As journalists cycle through Porsche’s 2017 718 Boxster and Boxster S over the course of several hundred miles in Portugal, the recurring refrain is inevitable. Turbocharged flat-four engines? How’s the character? Is driving engagement lost? Can anything be as good as a Porsche flat-six? Has Weissach ruined its roadster?
Slow your breathing, though the maternal-like concern is understandable if not a speck bemusing. The Boxster, after all, has seen its share of undulating perceptions. From the original concept car — still one of the best automotive design exercises in history — that debuted at the 1993 Detroit auto show to the first-generation 986 Boxster to the 987 to the 981 unveiled in 2012, Porsche’s now 20-year-old production sports car has taken it from all sides. Pure driver’s car? Check. Secretary’s car? Check. Universal praise from the enthusiast press? Check. Ridiculed by the (secretly jealous?) uninitiated? Check. And despite plenty of firsthand experience with all of its inherent goodness, we’re admittedly still laughing at the exchange in “Girl Most Likely,” when Kristen Wiig answers the distraught driver of the car she’s damaged — “It’s a Porsche!” — with a dismissive, “Sir, it’s a Boxster.”
The semi-jovial negativism is unfair, really, but 20 years’ distance makes it easy to forget how the monolithic Porsche of 2016 was almost on its ass in the early to mid-1990s, ripe to be gobbled up by a healthier conglomerate. Instead, parts sharing/just-in-time manufacturing best practices, learned with help from Toyota, birthed the original 986 Boxster and 996-series 911 — and put Porsche on the path to financial powerhousedom. With its accounts today fueled largely by Cayennes and Macans and Panameras, Porsche doesn’t need the Boxster like it did back then, but the new Boxster and Boxster S, dubbed internally as 982, still matter.
It’s important to have such a defined and clear character and concept in the sports car world today because it’s becoming increasingly difficult, if you don’t have it already, to make a name for yourself in that segment,” says Frank Weismann, Porsche’s product experience manager for sports cars. “What’s everybody about today? SUVs. Even us, we see an insatiable demand for SUVs, but at the same time there’s that core group that says, ‘I want a sports car.’ At the end of the day, this [heritage] and this feeling [developed in our sports cars] goes back into cars like the Macan in terms of how they’re supposed to feel within their segment. It’s full circle. It’s really one feeding off of the other.”
Which brings us back to the parental-style nervousness in Portugal. Porsche’s various models might feed off one another, but the 718s nourish on direct-injection four-cylinder engines and forced induction from their single, intercooled turbocharger. Both the 2.0-liter in the Boxster and the 2.5 in the S share parts and engineering/technology with the new turbo flat-six engines found in the 911 range, with the S employing 911 Turbo-derived variable turbine geometry for better throttle response at low and high revs.
The 2.0 makes 300 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque from 1,950 to 4,500 rpm, with the 2.5 managing 350 hp at 6,500 rpm and 309 lb-ft between 1,900 and 4,500 rpm. That’s a horsepower increase of 35 over the old naturally aspirated 2.7- and 3.4-liter flat-sixes, with the Boxster making an additional 74 lb-ft and the S 43 lb-ft compared to the outgoing engines. Porsche says the base car will run from 0-60 mph in 4.9 or 4.7 seconds (six-speed manual vs. twin-clutch gearbox), and the S will do so in 4.4/4.2. Add the optional Sport Chrono package’s Sport+ mode with the paddle-shift transmission and those numbers allegedly drop to 4.5 for Boxster, 4.0 for S. These times are 0.7 and 0.5 second, respectively, quicker than what Porsche cited for the previous Boxsters, a significant improvement. Top speeds increase to 170 and 177 mph, gains of 8 and 5 mph.
Thus these are the quickest and outright fastest Boxsters yet, but what about that character? Certainly it takes some adjusting to, predictably and notably the sound coming from the short-stroke engine behind you. Almost to a person and without prompting, the comparison we heard during our drive time was unanimous: Subaru STi. Porsche’s engine feels and sounds more refined than Subaru’s, but despite the development team working hard to create an appropriate sound — and we’re not saying it is inappropriate for such a car — there is no overcoming the deep, bassy nature of turbocharged flat-fours, either at idle or on partial or full power.
Listen close and you still detect the mechanical whine and clatter familiar to Porsche sports car drivers, but it is nowhere as obvious as before. The noise you do hear is amplified by a resonator and electric actuator and pumped into the cabin, an effect some purists detest but one that is more natural than, say, pumping fake engine sounds through the audio system’s speakers. We spent our time in both the manual- and PDK-transmission-equipped Boxster S with optional sport exhaust, and were surprised by how loud the experience is, with drone creeping in no matter what drive mode we selected. We grew used to the new soundtrack within an hour or two, and if you never experienced the boxer-six-powered cars, you probably would not take much notice, if any. But there is an obvious difference, and Porschephiles tend to dislike change, especially to something so intrinsic to the experience. On the absolute plus side, push the button to activate Sport mode, and you get an abundance of exhaust popping and cracking on the overrun, and it sounds lovely. Our only ask is to hear a bit more of it from inside the cockpit; we noticed it more from other cars passing us or driving ahead of us than we at times did from our own test cars. And note that Sport+ eliminates the overrun effect in the name of better throttle response.
There is a difference, too, when you squeeze on the power coming out of corners or in straight-line drag runs, and it is for the better. Lag is not an issue, particularly in Sport and Sport+, as Porsche employs several tricks involving the wastegate, valve timing, and throttle control to maintain boost pressure. During full acceleration, a Dynamic Boost function cuts fuel injection but holds the throttle valve open 100 percent when you lift off the pedal, keeping the turbo spooled and ready for when you reapply the gas.
A limited-slip differential, sticky Pirelli tires, and the chassis’ 45/55 front/rear weight distribution delivers excellent traction, but the additional torque kicks the fun meter to another level; it’s available early in the powerband, making it easier than ever to induce yaw via the throttle, breaking the rear tires loose if you desire. If high-speed runs are your forte, the car delivers on that front as well. We ran the S to 155 mph without effort, the engine pulling strong the entire way. Gear ratios remain tall, but the torquier engine helps in that regard if you want to shift more than necessary, just for fun, without falling out of the powerband’s sweet spot. Redline is set at 7,400 rpm, with the limiter coming in at 7,500 — but that same powerband means there is little dynamic point to revving the engine much past 6,600 rpm, though the engine does sound better the higher you go.
Boxsters have never been about raw speed, however, and the 718s get some handling upgrades as well. The steering rack lifted from the 911 Turbo is approximately 10 percent quicker than before, and it makes it as easy as ever to place the car precisely where you want to go. No, Porsche has not tuned the electromechanical setup to feel like the hydraulic system found in earlier Boxsters, so you won’t be able to tell as easily when you run over a bubble gum wrapper — another trait some hardcore loyalists value to an almost deal-breaking degree. To cope with the extra torque, the rear subframe is stronger. The rear wheels are half an inch wider, though tire width remains the same. Porsche says this slight change in how the tire sits on the rim works in harmony with the quicker steering that came from a car that also features rear-steer. Since Boxsters don’t offer rear-steer, the wider wheels help promote stability and allow the quicker steering to work with this chassis.
Additionally, both the standard suspension and adaptive PASM suspension, which drops ride height by 0.43 inch, are retuned with stiffer shocks, springs, and anti-roll bars, and for the first time Porsche offers a sport PASM option for the S, which decreases ride height by 0.86 inch. There’s more, too, including optional torque vectoring, standard upgraded front brakes, and a new PSM Sport mode as part of the Sport Chrono package. PSM Sport promises to allow a far greater degree of yaw and wheelspin, particularly on racetracks where the previous system would intervene too much. And Porsche does allow you to deactivate the aids fully, something we’re finding increasingly difficult to do on a wide range of performance cars.
Indeed, the new Porsche 718s remain focused performance cars, with sublime balance through corners, and the engine and chassis changes mean they take those corners faster than ever before. They don’t do it while sounding and feeling exactly the same as in the past, which will no doubt cause endless forum discussions and debates — wholly appropriate given the car’s history of mixed opinions about it. The good news for Porsche is, unlike 20-something years ago, the roadster — which accounted for approximately just 13 percent of the company’s U.S. sales in 2015 — is no longer the key to its survival. Its spirit, however, remains important to Stuttgart’s soul, which explains the angst over this new generation’s approach. It might not be loved universally, at least not immediately, but yes, sir, it’s still a Boxster, and that’s no bad thing.