This is the 2013 Porsche Boxster S. The nerds among us will refer to it by its chassis code, 981. As Porsche is all too happy to point out, it’s the direct descendant of a long line of Porsche roadsters, beginning with the 356.
Case in point: The 2013 Boxster is available with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed PDK gearbox. When asked about the decision not to include a seventh, fuel-economy cheater gear (à la the new 911), engineers cited the additional weight. “But the PDK weighs just as much?” I ask, pointing out the fallacy in their logic. “Yes, but the manual driver is different.” Now there’s some truth in engineering.
Porsche is surprisingly happy to admit that the 356 was a hit with the ladies. The original prototype was supposedly sold to a woman and later repurchased by Porsche and Co., and nearly half a century later, the Boxster’s reputation as the Ladies’ Porsche has continued to endure. It’s idiotic. Thoroughly and completely. It’s something that changed slightly with the last generation (987) and my hosts’ design team makes it clear that this latest iteration was designed to be “more masculine.”
You’re inevitably going to see some shades of Carrera GT in the 981′s sheetmetal, particularly when viewed in profile, with the deeply sculpted doors feeding air into the two (functional) air intakes ahead of the rear wheels. But viewed from the front and rear, the details haven’t been pulled from an eight-year-old supercar. They’re from a new one. The 918 Spyder.
The fascia is more stately than shapely, with shades of the 904 in the headlamps, while taillamps combine the 991′s vertical slats and the 918′s upkicked rear. Look closer and you’ll notice the lights protrude outward in the middle, forming a solid sweeping line across the back that incorporates into the rear spoiler. Per usual, Porsche design is looking forward – albeit incrementally – and the director of styling admits to developing the new Boxster “cautiously.” Still, few automakers make their wares look so similar while causing the outgoing model to look so dated.
Inside it’s similar, with the now standard Panamera-inspired central tunnel dominating the interior, rising high above the waist, but mercifully slathered in far less switchgear.
As we’ve come to expect from Porsche, it’s a driver-centric cockpit, with the right buttons in the right places. Sport, Sport+, Adaptive Damper and Traction controls are directly next to the driver, with the convertible switches mounted in the middle and the spoiler, exhaust and auto start-stop button near the passenger.
Climate, seat, audio and navigation controls are similar to what you’ll find in the 911, as is the new instrument panel ahead of the driver, which has the speedometer on the left, the tach in the middle and a new configurable TFT display on the right providing data for everything from navigation to audio, phone, tire pressure and, yes, even a G meter.
The steering wheel comes in a few flavors: totally bereft of redundant controls (in a manual model); fitted with Porsche’s infuriatingly unintuitive push-for-upshift, pull for downshift PDK paddles on both sides; or the more pleasurable dual paddle shifters, with up on the left and down on the right.
The wheel measures in at 330mm, which feels a little large for something this size. I asked about a smaller tiller and was told that it would interfere with gauge visibility. Probably, but I still want it. And that’s one of a thousand reasons I’m not a Porsche engineer. The only other gripe is a relative lack of interior storage, particularly in the doors, but such is the price of a small footprint and a compact cabin. And anyway, you’ve always got two trunks.
On the topic of dimensions, the 981 Boxster is 40mm wider up front, but the overall width is the same. It’s also grown a bit longer (less than an inch), the wheelbase has been stretched by 60mm, and overall height has been reduced by 10mm. That last bit is thanks to an all-new cloth roof that makes use of magnesium and aluminum to keep weight down, and it surely helps to achieve the scant nine seconds it takes to put the roof up or down at 31 mph and below. The world doesn’t need another video of a folding roof, but I put Porsche’s claim to the test using its center-mounted Sports Chrono clock.
Porsche is proudly joining the party when it comes to weight reduction, with the standard Boxster weighing in at 2,888 pounds and the S model tacking on an additional 22 pounds, making this model around 100 pounds lighter than the 987 before it. Weight distribution stays the same, with a Porsche-approved rear weight bias of 46:54.
With the reduction in weight, you could forgive Porsche for simply slapping the existing engines in and calling it a day, but that’s not very Germanic. Instead, Porsche has reduced the displacement of the standard engine from 2.9 to 2.7 liters, bringing output up an additional 10 horsepower in the process for a total of 265 ponies. Torque, however, is down some seven pound-feet to 206, available from 4,500 to 6,500 rpm. Fortunately or unfortunately, Porsche only had two of these “base” models on hand and they would mysteriously disappeared during the day. I was kind of okay with that, so the S it was…
While the the new entry engine and the S’ 3.4-liter flat-six are both 15 percent more efficient (both in terms of fuel economy and CO2 emissions), the S engine has been boosted to 315 hp (a five-hp bump), with torque remaining the same as before at 266 lb-ft (between 4,500 and 5,800 rpm). New intakes and exhausts coupled with direct injection are the only notable changes, but like everything else from Porsche, it’s been obsessively fussed over in the pursuit of efficiency.
Auto start-stop is now standard on both models no matter which transmission you choose. Assuming you haven’t engaged Sport, the system acts as expected, shutting down the midship mill at traffic lights and making the cabin so eerily quiet that you can hear the Sport Chrono clock ticking the seconds away. That same level of finely honed NVH is obvious when traveling on the freeway – top up or down – or on a particularly pockmarked backroad detour in the south of France.
Optioning up for the S with the PDK transmission also nets you active transmission mounts, utilizing the same magnetorheological fluid you’d find in the 911′s engine girdles that alternatively loosen or firm things up when the going gets twisty.
That level of adaption also comes into play with the Sport and Sport+ settings, which change throttle and steering settings based on driver inputs and slightly overlap so there’s less button-pressing for the occasional spirited blast. The new Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) is equally cooperative, chattering away at the rear brake calipers to make the front tuck in under cornering and sort the rear out. A fully electronic diff is sure to be sitting on a test bench in Stuttgart, but for now, this is it. And it all works to glorious effect.
A five-hour drive through the mountains and villages outside of Nice proves that Porsche continues to be a master in the subtle art of refinement.
The electro-hydraulic steering lightens up at lower speeds and gets chatty once you’re over 30 mph, providing nearly as much feedback through your palms as its predecessor. The extra front track is a bit much for narrow roads, but the additional grip is more than welcome, even if it comes at the expense of some of the old model’s chuckability. Mid-corner corrections are a dab of throttle away and only the most hamfisted can exceed the limits of grip and sanity on public roads.
With no base models available for testing, I resigned myself to a PDK-equipped S before snagging a six-speed manual later in the day. Like all modern Porsche offerings, the double-clutch gearbox is both quicker and more adaptable than the rube behind the wheel. And for what it’s worth, the PDK car is also good for a 7:58 run around the Nürburgring – some 12 seconds less than its predecessor. Zero to 60 happens in 4.8 seconds when launched in Sport+.
The manual, on the other hand, is still slick and gives up a few tenths to 60 over the PDK. The clutch is light enough for daily commute duty and the pedals are properly positioned for quick heel-and-toe action. My choice? For a vehicle like the Boxster, the PDK feels right. The manual simply feels righter. ‘Ring times be damned.
Nail the throttle and gravity goes horizontal. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s enough to make your sphincter suck in the seat. More importantly, it’s predictable, allowing you to modulate and correct mid-corner without fear of overwhelming the rear or pushing the front. It’s the perfect blend of balance and answers the question about why Porsche didn’t go with a turbocharged mill for its latest entry-level roadster.
The same logic applies with the standard brakes, which stood proud throughout the drive. Four piston aluminum calipers clamp onto 330mm discs up front and 299mm in back, and there’s an optional carbon ceramic setup if you want it. But the only time you would is if it had more power, and just like both Boxsters before it, it’s obvious the chassis could handle more oomph with aplomb. That’s as far as I’ll go in the Boxster-hobbled-to-sate-911-sales debate, but I know of at least one senior engineer who wholeheartedly agrees with me.
Seven hours later, I’m back at another hotel for one last night before catching a flight home. The roads were perfect. The new Boxster even more so. And the run through the Monte Carlo stage was the harrowing rollercoaster I’d hoped for. For the first time in a week, I sleep through the night, my mind finally cleared through the overtaxed, jet-lagged fog. I can concentrate on what matters most. That’s what a great drive in a greater car does. And every now and then, you need to be reminded of it. The new Boxster does that.