improve traction, the base Boxster wearing 18 x 8.0s (front) and 18 x 9.5s (rear) and the S 19 x 8.0 fronts and 19 x 10.0 rears, though 20s are optional on both variants.

Both cars use 330mm/299mm discs front/rear respectively with four-piston calipers at both ends, but the S uses thicker front discs from the 911 to further improve stopping power. Carbon ceramics are optional, but at $17,990 you're going to want to be a heavy braker. Spring rates have increased, the anti-roll bars are stiffer and PASM adaptive dampers are available for the first time. These also lower the ride height 10mm, while PASM Sport drops the car a further 10mm and stiffens the Sport damper setting.

Thus equipped, the Boxster displays an uncanny knack of smothering rough roads – even on the optional 20-inch wheels – whilst retaining an iron grip on body control. Selecting Sport stiffens the car markedly and is really only appropriate for the very smoothest of roads; or the racetrack, of course.

Sharp, communicative steering gives immediate confidence to lean on the impressive grip levels, and the Boxster can be flowed down a road at speed with remarkable ease. But easy doesn’t mean boring. It doesn’t challenge in the same manner as something like a C63 AMG, but the way you can subtly manipulate the car makes it very engaging.

Exploiting these capabilities is easier thanks to the introduction of a PSM Sport setting, available on Sport Chrono-equipped cars, which also adds an Individual mode to the steering-wheel mounted drive mode selector and a Sport Response button, which primes the drivetrain for 20sec of maximum response use. It’s PSM Sport that is especially helpful though, as the increase in torque means you can now use the throttle to help steer the car in slower corners while retaining an electronic safety net.

It’s the first time – 911-engined Spyder aside – a Boxster has really had the power to make the most of the chassis. It still requires plenty of provocation to misbehave, but the extra power means you work the chassis harder by carrying more speed into and out of every corner. Of course, this is mainly applicable to the more powerful S, however even the base Boxster is now a very potent performance car.

The switch to turbocharging has endowed both Boxster variants with an extra 25kW, but it’s the massive lift in torque that's had the biggest effect on dynamics and performance. The 257kW/420Nm 2.5- litre flat-four in the S offers an increase of 60Nm over the old 3.4-litre flat-six, while the 220kW/380Nm 2.0- litre unit in the base Boxster produces 100Nm more than the previous 2.7-litre flat-six.

Such a substantial increase in torque has had a profound effect on the Boxster’s accelerative

abilities. A base Boxster can now hit 100km/h in 5.1sec as a manual, 4.9sec as a PDK and optioning Sport Chrono shaves a further 0.2sec. Similarly specced, the more powerful S completes the sprint in 4.2sec, the same time as a 996 911 Turbo. Combine the extra power with the chassis revisions and the Boxster S laps the Nürburgring in 7min42sec, as fast as a 997 GT3. Rally legend and ’Ring master Walter Rohrl told MOTOR: “I could not believe it; I thought for sure the watch must be broken.”

Porsche has gone to huge lengths to replicate the power delivery and throttle response of an atmo engine and has by and large succeeded. The 718 Boxster S uses a 55mm turbocharger, the biggest of any Porsche, but thanks to variable turbine geometry (VTG) technology nicked from the 911 Turbo, lag is only really evident at high throttle openings at low revs in tall gears. Most of the time when you kick the throttle, it responds immediately.

As well as carefully controlling boost – the VTG turbo incorporates a wastegate for the first time – Porsche plays with the ignition timing and throttle openings to keep charge pressure, and therefore response, as high as possible. For example, under part-throttle loads, the turbo is 'pre-conditioned' by closing the bypass valve, retarding the ignition timing and opening the throttle to ensure maximum response. Similarly, if the driver goes from full acceleration to nothing, the injectors shut off but the throttle remains open to keep the turbo spinning in case full throttle is quickly called for again.

Unfortunately, while the Boxster’s performance is more impressive than ever, downsizing has severely dented its character. Admittedly, a turbo four was always going struggle compared to the old flat-six as it was one of the best-sounding engines around.

Compared to its turbo four-pot rivals – Audi TT S Roadster, Alfa Romeo 4C – the new Boxster certainly isn’t shamed, but when a searing soundtrack has always been a key part of a car’s appeal, its disappearance has to be seen as a retrograde step.

There’s a hint of Subaru WRX at urban speeds, but under load it sounds most like the artificial engine note from a VW Golf R. There’s a lot of bass to the 2.5-litre’s note, which can become a drone on the highway, but while the 2.0-litre’s note is a little more natural, it’s unlikely anyone will ever extend either for pure pleasure. The engine is now a tool to enable appreciation of the awesome chassis rather than an instrument of enjoyment in its own right.

However, to paraphrase Mr Keating, it's the downsizing we had to have. To achieve the new car's level of performance would have required a bigger flat-six engine and there’s no way it would have delivered acceptable fuel efficiency. After all, a PDK Boxster now officially uses just 6.9L/100km combined, sneaking under the Luxury Car Tax threshold, and the S is only 0.4L/100km thirstier.

The 718 Boxster is still a brilliant driving tool and likely to be the fastest and most capable car in its class. However, in a segment where sex factor plays such a large part in the buying decision, some customers may be seduced by the rasp and crackle of the likes of the Jaguar F-Type. Perhaps further exposure will increase our affection for the new four-pot sound, but for now the 718 Boxster is a brilliant car, but maybe one bought with the head rather than the heart. M

Thanks to turbo power, even the base Boxster is now a very potent performance car