Car reviews - Porsche - Boxster - convertible
Handling, chassis balance, light weight, engine performance, gearshift, steering, brakes, driveability, engine note, interior changes, refinement, build quality, luggage capacity, styling
Room for improvement
Price, lack of standard equipment, blind spots
16 Dec 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
IF ever you were to define the most realistic, balanced, well-built and uncompromised sports car on the market, there’s not much doubt that Porsche’s Boxster would rate at, or very near, the top of the list.
From the moment it was first shown as a concept car in the early 1990s, the Boxster always looked like a 911 breakaway that would go places that other attempts by Stuttgart to supplement its one-model range never did.
With the Boxster, Porsche put aside thoughts of any further dalliances with front-engine, rear-drive cars like the 928 and 924/944/968 and looked deeply within itself to identify what the brand really meant.
What it meant was that, to be a true Porsche, the engine could never be mounted in the front, and it could never be of conventional design, whether it be inline four-cylinder or V8.
The Porsche formula, after all, had been pretty enduring: the 356 coupe, developed essentially on Volkswagen Beetle principles, started the whole thing in 1950 after the good doctor Porsche and his son Ferry decided in the late 1940s to build something a little more exciting than a proletarian conveyance aimed at putting Germans on wheels (Ferdinand Porsche died before the 356 went into production).
Ferry Porsche’s son Butzi was the stylist responsible for the original 911 model, which followed the 356 in 1964. Amazingly, the 911 remained entirely true to its roots for more than 30 years, convincingly defining the brand and creating an icon that has possibly been the most enduring in all motoring history.
The company’s remembering these roots is, essentially, why the Boxster worked and other more conventional Porsche-badged road-going sports cars didn’t. (It should be mentioned that there was a special lineage to which the Boxster belonged, though the mid-engined Porsche 550 Spyder of James Dean fame that was never officially sold here. The less said about another mid-engined road Porsche, the VW-Porsche 914 from the 1970s, the better).
The Boxster has all the aural qualities of a 911, as well as the dynamics of a car with its engine located behind, rather than in front of the driver. The big difference with the Boxster is that the weight balance isn’t dramatically shifted to the rear the location of the horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine ahead of, rather than behind the rear axle might mean there’s no room for more than two passengers, but it does endow the car with ideal front-rear weight distribution.
The Boxster has what is called a low polar moment of inertia, which means that, under cornering forces, the centre of mass favours neither one end nor the other, which makes it easy for engineers to build a chassis inclined to neither understeer nor oversteer.
With this balanced layout, the Boxster is inherently a much more responsive, balanced and nimble car than the 911. The latter’s extreme rearward weight bias makes it a triumph of engineering determination over basic physical laws.
The Boxster also happens to be the cheapest Porsche, by far, starting at a tad more than $110,000 in its most basic 2.7-litre form. The engine grew from its original capacity of 2.5 litres in 1999, picking up more torque and more power along the way, from 150kW and 245Nm to 162kW and 260Nm then, for 2003, to 168kW via the adoption of variable valve timing.
This has tended to silence critics of the original 2.5-litre version’s performance – a negative also addressed in 1999 when the bigger-engined and pricier 3.2-litre Boxster S variant, with 191kW and 310Nm was introduced.
Coinciding with the 2002 engine changes, the Boxster also benefited from a general upgrading that changed the front and rear bumper-spoiler units and lifted interior comfort levels via refinements like internal lining for the soft-top roof.
So today’s base-level Boxster is a subtly more complete car than the original 1997 version.
And, despite the emergence of various would-be competitors, there’s little question it remains the benchmark for what a two-seat, eminently useable sports convertible should be.
The engine has a quite meaty, hard-edged howl when wound up, and the car’s relatively light weight of just less than 1300kg means the power-weight ratio is always strong, giving little away to aspirants like the 3.0-litre version of BMW’s new Z4.
And the driveline, even though the gearbox is a mere five-speeder (six speeds in the Boxster S), is butter-smooth and user-friendly. You can forget about the hair-trigger clutches and tricky accelerator pedals of old 911s.
Wielding this Porsche is no more difficult than a regular passenger sedan, with easy low-speed behaviour balanced against a raw, rorty top-end.
The Boxster steers beautifully, too, with great feedback and just the right amount of weighting. And, unlike some others, upgrading to the next stage of wheel-tyre combinations doesn’t introduce any wayward behaviour such as bump steer and general straight-line nervousness.
The car’s balance is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that users can choose whether or not to specify electronic stability control – unlike just about all the competition, which lists this face-saving (and life-saving) technology as standard. The Boxster is so well balanced that it is among the most forgiving of sports cars.
Rush into a corner a fraction too hard and, in most cases, all the driver needs to do is lift off the accelerator a little and the car will simply steer its way around. Try that in others without stability control and the result would more likely be some unwanted, dramatic oversteer.
For sheer acceleration, the 2.7-litre Boxster isn’t too tardy either. The factory claims a 0-100km/h of 6.4 seconds, which places it unquestionably in the quick-car ranks. And the boxer six always sounds glorious.
As you’d expect, the braking is substantial, with ABS-equipped, four-caliper ventilated discs on all four wheels more than able to contain the performance.
Passenger comfort isn’t too bad, either, with a quite-roomy cockpit, climate-control air-conditioning and basic, but well-shaped and comfortable leather-trimmed seats – manually adjustable except for the backrest.
There’s no trip computer, and the sound system is an essentially simple, single-CD affair.
The Boxster does get front and side airbags, and sturdy rollbars behind the seat backs.
The soft-top, as would be expected, does introduce some blind spots to the rear, but it does fold quickly, in around 12 seconds.
And there’s something of a surprise when it comes to utility, too. The Boxster’s mid-engine layout is used to advantage to provide some really useful luggage space. As well as the usual boot, Porsche has also provided a deep, capacious load space at the front.
Add that to the tough-as-nails feel that has always been a Porsche characteristic and this most rewarding of driver’s cars turns out to be pretty practical as well.
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