The Porsche Boxster and Cayman have been shining beacons of sports-car excellence for the better part of two decades, and together with the 911 they've reassured the faithful as Porsche ventured off into different product categories. With each succeeding generation, the Boxster has managed to get better looking (a rarity in automotive design), quicker, and more capable. The latest version is all those things, and it not only gains a 718 prefix to its name but also scraps the model's sublime naturally aspirated flat-six engines for turbocharged four-cylinders-a move that threatens the idyllic formula. We tested the latest Boxster S with the PDK automatic, which is the quickest configuration but also the one most jarring to purists.
We'll admit to being more than a little jarred by the number at the bottom of our test car's window sticker: $93,420. That figure is reflective of the Boxster's new market position above the Cayman in the Porsche hierarchy. If you thought that switch meant the Cayman would see its price drop, then you don't know Porsche.
The Boxster S starts at $69,450, with the seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission tacking on $3200. The PDK was only one of several four-figure options padding our example's sticker, however; the others included a sport exhaust system with silver tailpipes ($2540), a leather interior ($2520), the Sport Chrono package ($2440), PASM sport suspension ($2070), navigation ($1730), 20-inch Carrera S wheels ($1580), torque vectoring ($1320), and Porsche Connect Plus ($1300).
Although pricey, several of the above items might be considered essentials, in that they imbue the Boxster's chassis with even greater athleticism. PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) brings adaptive damping, while the sport suspension includes a 0.9-inch-lower ride height and a firmer Sport mode. Porsche claims to have expanded the range of the PASM's damper settings, and we found a compliant ride even on the optional 20-inch wheels, married with fantastic responsiveness. The latter might also have been aided by the optional torque vectoring, which can brake an inside rear wheel during cornering. That technology works in sync with the Boxster's improved steering. Already among the most communicative electrically assisted systems out there and also perfectly weighted, it's now 10 percent quicker off-center, thanks in part to a new rack swiped from the 911. Add tenacious brakes (capable of stopping the car from 70 mph in 143 feet) and you have an amazingly agile and easy-to-drive sports car.
More, and Less
But frankly, that's not what's significant here-it's just the expected generation-to-generation improvement on the Boxster's traditional strengths. What's different is that the 3.4-liter naturally aspirated flat-six is gone, and in its place is a 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four. Surprisingly, fuel economy-presumably the force driving this change-is no better, despite the addition of an automatic stop/start function. The EPA city number is unchanged, and the highway figure drops by 1 mpg. But horsepower increases from 325 to 350, while torque is up from 272 lb-ft to 309. And where the naturally aspirated six needed to be revved to deliver the goods-a rather pleasant trait, mind you-the turbo four delivers peak power sooner, at 6500 rpm rather than 6700, while max torque is available from as early as 1900 rpm all the way to 4500 rpm.
And yet something has been lost. The flat-six engine note wasn't just spine-tinglingly great, it was characterful and contributed to the whole Porsche-ness of the driving experience. The turbo four doesn't sound bad, but it's just kind of generic sporty car-and while the sport exhaust can make it louder, it can't enhance what isn't there.
Thematically, and also in practice, the automatic transmission makes the perfect partner for the new turbocharged engine, succeeding on logic and performance. First off, it's quicker than the standard six-speed manual-significantly so. Compared with the manual-equipped Boxster S, the PDK version cuts 0.8 second off the zero-to-60-mph time, bringing it down to an astounding 3.5 seconds. (We measured 3.4 seconds for the 911 PDK.) Part of that quickness is due to launch control, which comes with the Sport Chrono package. But in our rolling 5-to-60-mph test, the difference between automatic and manual is a full second, with the latter at 5.3 seconds from 5 to 60 mph versus the PDK's 4.3 (that number tying the 911). The automatic chops more than a second from the sprint to 100 mph, getting there in 8.5 seconds to the stick shift's 9.8. And the PDK hustles through the quarter-mile in 11.9 seconds at 118 mph (again matching the 911) to the manual's 12.6 at 113 mph.
Are the machines really that much better than we are? Probably, but this one also has the benefit of an extra gear and uninterrupted torque flow during gearchanges. The PDK's seven forward speeds also help explain why it gets better gas mileage than the manual: 21 mpg city and 28 highway, according to the EPA, versus 20/26 for the stick. That advantage was born out in our experience, where the PDK returned 20 mpg in our enthusiastic hands, besting the manual by 2 mpg.
As much as the Boxster's manual gearbox is a delight to use, we have to admit that Porsche's PDK is an exceptionally pleasing automatic. In Normal mode, the transmission upshifts eagerly-like many automatics rushing to get into a higher gear in order to aid fuel economy-but it's equally willing to downshift when asked. Normal mode also enables the auto stop/start system, although that can be switched off. Sport and Sport Plus modes will let the engine hold higher revs, with Sport Plus effectively locking out sixth and seventh gears, although they still can be selected via the shift paddles on the steering wheel. Sport may be the best compromise, since it's more aggressive than Normal but still uses all the gears. Both Sport and Sport Plus also trigger the sport exhaust system's more vocal mode and PASM's stiffer damping; here again, though, those changes can be unselected if desired, via buttons on the center console. Or you're free to create your own combination of attributes with the Individual mode. With the Sport Chrono package, drive-mode selection is via a dial attached to the steering wheel, and in the center position is an S button; no matter the mode you're currently in, pressing it calls up Sport Response mode, which is like a shot of adrenaline for the powertrain, made easily and instantly accessible.
Outside of the powertrain, the 718 Boxster merely goes from strength to strength. Seat comfort is outstanding, and the driver's perch places you ideally for a good working relationship with the controls. It's also nice not to be buried up to your ears in bodywork, as is the case in so many performance cars with ultrahigh beltlines. Porsche's ramplike center console makes no allowance for interior stowage, which is the only real downside to the otherwise well-turned-out cabin. The fabric top can be raised or lowered while driving at speeds up to 43 mph, and wind buffeting is minimal. And the Boxster's front and rear trunks combine to easily swallow a weekend's worth of luggage for two.
The Boxster remains a benchmark among open-top sports cars, and the S version with the PDK transmission, when bolstered by the options fitted to our test car, is its highest-achieving form. The left-brain types who look at the new turbocharged four-cylinder and see only bigger horsepower and torque numbers will be completely satisfied here (although they might find the Cayman S an even more compelling proposition), and they'll similarly gravitate to the PDK automatic. The manual will be the way to go for right-brain types more keyed in to the intangibles, but even then, the brilliance of the Boxster S shines a little less brightly than before.
Read more on Car and Driver.