Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2013 Porsche Boxster S, Seeking Porsche's Purest Sports Car

2013 Porsche Boxster S, 
Seeking Porsche's Purest Sports Car

In 1996 when Porsche only offered the 911 Carrera for sale, choosing its purest sports car was easy. But today, Porsche offers five different models and the answer is rather muddy. None of its high performance vehicles, from coupe to roadster and sedan to sport utility, are easily dismissed, as each is capable of shattering the 60 mph benchmark in under five seconds and topping out at over 170 mph.

On one hand, determining the quickest is easy (911 Turbo S). And it takes only a moment to calculate the most expensive (Panamera Turbo S) or the one with the greatest cargo capacity (Cayenne). But on the other hand, how does one determine the company's purest sports car – the least distilled embodiment of performance motoring and maneuverability?

To help answer that nagging question, we flew to Barber Motorsports Park to spend a full day behind the wheel of the company's all-new third-generation Porsche Boxster. (As you may recall, we had a first crack at the little roadster back in March in Europe, but we wanted to get our mitts on a North-American-spec car for local impressions).

Nearly 20 years ago at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show, Porsche introduced the world to its Boxster Concept. The small silver roadster, with a mid-mounted flat-six and a soft top, was a big departure from the automaker's current lineup (Porsche was only selling the 911, 928 and 968 at the time – and two of those would shortly disappear). With styling evoking memories of the classic 550 Spyder and promises of agile handling and a lower cost of entry, the public quickly embraced the lightweight two-seater.
2013 Porsche Boxster S side view
2013 Porsche Boxster S rear view2013 Porsche Boxster S front view
The first-generation Boxster (Project 986) was manufactured from model years 1997 to 2004. The second-generation model (Project 987) was not all-new, but a significantly updated version of the original platform that ran from 2005 to 2008. The Boxster was upgraded and modernized again in 2009. Add up all the variants, including the more recent lightweight Spyder, and more than 240,000 Boxsters have rolled off the assembly line in the past 15 years.

Every panel on the new Boxster has been resculpted, yet the new skin is instantly recognizable as another Boxster.

Hot on the heels of the all-new 2012 Porsche 911, the company has introduced the 2013 Boxster, or Project 981. The all-new and completely redesigned third-generation model is so significantly different from its predecessors that it makes the previous generation upgrades (from the 986 to the 987) appear embarrassingly trifling.

Aesthetically speaking, every single panel on the Boxster has been resculpted, yet the new skin is instantly recognizable for what it is. The new look is unquestionably much more masculine in execution, borrowing many of its aggressive character lines from the 2004-2006 Porsche Carrera GT supercar. Spotters will immediately note the new shape of the headlights, the door-mounted mirrors, large side scoops and integrated rear lip spoiler. Signature Boxster traits, such as the electrically operated pop-up rear spoiler and central exhaust outlets remain as they have for more than a decade.
2013 Porsche Boxster S headlight2013 Porsche Boxster S wheel detail
2013 Porsche Boxster S rear spoiler2013 Porsche Boxster S taillightPhysically speaking, the Boxster's wheelbase has increased by 2.36 inches and its track is wider (the front track is up by 1.57 inches while the rear is up by .71 inches). The windshield is flatter, with its base moved further forward. The third-generation Boxster also sits .51 inches lower than its predecessor. But most importantly, and despite being torsionally stiffer and meeting more stringent safety requirements, the new model is lighter by at least 55 pounds – making it the lightest sports car in its class. The Boxster S with PDK dual-clutch gearbox, the heaviest model in the lineup, weighs a mere 2,976 pounds. The lightest is the Boxster 6MT, tipping the scales at just 2,888 pounds.

The Boxster S with PDK, the heaviest in the lineup, weighs a mere 2,976 pounds.

As expected, the cabin has also been updated to reflect Porsche's modern ergonomic theme (launched with the Panamera in 2009). The three-ring cluster remains, but there is a new multi-function digital display on the right. Gone is the old and aged center stack, replaced with a taller console that houses a larger multi-function screen and a sea of buttons, but unlike the heavily optioned Panamera, many are just blank plugs. The new look is fresh, interesting and upscale, yet it remains all Porsche – the ignition key is to the left of the steering wheel and a large analog tachometer prominently takes center stage.

It seems as if most luxury convertible manufacturers are moving toward electrically operated hardtops, except Porsche. The folding soft top remains, but it has been completely redesigned with an even larger heated glass window and improved acoustic absorption. The lightweight frame is constructed with magnesium and aluminum, as to not upset the center of gravity, and the whole mechanism automatically opens or closes (the locking mechanism is now automatic too) in less than nine seconds at speeds of up to 31 mph. For the record, that is very quick.

Mid-mounted in the chassis and hidden cleanly out of view is one of Porsche's classic flat-six 'Boxer' engines. Last year's base engine displaced 2.9 liters, but the new model arrives with a direct-injected, 2.7-liter flat-six developing 265 horsepower at 6,700 rpm and 207 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. The Boxster S is fitted with a direct-injected, 3.4-liter flat-six rated at 315 horsepower at 6,700 rpm and 266 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. A traditional six-speed manual gearbox is standard, with Porsche's seven-speed Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (dual clutch transmission) PDK optional. (The seven-speed manual transmission, standard on the new 911 Carrera, is not offered on the new Boxster.) As has always been the case, all Boxster models are exclusively rear-wheel drive.

The seven-speed manual transmission, standard on the new 911 Carrera, is not offered on the new Boxster.

We could go on for another two thousand words describing the new Boxster's subtle engineering tweaks, enhancements and various equipment offerings. But the real question on everyone's mind is... how does it drive?

Barber Motorsports Park, in Birmingham, Alabama, is home to arguably the best motorcycle collection in the world (check out the Barber Motorsports Vintage Museum) and the Porsche Sport Driving School (where we attended the Porsche GT3 Cup Experience last year). As we are very familiar with its impeccably manicured 2.38-mile purpose-built road course (16 turns and over 80 feet of elevation changes), we couldn't wait to get on the track.

Customers will be offered the third-generation Boxster in four different models when it arrives in showrooms in early July: Boxster 6MT, Boxster PDK, Boxster S 6MT and Boxster S PDK. (The sublime Boxster Spyder was a second-generation model that is no longer in production.) Base price for the standard Boxster is $49,500 while the Boxster S starts at $60,900 (add $950 for destination fees).

Base price for the standard Boxster is $49,500 while the Boxster S starts at $60,900.

To simplify things, Porsche only brought Boxster S models to Barber (several with some retro-cool wrapped vinyl livery, like the Gulf car in our lead image). Each was fitted with a variety of optional equipment, the most important being the PDK gearbox, 20-inch wheels, Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) and the Sport Chrono Package. The average sticker price, optioned in this manner, was just over $80,000.

We slipped behind the wheel of a Boxster S in the hot pits with an open-face helmet strapped on our head. Despite the soft top being in the closed position (we were running the air conditioning on this warm and humid day) there were no clearance issues, even with our six-foot, two-inch frame. And, thanks to nearly an inch of increased legroom, we were sitting very comfortably.
2013 Porsche Boxster S on track
Our left hand twisted the key and fired up the engine, and we felt it rumble in our backside. Our right hand moved the transmission lever into Drive, moved rearward several inches, and then hit the Sport Plus button (damping is firmer, steering is quickened and the thresholds for stability control are raised). We left everything else alone.

By our third lap we were starting to have fun... then it started to rain.
2013 Porsche Boxster S on track
The first lap was at a moderate pace, an orientation lap for lack of a better description, but we picked up the pace quickly. By our third lap we were starting to have fun... then it started to rain. Not drizzle, not sprinkle and not shower – but pour – huge raindrops that splashed an inch off the ground when they impacted the pavement. It took but 30 seconds to soak the pavement, and after one minute, there was standing water in the corners. The water was coming down in buckets, but we stayed out. Thankfully, the soft top Boxster, like most modern convertibles, is as rainproof as a fixed-roof coupe.

Even though the wipers could barely keep up with the quantity of water falling from the sky, we continued to run laps in the wet and probe the limits of adhesion and overall balance. The wide sticky tires (Pirelli P Zero 235/35ZR20 up front and 265/35ZR20 in the rear) did a commendable job in the muck, but we were still sliding quite a bit and getting frustrated in the process. We pitted to wait for the storm cell to pass.

The clock was ticking, so instead of just sitting around, we left the main track and headed for the parking paddock where Porsche had set up an autocross for us. For the next half hour, we tossed the agile little Boxster rapidly through the orange pylons on the drenched course – and never hit a single cone. Like the new 911 Carrera, the Boxster arrives with electromechanical power steering. And, like the new 911 Carrera, the precise steering is a non-issue.

The Boxster S with PDK will sprint to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 173 mph.

After lunch, the track had dried and we were back in business. We took the Boxster out for countless more laps, each time probing its grip, handling and braking characteristics.

Horsepower is up just a bit from last year's model, but weight is also down, meaning acceleration has improved. According to Porsche, the Boxster S with PDK (and Sport Chrono Package) will sprint to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 173 mph. It feels slightly quicker and it pulls well, but our focus was on its improved handling dynamics.

Those very familiar with the most recent Boxster (986/987 platform) will immediately note the additional stability that the stretched wheelbase provides on the corners. Previous-generation models were twitchy at the limit, especially when cornering at 9/10ths, and they would rotate quickly around their axis (seemingly right at the base of the driver's derrière). The new car is much more stable, rotating more slowly and in a much more predictable manner. Turn-in is still every bit as quick and crisp (weight distribution is 46-percent front/54-percent rear), but there is less need to dial in some corrective steer on the exit.

Porsche's Torque Vectoring (PTV) system is new to the Boxster and the optional technology allows the little two-seater to pull some wicked moves. Technically speaking, PTV varies the distribution of torque to the rear wheels and selectively applies individual brake calipers to rotate the vehicle cleanly around a corner. In practice, PTV can be felt as slight pulses in the vehicle's cornering attitude as the system makes its minor adjustments. As long as the driver holds the wheel with confidence and applies constant gentle power throughout the corner, PTV will work its miracles – it's so good that it's almost like cheating.

PTV can be felt as slight pulses in the vehicle's cornering attitude as the system makes its minor adjustments.

Extending the wheelbase also delivers advantages under braking, as Project 981 feels significantly more stable than its predecessor. This was most evident during a quick braking transition at high speeds (when the sudden act of deceleration transfers weight forward and makes nearly all vehicles momentarily unstable). Last year's Boxster would give a little twitch as its rear end adjusted itself, but the new model is much more tolerant of the maneuver.

Now is probably a good time to bring up PDK. The automated dual-clutch gearbox is one of the best in the industry, and Porsche has refined it even further for the new Boxster. Shift times are quicker and it is more responsive on both up and downshifts. It can be as gentle as a traditional torque converter automatic or as brutal as a sequential racing gearbox. In its firmest mode, our head slammed rearward when it grabbed the next higher gear. Under heavy braking, it dropped gears rapidly, like a Tommy gun, with the exhaust booming in response. The PDK gearbox is nothing to be ashamed about, but we still cannot fathom why Porsche still fits the lousy Tiptronic-era gearchange ears on the steering wheel (proper paddleshifters remain an option, but they should be standard).

All of these things, from the car's lower weight to subtle tweaks in the electronics, contribute to driver confidence. Improved driver confidence translates to quicker lap times. According to Porsche, the third-generation Boxster S will lap the Nürburgring-Nordschleife in 7:58 minutes – a full 12 seconds quicker than its comparably equipped predecessor.

The experts admitted that the heavier but more powerful 911 Carrera S picks up a few seconds per lap when raced against the third-generation Boxster S.

That time is quick, but won't strike fear in the hearts of current 911 owners, as their rear-engine sportscars are still quicker (according to the automaker, the 911 Carrera S, with 400 horsepower, laps the same circuit at Nürburgring in 7:40 minutes). Even on a much shorter and tighter course, such as the Barber Motorsports circuit, the experts admitted that the larger and heavier, but more powerful, 911 Carrera S picks up a few seconds per lap when raced against the third-generation Boxster S.

Yet in our experience, lap times, horsepower ratings and sticker prices don't define the purest sports car in an automaker's lineup. True enthusiasts are captivated by vehicles that communicate their actions, obey every command with precision, make them feel completely at ease and put a smile on their face. This is precisely where a small and lightweight roadster excels.

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