“Why?” is the first and obvious question and, “We had no choice,” are the immediate, most resonant words from the man in charge of the Boxster’s new powertrain.
Matthias Hofstetter isn’t sugarcoating his downsized engine, and doesn’t even try to dismiss the suggestion that a naturally aspirated flat-six engine chasing 8,000rpm will always leave a sweeter aftertaste then a spell, however enthusiastic, behind the wheel of a turbocharged four-cylinder. The decision to relegate to history free-breathing flat-sixes mounted mid-ships in Porsche sportscars, is 100 per cent in favour of the taxman. Not that we would care in the GCC — go ahead, say his name three times in the mirror, you’re safe — but everyone’s along for the ride, with a four-pot for company.
It’s not all bad. We’re driving the new Porsche 718 Boxster outside Lisbon in Portugal, where roads meander along a coastline pounded into shape by the Atlantic, and when you turn, inland mountainsides envelop you in minutes. It’s a thrilling place to drive a sportscar and a bullish route mapped by Porsche with the roughest, narrowest surfaces of any international press drive I’ve attended.
You sit on the floor of a Boxster, always did, with the fixed buckets optionally fitted in this tester parallel to the upright steering wheel, large in diameter, and thinly rimmed, and perfect. It’s a Porsche, so the unobtrusive dash cuts straight across your vision and marks the point of all you need to know: there’s the road, and there perking up are the apexes of your wheelarches. The driver’s position in this car is so right that when you turn the wheel into a corner at speed, the sensation is virtually akin to the road moving beneath you like an infinite slipping carpet, rather than the car moving on it. That would almost suggest an imbalance and a Boxster is too planted for that. They didn’t mess with that part. Just the name, engine, and stuff…
Up here on some Portuguese rock, stone blocks mark the edge of one roadside and blithe tree roots creep like huge boas under the tarmac throwing up big bumps incognito under the branches’ shadows, and on the other side deep rain gutters erode the hard shoulder: threateningly, they seem just the right size, like negative moulds for some 265/40 R19 Pirellis.
All along, you still chase the redline in this new 718 Boxster, non S, and you still shift the slick six-speed manual for no reason, swapping third and fourth off throttle coasting downhill just to feel that sweet slot one more time. Sometimes it’s like your favourite uncle offering you to pick a hand — do you give in to impatience and grab a gear early, or do you choose the revs and hold on all the way to the cut-off? This is still a Boxster.
The newfound torque that comes with the turbocharging territory, it’s useful, but it doesn’t command the whole driving experience. It’s not dominant because the car responds so well to being taken to the limit, so you take it there, and even though the flat-four now has a broad spread of power peaking from less than 2,000rpm, it makes no difference when you never dip below five grand. OK, it does make a difference: in a 300bhp 718 Boxster as opposed to the old 265bhp flat-six car, here everything happens faster, but it’s still the same stuff happening. Faster.
And somehow, because the previous naturally aspirated 2.7-litre six-cylinder needed straining to reach its torque from 4,500rpm, this new 718 Boxster plays the curious trick of appearing lighter, since less throttle application is needed for the same effect as before. With its new intercooler and turbo hanging off the engine, the 718 is actually about five kilos heavier, but because of the extra power and bigger tyres, and some other changes we’ll get to, you wouldn’t tell.
Probably best to get on to that new 2.0-litre flat-four now: a development of the latest Carrera 3.0-litre twin-turbo six built on the same production line, the single-turbo four-cylinder was the only choice, then, and as far as that constraint goes it could’ve been worse. Hofstetter and his team discussed every possible layout and engine variation. But even if it was always going one way, the flat-four design was chosen on merit (and economics, when you push Porsche people into answering rather than stating), and any conveniently marketable links with four-cylinder Le Mans-winning 919 Spyders (although that’s a 90-degree V4) or legendary historic racecars from the Fifties and Sixties, are added benefits.
It’s time to milk that for what it’s worth — there’s a lot of talk about the 718 RSK here in Portugal, the car that won the Targa Florio twice, Le Mans, Sebring, two European hillclimb championships… They’re conditioning us — everyone seems wound up to recite “seven-eighteen”, to keep reminding us that the original 1992 Boxster concept was influenced by the Fifties’ four-cylinder 550 Spyder, that Porsche released in 2007 a commemorative RS60 Spyder celebrating a 1960 Sebring 12-hour victory with four-cylinders.
Of course, Porsche could dust off a successful part of history to justify nearly anything — I still feel there was no need to exploit the honourably discharged 718 name. Plenty of three-digit numbers out there… What was wrong with 719? It even goes well with the 919 racecar. Anyway, what the name really means is, Porsche wanted to bring the Boxster and Cayman under one banner to make it more of a single-family line-up of vehicles — there’s an EV on its way (718 project leader Jan Roth happily chats about an ongoing electric development programme in Weissach) and of course the usual array of cars from Andreas Preuninger’s GT department.
Three, two, one, and can we start moaning about the way a 718 EV sounds yet? It doesn’t seem premature; everyone was worrying about the 718 Boxster’s sound way before the flat-four rumours were even confirmed. Well, it sounds… different.
There are qualities of three cars in this chorus, and I’m not saying they’re the best qualities of each. A trace of air-cooled Beetle thrums at idle, and then there’s the Subaru Impreza flat-four soup-can-exhaust burble at speed, but actually, overall it really reminds me of a rorty Audi inline-five. It’s a noise, it fits the power characteristic of the engine, and it’s not bad at higher revs, but it’s nowhere near as good as a metallic din of a flat-six that tingles all under your skin. A naturally aspirated flat-six at high revs is sort of a prickly sound, like a good kind of pain.
I forgot about the sound of this one soon enough and focused on the driving. It’s apt then that the 718 requires so much of your attention elsewhere, you forget what you were upset about. I’ll make more than just this one excuse for this car… It’s just so much sportscar for the money. For any measure.
But you see, tradition almost obliges us to moan about changes at Porsche. Over the years we’ve grown together, grown stubborn with Zuffenhausen resolute in the laws of the flat-six. It’s worth remembering, however, that Porsche was founded on principles hardly set in stone. The company began as an engineering studio, a technical consultancy where anything went, and Ferdinand Porsche’s early portfolio is wild, spanning from the most fearsome racecars the world’s ever seen, racecars that burned V1 rocket fuel and shook the ground, all the way to luftgekühlt four-cylinder people’s cars.
The Professor made do with post-war rationing like everyone else, and turned his air-cooled people’s car into a people’s racecar. The little silver Porsches were rebels from the start, rattling their flat-four air-cooled din always against the stream of V8 and V12 and V6 engined competition. There should be nothing unusual about a four-cylinder Porsche unless you’re convinced size matters. In which case, hey, check out this 2.0-litre package, 35 extra horsepower and an additional 100Nm of torque, right here buddy.
If you stretch to the 718 Boxster S — and most people in our region will, Porsche reckons — you get a 2.5-litre 350bhp engine with 420Nm from 1,900rpm. With less power and a manual transmission, however, the 2.0-litre entry-level 718 Boxster tells a much better story of the new car and its changes.
While we obsess over the four-pot, Porsche quietly improved the rest of the car. The best 718 specification laps the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7:42, 16 seconds faster than before. The S is as quick around the ’Ring as the old Boxster Spyder, the one that used a full-fat Carrera 3.8-litre flat-six. It’s nearly right up there with the Cayman GT4, the car borne of Porsche’s competitions department.
Power helps, though we’ve already established all those bhps and newton metres don’t dominate the 718 experience. Porsche has redesigned the body so that only the soft-top, engine cover and windscreen carry over — oh mein Gott, it looks so darn good… Roth and his guys also retuned the chassis, increased the spring rates in the dampers and curbed body roll. To handle the power the tyres are half-an-inch wider on average, and the rear subframe has been strengthened for lateral rigidity. Special attention was paid to the shocks and the damper rebound stage, so the solid 718 seems to want to take aim at those tree roots just to stretch. The steering, still electric, is quickened and the ratio is a tenth shorter. I don’t remember crossing my arms once, but then again the right one almost permanently clung on to the gear lever.
Porsche uprated the brakes, too, which is the last area of a Boxster you thought needed upgrading, but they are so good now, optionally ceramic on my tester I should add, that they characterise the driving experience perhaps even more than the engine. Again, the 718 guides your attention elsewhere… First of all, the chassis is so incredibly balanced you can be an ape behind the wheel and get the goods out of the car, but on the brakes it’s arguably the best. You go deep, really deep into the corners and sort it out with the natural balance of the 718 once you get to somewhere around the general vicinity of an apex, it doesn’t really matter. It’s amazing how the car shimmies around you so little with all that subdued body roll, yet you feel so much it translates into big movements, big words coming from every corner of the car: “Hey, I’m over here… Hey, I just ran over a cats’ eye back here folks. Yo, this white line needs an extra coat of paint this side guys…” Every Pirelli is shouting over the other to tell you something, and every corner works for you.
Progress was so good it was only near the end of this test drive that I discovered the boost button, which pre-conditions the turbocharger, and bypasses something or other and retards another. Gives you a boost. Anyway, it’s all a load of nonsense. I don’t want a boost button in the sense that I don’t want a choice. It suggests insecurity. Just give it to me right the first time out. This car works brilliantly the minute you turn the key, with your left hand of course, Le Mans run-up style, and any buttons advocating some sort of stimulus are totally unnecessary.
Hofstetter is the first to admit that chasing power figures is a stupid pursuit, but then again, Porsche can’t very well come out with a new car, in the face of updated BMW Ms and Mercedes AMGs and what nots, and publicise a lower number. It’s just not on. Of course, Porsche could pursue lighter weight, which would negate any drama with the taxman or four-pots or anything, but then both Hofstetter and Roth say they’d have to make sacrifices in equipment levels to lower weight, and cut noise deadening materials, etc. And the sad truth is, for Roth and Hofstetter, the problem is not the enthusiastic guys moaning about sound and turbocharging. The problem is the non enthusiasts, the ones who dilute the Boxster, the 911, the whatever: they don’t want a Boxster that weighs less by sacrificing insulation material. They want more speakers in the car and leather on their air-vent slats. I know, right? Well, they can have the new 718 with up to 12 speakers.
Lowering weight would also ruin ride quality and Porsche wants the 718 to be a daily driver, the only choice — most Boxster customers only own one sportscar. If the 718 dipped much further below its current kerb weight of 1,335kg it would suffer from the Alfa 4C factor. That thing wobbles across a road surface like a skipping stone.
The 718 rides incredibly well. On a short 2,475mm wheelbase (much shorter than a Golf’s), a lightweight, compact, soft-top car like this, with absolutely no jolts and judders coming through the structure, that’s pretty excellent. It’s the kind of sportscar you aim at dips, and take pot shots at bumps. You throw everything at it, just to see how much it can take, and it can take it all, dirt drops and crumbling shoulders. The Boxster loves that drama. Smooth roads are almost an anticlimax.
No, this is the perfect balance, and that is the right word — the 718 is near as perfect as the taxman will allow. This six-speed non-S manual car, specifically, is phenomenal, and makes the PDK-equipped 350-horsepower 718 Boxster S seem like Invincible-mode in a video game; little satisfaction.
And I will stress one last time what a different car altogether the manual base Boxster is, provided of course you throw costly options at it like 10mm lower suspension at Dh4,960, and 25-grand carbon brakes… This car, that ’box, they scream, “Buy me, take me home!” Like a puppy at a foster pound. The 718 just wants to be loved. And it makes that so easy for you.