Car reviews - Porsche - Boxster - convertible
Wonderful balance of ride and handling, comfort for two, even reasonable luggage space
Room for improvement
Tiptronic automatic transmission dilutes appeal, no spare wheel
16 Dec 2005
By CHRIS HARRIS
THE Boxster is steadily eating away at the 911’s credibility as the essential Porsche.
That is, provided you don’t think a real Porsche must have its horizontally opposed engine mounted behind, rather than ahead, of the rear axle, and you don’t think a real Porsche should provide some sort of token rear-seat accommodation.
The Boxster has neither of these things, but if a real Porsche equals mind-altering dynamic qualities, and an engine note to die for, then the mid-engine two-seater delivers more of both than even the current 997 series 911.
More of the first largely because of its virtually ideal weight balance, and more of the second because the sonorous flat six is sitting audibly right behind you, almost sharing the cockpit.
We can only speculate on how the 911 will fit within the Porsche hierarchy when the Boxster-based Cayman arrives, but it will be a great surprise if the fully enclosed two-seat coupe doesn’t lure a few customers its way. Problem for the Boxster is, it will probably take some of its sales too.
In the meantime, we have a three-car Porsche lineup strongly influenced by the Cayenne SUV, but also reflecting the latest 997 iteration of the 911.
The Boxster, despite being the least-expensive Porsche and despite its brilliant dynamic qualities, is the slowest-selling model.
And the arrival of an update 997 model early in 2005 doesn’t seem to figure largely in local Boxster sales, which continue to trail those of the 911 since slipping behind in 2002.
This is good and bad news for Porsche.
On the positive side, more expensive cars reap proportionately higher unit profits.
On the negative side, the Boxster’s position is slightly puzzling, because it should really rate as the top-seller purely on price. That’s the way it was when it first came along in January 1997.
Whatever the reason, the Boxster remains the standout sports car in its segment, which contains the likes of BMW’s Z4, the Benz SLK, Audi TT 3.2 quattro – and maybe even the odd Japanese offering such as Nissan’s 350Z roadster, or the Honda S2000.
Where the Porsche scores over everybody is in its undistilled sports car essence. This is still the car that sets the benchmark, is still the least compromised, and the only one that comes from such a focussed performance car manufacturer.
That said, there is one element of the Boxster that slightly dilutes its purity.
Essentially, it is the ability of the Tiptronic automatic transmission version to milk the beautifully balanced little soft-top of some of its raw sports car charm and much of its performance.
In Tiptronic form (and this comprises half of local Boxster - and 911 - sales in Australia) the car loses a lot of its immediacy, as does the driver the ability to perfectly control the rising and falling tones of the musical six as it moves through the gears.
And it loses a lot of its accelerative edge too, almost a full second behind the latest five-speed manual version which can reach 100km/h in 6.2 seconds. Many new-generation turbodiesel sedans are as quick.
The auto Boxster’s saving grace is that this is at least counterbalanced by the virtually perfect chassis.
This is further improved with the 2005 update, which works on both the driveline and chassis.
This includes a power jump, from 168kW at 6300rpm to 176kW at 6400rpm, and a lift in torque, from 260Nm to 270Nm at the same 4700rpm.
The dry-sumped, short-stroke 2.7-litre engine gets its extra punch from a careful re-work of the breathing rather than any further camshaft control trickery (variable camshaft timing came in 2002), and weighs 5.5kg less than before through the adoption of an aluminium bearing bridge for the crankshaft.
The Boxster is also more fuel-efficient, with a combined EU cycle figure of 9.6L/100km on premium unleaded fuel.
The suspension design itself hasn’t been changed, but a toughening-up of the body - nine percent more torsional rigidity, 14 per cent more flexural rigidity – for no real increase in weight, and a bumping of track width at front and rear, plus stretching the wheels from 16 to 17 inches and fitting bigger tyres, does a lot to increase the already outstanding on-road tenacity.
Bigger rear brakes help the four-pot system bring things to a halt even more efficiently than before.
The steering is new too, with a variable-ratio rack and pinion system replacing the linear system used before, while Porsche Stability Management (PSM) to control any overstepping of the mark is now standard.
To make sure the latest Boxster is recognisable, a decent amount of styling work has taken place inside and out.
The 911-derived dash is breathtakingly simple in its layout, clean and almost-Audi-like with its twin rounded centre air vents and the small, hooded binnacle containing the instruments.
More leg room is provided by moving the pedals forward and lowering the seats - which are also new and more supportive – and there’s now a two-way adjustable steering wheel.
A trip computer is now standard, as is a CD stacker, but the leather-trimmed seats remain manually adjusted – except for the power backrest - unless you pay more. The interior redesign introduces new materials, including a smattering of aluminium to further the fresh look.
Of course the Boxster remains a comfortable place for two, with more luggage space than a 911 because of the extra boot at the rear. The front boot is made even bigger by the deletion of a spare wheel and the power roof, remarkably, can now be operated at speeds up to 50km/h.
The new Boxster is also among the first convertibles to include headbags in its safety armoury. These complement the seat-mounted side bags and pop out of the upper door in a side impact to maximise passenger protection.
Outside, quite a bit is going on with the latest model, where the view has changed whether you’re standing at front, side or back.
At the front, there’s a pair of new headlights, not dissimilar to those adopted on the 997-series 911, as well as bolder, below-bumper air scoops. At the back there’s been a general cleaning-up that results in new tail-lights and a simpler moulding around the single, central exhaust outlet.
The side view is dominated by the 17-inch wheels (options go up to 19 inches), redesigned front wheel arches, new door handles and new, larger air intakes ahead of the rear wheel arches.
Overall, it’s probably less changed than the 911, but Boxster fans will still spot it straight away. And the aerodynamics have improved, with the Cd figure dropping from 0.31 to 0.29.
What hasn’t changed is the pure pleasure of driving the Boxster.
There’s no way a true enthusiast would even consider Tiptronic - most likely the extra funds would be sourced to buy a Boxster S anyway – but, once you’ve accepted you’re not about to experience the full Porsche thing here, the auto is nice to live with.
Riding more firmly than a regular 911, the Boxster is still quite absorbent when compared with, say, BMW’s darting, hard-sprung Z4.
The wider tracks and bigger wheels (meatier at the back than the front) haven’t affected the Boxster’s steady straight-line cruising ability, nor its resistance to bump-steer. It simply feels naturally balanced and sharply responsive to steering wheel inputs, yet is not nervous in any way.
Within reason, the driver doesn’t feel the need to tense up on badly-surfaced roads, awaiting imminent bump-steer and bottoming-out of the suspension. The Boxster simply howls and slinks it way through with unseemly speed and poise.
The Tiptronic is controlled by buttons on the steering wheel and by the centre console shifter that allows the driver to select manual or full-auto modes. In manual mode, all shifting is done by the steering wheel buttons. The box can also be manual-shifted temporarily via the steering wheel in auto mode, but reverts quickly back to auto.
It all works smoothly and crisply enough, but unless manual is used all the time the auto suffers the usual antics of shuffling around trying to find the correct ratio in throttle-on, throttle-off driving. Taking the edges off the crisp boxer engine via a torque converter seems somehow wrong.
Brakes? Well, with even larger rear discs (now 299mm) and more servo boost from a mechanical, rather than a vacuum-driven pump, the Boxster grips and hauls itself down from speed like you’d expect.
So, with further improvements to performance, suspension, safety, passenger space and comfort the Boxster has come a long way from the initial 150kW 2.5-litre version that introduced Porsche’s first new model line since the retirement of the front-engined 968 in 1995.
In Tiptronic form, the car is somewhat diluted, but even this is unable to mask the true character of what still remains one of the world’s most desirable two-seat sports cars.
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