Tim Ansell has never been a fan of the Porsche Boxster. Will a couple of days behind the wheel of a 981 Boxster change his opinion?
Once upon a time, when I was a much younger man, I met a beautiful woman named Katie and was immediately besotted. Desperate to win her affection, I did what any intelligent, deeply sensitive young man would do to impress the girl of his dreams; I went out the next day and bought an MG Midget. And as long as young — and let's face it, not so young — men continue to believe that owning a convertible sportscar will make them irresistibly attractive to the fairer sex, the likes of Porsche will doubtless continue to build them.
Launched in 1996, Porsche's Boxster has always shared many components with its 911 range, because that enabled the Stuttgart manufacturer to keep costs down. But insisting that specific 911 panels such as the doors be used on the Boxster effectively meant the car's designers had one hand tied behind their backs, and unfortunately it was the one they used for sketching.
No one could deny that the early Boxsters had, much like the aforementioned Katie, some very good-looking curves, but for more than a decade the car's evolving design has divided opinion within a large group of potential customers known collectively as ‘men'. Notoriously difficult to please and often spectacularly irrational, many dismissed the Boxster as being a bit ‘lightweight' and ‘not a proper Porsche'. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to be honest and say that I too was not a fan.
But with the 2012 model, Porsche's design team was given free rein to create a car with a style no longer dictated by assorted 911 panels. The result is a vehicle that is literally a little more edgy, with accentuated crease lines on the front and rear wings, larger wheels (18in rims as standard and 19in or 20in available as options) and a marginally lower roofline, all used to define a subtly more muscular, hunkered-down appearance. It's clearly still a Boxster, but one which Porsche hopes will now appeal to as many saloon drivers as salon owners.
The entry level Boxster comes equipped as standard with a six-cylinder 2.7-litre boxer engine putting out 265 horsepower, and although torque is down 10Nm from the earlier cars to 280, that reduction is marginally offset by the 2012 model's 25kg weight loss, and is available over a larger range — 4,500 to 6,500rpm. If that means wringing the heck out of it to keep it on song, well the South of France is the perfect place to sing.
Moving on up to the Boxster S, driver adrenaline levels move from ‘woah' to ‘phwoar'. The S version's 3.4-litre engine generates a healthier 315bhp, with torque at 360Nm though over a much lower range than the base model — 4,800 to 5,500rpm. However a full 35kg has been shaved off the weight, making it a keen 2.5 per cent lighter than the 2011 car. And while that may not sound like a lot, the Boxster S was already a lightweight vehicle, and I mean that in the nicest possible way! Top speed of the S model is 279kph with the manual box, 277kph for the PDK.
Naturally I asked to drive the S variant, the GPS pre-loaded with a tortuously twisting route designed to teach this cynic a lesson. And while aficionados wax lyrical about the company's seven-speed PDK double-clutch gearbox, I was delighted to find mine had the standard six-speed manual 'box installed. The gear stick falls to hand perfectly, and moves between gears with a throw of just a few inches, each cog falling into place with a satisfying slickness. After three hours spent careering through roller coaster canyon roads, I've decided that I'd like the same gearbox fitted to every car I own. Do yourself a favour — order the manual.
My only issue with driving the manual car is the slight offset to the right of the clutch pedal, no doubt for sporting reasons, but whilst initially I faced no problems, after a couple of hours driving I fluffed one or two changes as my heel caught the edge of the foot rest. It probably just takes a little getting used to — I spend the majority of my time driving automatics these days and think my clutch leg is just lethargic.
With the roof closed and seat lowered, my head was just a couple of centimetres below the frame work — drivers over 1.88m tall might need to keep the roof down permanently. That's easy enough though; at speeds of up to 50kph, press and hold a button for nine seconds and Stuttgart's engineers do the rest, the soft-top folding down behind the seats where the top element of the roof itself becomes the cover for the rest of the material. Very neat.
Now I don't want you to think for a minute that driving soft-top Porsches on the Cote D'Azur is easy. It's not. I was forced to spend many, many hours at high-speed behind the wheel of a mid-engined sportscar on twisting roads alongside the Mediterranean just to tell you that the Boxster's new torque vectoring system, which brakes the inside rear wheel, allows you to take bends just a fraction faster than your abilities previously allowed. This coupled with a combination of longer wheelbase (+60mm) and greater track width (+40mm and 18mm front and rear respectively) and Stability Management, means that although the Boxster remains an entry level Porsche, in true German fashion, the emphasis is on the last of those three words, not the first two.
I enjoyed many gastronomic delights during my brief stay in France but the taste of one particular dish will remain on my lips for quite a while; that of humble pie. The fact is that I'd never previously driven a Boxster; frankly I'd never wanted to, but my opinion has been completely changed after driving the 981 variant. I like the way it looks, I enjoyed the way it crackles and burbles on the over-run, but most of all, I like the way it moves. That test route took me through thousands of high-speed curves, medium-speed bends and a handful of ‘you can't be serious' blind corners. Once off the highways the car was rarely travelling in a straight line for more than two seconds, and with the suspension set to Sport mode, it harried and scurried from one turn to the next, constantly encouraged by yours truly as I revelled in the car's agility. My car was fitted with the optional ceramic composite brakes and they were enjoying a thorough workout. Sometimes ceramic brakes can leave a driver with a sensation of being rather disconnected from the braking process, but so good are Porsche's that it was only when I later read the spec sheet for my car that I even realised they were fitted.
Should you also opt for the Sport Chrono Package, you'll be benefiting from magnetorheological transmission mounts, the idea being that as you fling the car from bend to bend, the mounts remain rigid to minimise any inertia in the drivetrain, while on the straights they soften a little to damp out any transmission vibrations. Needless to say, they work well.
Those three hours driving on the first day flew by and I realised I'd completely failed to make mental notes of various aspects of the vehicle, but driving such a rewarding sportscar with the roof down, on switchback roads sometimes little more than the width of the car, was thoroughly distracting. And for me that summarised the drive — I just wanted to jump back in and do it all over again.
The following day I drove another S variant, this time fitted with the optional PDK box and paddle shifts. And while they are clinically efficient and will no doubt be specified by hundreds of owners in the Middle East, personally I'd be spending my money on the 20in rims and parking sensor options. Even at 1.84m tall I found it impossible to see enough of the boot or bonnet to manoeuvre the car easily, but the parking sensor display, shown on the (optional) 18cm wide touchscreen is a delight to use, as is the (optional) GPS. Want controls on the steering wheel for the sound system? It's an option. Voice activated controls? It's an option. All electric sports seats? Well you can have those too. But they're an option as well.
Still, look on the bright side; what you do get as standard for your Dh196,900 Boxster or Dh217,100 Boxster S is a whole lot of driver's car, endless fun, tousled hair and a free sun tan. Oh and the manual gearbox.
And in case you were wondering, Katie spurned my advances. I can only assume she didn't like the MG. Perhaps she was more of a Porsche girl.