2017 Porsche 718 Boxster First Drive


With the sun setting over Circuit of the Americas, the magnificent new Ford GT Le Mans racecar roars, snarls, and pops as the driver lifts going into a series of chicanes flanked by broad red, white, and blue stripes. A bald eagle flies overhead. Maybe. It's quite the spectacle. But it's all rather put to shame when a four-cylinder Porsche blitzes past the GT at full throttle as if it was a rental Mustang that took a wrong turn out of the nearby Austin, Texas, airport.

Sure, they were in different racing classes and the four-cylinder Porsche in question was a 919 Hybrid Le Mans Prototype with a 900-horsepower hybrid powertrain and all-wheel drive that weighs about 1,930 pounds. But the fact remains that a four-cylinder engine need not disqualify a car from being an incredible performance machine. And indeed, many of those pretty classic Porsches that festoon posters, calendars, and the well-groomed lawns of swanky car shows have a mere four cylinders pumping into each other in a horizontally opposed formation.

Which brings us to the 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster that is the real reason we're in Austin. It's the latest version of the brand's 20-year-old mid-engine roadster, now featuring a numbered middle name borrowed from one of those pretty classic Porsches from the late 1950s and early '60s. Tucked just behind the cockpit, slung ever-so-low in the revised chassis is one of two turbocharged four-cylinder engines ? a 2.0-liter in the base Boxster and a 2.5-liter in the S. In a move to improve fuel economy, these engines replace the old 2.7- and 3.4-liter naturally aspirated flat-six engines previously found in the Boxster and its Cayman coupe sibling, which receives the same updates and 718 name for 2017.

Those flat-sixes were responsive, made beautiful mechanical noises, and were unmistakable, fundamental elements of the modern Porsche. To lose them would be like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa or something, at least according to the turbo four prognosticators.

That the change in engine results in a change to the Boxster's character is perhaps obvious. It does. One could also, quite fairly, say that something has been lost. However, something else entirely has been gained, and just because the Boxster is different doesn't mean it has been made worse.

For starters, both new engines feature sizable output increases. The base 2.0-liter churns out 300 horsepower (up from 265) and 280 pound-feet of torque (versus 207) distributed early and across a broader band thanks to a single turbocharger operating at 20 psi. Porsche estimates that with the optional PDK automated manual transmission the base Boxster will hit 60 mph in 4.5 seconds ? 0.7 second quicker than before.

Now, instead of just turning up the boost knob on the 2.0-liter, Porsche's engineers increased displacement to 2.5 liters for the S in order to maintain the required response. At the same time, they didn't just turn the boost down on the 2.5 for the base car since that would harm fuel economy.

As it is, the 718 Boxster S produces 350 hp (up from 315) and 309 lb-ft of torque (versus 266), and can hit 60 mph in an estimated 4 seconds flat ? a half-second quicker than before. It too has a single turbocharger, but it maxes out at 16 psi of boost and features the same adjustable guide vanes first used in the 911 Turbo, which, skipping the lengthy technical description, allows for optimal response and higher torque at low revs, but maximum power at high revs. Both turbochargers are designed to maintain a higher boost pressure when in Sport and Sport Plus modes, including when the driver lifts off the throttle during aggressive driving.

Great, but does it work? These are indeed responsive engines that don't feel overtly turbocharged or "boosty" in nature. Will a keen driver deeply in tune with their right foot and the pedal underneath lament the loss of the naturally aspirated sixes? Perhaps. Is the 2.5-liter more successful than the 2.0-liter? We think so. However, a strong case can be made that the torque increase outweighs whatever throttle response diminishment there may be. The Boxster feels like a stronger performer now ? because it is one.

However, these new engines fundamentally sound different from those they replace. There's certainly a less thrilling zing to the way they build revs ? though some tell-tale flat-engine song is there, it is overwhelmed by a deep bassyness that only grows stronger when the loud flap is opened in the optional Sport Exhaust. It's certainly distinctive, evoking neither a Subaru WRX nor a boomy AMG Mercedes. Absent the knowledge of its predecessor, you'd probably think it adds to the car's sense of automotive theater.

And really, that show has always been more about handling than power in the Boxster. Indeed, the chassis underwent its own litany of changes for 2017 that only improve what was one of the finest, most involving cars to drive.

Beyond spec'ing new engine mounts and wider tires to accommodate all that torque, engineers brought over the 911 Turbo's electric power steering and thus quickened the rack by 10 percent for an even sharper driving experience. The Boxster serves as proof that EPS doesn't have to be devoid of feedback. It's perfectly weighted, behaving naturally on center before building up weight in a progressive, linear manner and returning to center just as it should. Steering effort has also been reduced at parking speeds, but this is not a variable-ratio system, nor are there any adjustable steering settings. Good, they'd be pointless.

The brakes for both models were enlarged, while body motions were reduced by numerous suspension changes. The $1,790 Porsche Active Suspension Management system (PASM) once again available on Boxster and Boxster S lowers the car by 10 mm and features two fixed settings of Normal and Sport, which have been moved further apart from each other on the comfort-sportiness scale. Same goes for the new $2,070 PASM Sport, available only on the S, which essentially combines the updated PASM with the previous Sport suspension's 20-mm drop.

For chassis engineer Daniel Leschi, who's lived, breathed, and driven the Boxster/Cayman for the better part of a decade, it's that widened gap between Normal and Sport that represents the biggest dynamic change, allowing the driver to better enjoy the car in both mundane and aggressive driving. He's absolutely right, although you may want to avoid the new 20-inch wheels that make the ride a bit busier than with the 19s.

Another development Leschi strongly pushed for was the revised Porsche Stability Management (PSM), which grants the driver considerably more slack in Sport mode. He and other engineers had complained that the existing system was far too strict when driving aggressively, yet acknowledged that customers were reluctant to shut the system off completely for fear of sending their beloved new sports car into the shrubs. The new PSM Sport programming satisfies both requirements, and indeed, we managed to controllably swing the tail out when pulling out ever-so-jubilantly onto a rural Texas highway (several times).

However, the manual-equipped Boxster was keener to do so, as the PDK seemed more inclined to dole out power in a more responsible way that almost seemed to bog the engine. There's also something about all that added torque that removes yet another layer of involvement from the PDK-equipped car ? there just isn't the same joy to be had as wringing the old engine out, listening to its noises, and flicking the right paddle to experience it all again. It's all too easy now.

So please don't take this as yet another attempt to save an endangered species, but in this case, the manual really is the better choice. Plus, as in the 911, its new dual-mass flywheel with pendulum-type absorbers make for considerably less strenuous clutch work. We wouldn't hesitate to drive it every day now.

As for other changes, the exterior was done over in the typical, highly evolutionary Porsche way. The trunk and frunk lids, windshield, and retractable roof are unchanged, but everything around them has been reshaped. There are new head- and taillights, sharper creases along the front fenders, and a more aggressive, distinctive rear end with ever-so-cool 3D Porsche script that sticks out from a layered trim piece. At the sides, there are new mirrors and door handles, plus the air intakes are bigger to satisfy the turbocharger's greater requirements (you can now hear the air whooshing through the compressor located just aft of your left love handle). The auto-extending rear spoiler also now rises to different heights depending on whether the roof is up or down.

Changes are fewer inside, but every Boxster now includes a rearview camera, Apple CarPlay and Porsche's latest touchscreen interface with improved functionality, and a 7-inch display less susceptible to glare. The dash top has reshaped air vents and an optional Sport Chrono clock located further forward, as in the 911. There are also new steering wheels, which can feature a rotary driving mode selector and Sport Response button (it automatically sets various components for a 20-second blast of maximized performance) when the Sport Chrono package is specified.

But finally, back to that engine. The switch to four cylinders is supposedly for the purposes of fuel economy, and yet if you compare EPA ratings, you'll discover the numbers for the S are virtually the same as the 2016 model and the base Boxster has gotten worse. Yet, the 718's estimates of 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined for the Boxster and 21/28/24 for the S (all with PDK) were achieved with the EPA's new measurement procedures for 2017 that have lowered, drastically in some cases, estimates from year to year. Comparisons are therefore dubious, but according to Porsche, the 718 Boxster is 14 percent more efficient despite the significant increase in power and torque.

If so, then maybe all the 718's many changes really can make up for whatever was lost when a pair of cylinders was replaced by a turbocharger. For, much as it was at Circuit of the Americas, the sun is setting on the naturally aspirated engine ? it's probably best to just move aside and accept it.

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