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First drive: Porsche Boxster mans up

Wholesale change: The new Porsche Boxster marks an even greater change over its predecessor than the all-new latest 911.

Porsche launches bigger, lighter, stiffer, quicker and more efficient new Boxster

23 Mar 2012

FRESH from releasing its all-new seventh-generation 911 Coupe in Australia last month, Porsche has now launched a more manly replacement for its smaller sibling – the hallowed German sportscar brand’s entry-level Boxster roadster.

Wider, lower, stiffer, quicker, more powerful and more aggressive than before – yet lighter and more efficient – the third-generation Boxster was presented to media including GoAuto at its global launch in St Tropez this week, ahead of its arrival in Australia in mid-July.

Pricing will not be revealed until next month but, like the new 911, the new Boxster is expected to be more expensive than its $106,100-plus predecessor – by two or three per cent, if German pricing is any guide – although Porsche says it represents better value than before when the new model’s higher level of standard specification is taken into account.

A testing 300km test loop through the spectacular mountain passes north of the opulent French resort town – including the legendary Monte Carlo Rally stage – confirmed Porsche’s claims that the MkIII Boxster marks an even greater step change over its predecessor than the latest 911, with which it continues to share 55 per cent of its components.

While the second-generation 987-series Boxster, launched in 2004, brought only subtle design changes over the original mid-engined roadster (the 986) released in 1996, the new 981 model receives a large dose of visual adrenalin by borrowing a number of design cues from next year’s million-dollar plug-in hybrid 918 Spyder super-roadster.

25 center imageMost noticeably, while the front half is essentially all 911, the changes include deeply sculpted side air scoops that begin within the shorter and now-concave doors (which are now unique to the Boxster and, like the 991-series 911, house the side mirrors) and feed the car’s mid-mounted six-cylinder boxer engines via oversized air inlets ahead of the rear wheels.

Also increasing the new aesthetic aggression are new vertically stacked headlight elements, LED daytime-running lamps, a distinctive new integrated rear lip spoiler design that overlaps the tail-lights, an 11mm-lower roof height and larger, more pronounced haunches at both ends, wrapped around bigger wheelarches that now house larger standard alloys (19-inch in Australia, with optional 20-inch units for the first time).

Porsche says the more masculine design aims to reduce the average Boxster customer age from about 45 while maintaining its attraction to women, who currently account for about 20 per cent of Boxster buyers.

The interior takes a corresponding advance upmarket via higher-quality materials including a full-width galvanised central trim element that emphasises the car’s extra breadth, a colour information screen in the right-side instrument dial and a forward-sloping centre console reminiscent of the flagship Panamera sedan, with an array of push-button controls surrounding the gearshift gate, which is now closer to the driver.

Porsche said creating a worthy successor for its first two Boxster models, which formed the basis of its (pre-Cayenne) success and generated more than 243,000 sales in a little over 16 years, required courage and sensitivity.

But it is quick to point out that the 981 is the latest in a long line of iconic Porsche roadsters, including the pioneering 356 of 1948 – the first production Porsche and predecessor to the 911 – the 550 Spyder of 1953 and a series of 718 racers from 1957.

While the Boxster’s unique-in-class mid-engined rear-drive layout and 46/54 per cent front/rear weight distribution remain, a 40mm-wider front wheel track and 60mm-longer (2475mm) wheelbase give Porsche’s new range-opener a larger footprint.

The all-new steel-aluminium hybrid body – a first for the Boxster – also echoes the 911 by delivering weight savings of up to 35kg in the top-shelf Boxster S, as well as increasing torsional stiffness by some 40 per cent.

For the first time, the Boxster is available with 911 technologies including ceramic brakes and Porsche Torque Vectoring, which brakes the inside rear wheel for greater cornering agility, while reworked MacPherson strut front and rear suspension, larger front brakes for the Boxster S and electro-mechanical power steering complete the chassis overhaul.

The new Boxster – which is 32mm longer overall at 4374mm – does not come with the new 911 Cabriolet’s folding fabric roof, but instead gets a new magnesium-framed roof structure that can open or close fully automatically in just nine seconds at speeds of up to 50km/h and cuts cabin wind noise at 100km/h by half.

There is also a host of new standard and optional equipment, including an electric parking brake, all-electric adjustment for the steering wheel and new, lower seats, and a 911-style sports exhaust mode that produces a spine-tingling tailpipe crackle on the overrun.

The handsome new 981 is therefore wider, lower-slung and less effeminate on the outside, while being more luxurious and refined inside.

Boxster body rigidity has never been in question, but the new model feels even stiffer than before, resisting ‘scuttle shake’ as effectively as the twice-the-price 911 Cabriolet, and allowing Porsche to build in even more suspension compliance.

Its larger footprint generates even more mechanical grip, biting into bends and resisting understeer with greater tenacity than before, yet the mid-engined Boxster chassis remains as neutral and vice-free as ever.

The Boxster does not offer the same power-down traction out of turns as the rear-engined 911, relying more heavily on its variable and brilliantly intuitive stability control system, but nor does it nod its nose under hard braking and acceleration like the 911, making it more mid-corner adjustable, easier to drive quickly and more forgiving of ham-fisted steering and throttle inputs than both the 911 and its direct rivals, the BMW Z4 and Mercedes SLK.

Like the 911, the Boxster’s first electric steering system is not as communicative as the conventional hydraulic system it replaces but it is still the best electric steering we’ve sampled, providing more turn-in response and road feel during cornering than any of its rivals.

The new Boxster tiller is also likely to appeal to a wider range of customers than before because it filters out unnecessary feedback and feels less busy or twitchy.

But it no longer feels alive in your hands at all times – including in a straight line, at parking speeds and on even mild road cambers – and may disappoint some Boxster fans for whom the previous model’s steering was a highlight.

As with the 911, electric steering gives the Boxster broader appeal and reduces fuel consumption by up to 0.1L/100km, at the expense of its trademark steering feel.

Indeed, Porsche’s greatest achievement here is not the new Boxster’s more grown-up road manners or more upmarket persona, but increasing its engine and handling performance while reducing fuel consumption.

Just as the base 911’s six-cylinder ‘boxer’ downsizes from 3.6 to 3.4 litres, the entry-level Boxster shrinks from 2.9 to 2.7 litres.

However, despite displacing 200cc less than before (giving it a larger 700cc capacity disadvantage over the 3.4-litre Boxster S), the Boxster employs direct fuel injection to produce 8kW more power at 195kW.

Peak torque is down by 10Nm to 280Nm, yet 0-100km/h acceleration is one-tenth faster at 5.8 seconds (six-speed manual), 5.7 seconds (seven-speed PDK automatic) and 5.5 seconds (with the optional Sport Chrono Package’s launch control function).

Despite the extra power and performance, less weight and the fitment of fuel-saving idle-stop, thermal management and transmission decoupling systems reduce combined fuel consumption and emissions by more than15 per cent to a respective 7.7L/100km and 180g/km in the PDK, with manual efficiency increasing about 13 per cent to 8.2L/100km 192g/km.

A similar feat has been achieved with the Boxster S, which delivers the same 360Nm of torque but is 4kW more powerful than before at 232kW and sprints to 100km/h two-tenths quicker than before in 5.1 seconds (manual), 5.0 seconds (PDK) and 4.8 seconds (PDK Sport Chrono), while reducing fuel consumption by 10 per cent to 8.8L/100km in the manual and 15 per cent to 8.0L/100km in the PDK.

The 3.4-litre flat six in the Boxster S remains 3kW short of the 235kW 3.4 in the Boxster Spyder and Cayman S, 11kW shy of the Cayman R’s 243kW 3.4 and 25kW less than the 911 Carrera’s 257kW 3.4, but it still delivers V8-like performance and uses less fuel than some small hatchbacks.

It might not score the new 911’s world-first seven-speed manual transmission, but when combined with what must be the slickest-shifting six-speed manual on the planet the Boxster S delivers one of the most rewarding open-top driving experiences we’ve ever sampled.

Light years away from the lethargic 2.5-litre original that introduced the Boxster nameplate Down Under in January 1997, the standard 2012 Boxster is more powerful, quicker and more accomplished than ever before while also setting a new efficiency benchmark, which is quite a feat.

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