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Porsche Boxster Spyder
7/10

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Road Test

Porsche Boxster Spyder

Driven January 2010

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California, especially the northern bit, is purpose-built for driving romantics. Out here, you're the star in your own private movie.

It's happening right now, though we might have inadvertently cast ourselves in the wrong film. We're on the edge of the Sierra de Salinas mountain range, near Carmel Valley, where Clint Eastwood used to be mayor. There are vast tracts of farmland either side of us, with one long, bendy road spearing through the middle. We're in Porsche's new flyweight Boxster Spyder, which weighs 1,275kg. This isn't just 80kg lighter than the regular Boxster S, it makes it the lightest model in the current Porsche range. With 320bhp on tap, the power-to-weight ratio is what you might call promising.

There's a big, blue sky above us, and an orangey winter sun. We're following another Boxster Spyder, whose exhaust emits a fruity Porsche parp as its driver works his way through the 'box. Its back tyres kick up little curlicues of dust as it runs momentarily wide. Romantic, see?

Overtaking out here isn't the teeth-gnashing lottery that is, say, junction 19 of the M25 on a wet Wednesday evening. In fact, in 20 minutes we see just one other vehicle. Unfortunately, it's a vehicle that happens to be about 60ft long, and has mad Jack McMad behind the wheel with only his shotgun and whatever the US version of the Yorkie bar is for company.

Porsche no.1 blasts past. Porsche no.2 finds a 32-tonne artic in the middle of the road to be something of an impediment. We hang back, and lay off the fruity parping for a bit. He moves back over. But we've seen Duel enough times to wonder what's next. Do we really want to play chicken with a big rig? Maybe this guy's more of a 911 fan...

Porsche takes the business of saving weight pretty seriously. For example, the gudgeon pins on the 911 GT3's pistons are 180g lighter than standard, and making its connecting rods out of titanium saves another 150g. But that's the race-spec GT3, and though the Boxster Spyder shares some of its DNA, its role is completely different. This Porsche reboots a model line that goes right back to the company's roots, to cars like the '53 356 America Roadster but more significantly 1954's 550 Spyder (the one James Dean christened ‘little bastard', with good reason as it turned out). Rummage through the history books a bit further, and it's clear that the Spyder name is reserved for racing cars. Should we care that this latest one absolutely isn't?

It's also not an RS. Or a Clubsport. This is the third official and unlimited edition Boxster variant, the most powerful and, at £44,643, the most expensive. And in the time-honoured tradition, what that extra money buys you is... less. Specifically, less roof. In exchange for the standard car's perfectly useful electric folding roof, you now get a ‘thing', to fiddle into place above your head. They're geniuses, these people, they really are.

Mind you, ‘thing' or not, the Boxster Spyder looks fantastic, like a distilled Carrera GT. If not quite as rakish as some previous open-topped Porsche specials, the fairings on the newly extended rear deck are striking, and the body-side graphics are coolly retro (Google the 909 Bergspyder for proof). If it looks meaner and less effeminate than usual, that's because it's 20mm lower, with narrower, lighter side windows.

There's new engineering here too. While most of the Spyder is steel, the doors and single-piece rear deck are now made of aluminium, saving a total of 18kg. The new roof - which Porsche variously refers to as a sunsail or cap, which is why I will continue to call it ‘thing' - weighs less than 6kg, while the carbon-fibre frame that holds it in position is just 5kg.

There are new 10-spoke alloy wheels, which weigh less than 10kg each, qualifying them as the lightest 19in rims in Porsche's range. Inside, there are new lightweight carbon-fibre sports seats, which trim another 12kg from the overall kerbweight. There's a front bumper with LED daytime running lights, black plastic mesh inserts on the side air intakes, and a black double exhaust pipe. The standard Boxster Spyder does without a stereo system or air-conditioning, though tellingly every test car I looked at featured both items. There are fabric door-pulls, there's no cowl over the main instrument binnacle (how much weight must that have saved?), and the wind-deflector's plastic. The centre console and dash facings are finished in the exterior body colour, and the gear lever shift pattern and seatbelts are red. This isn't the place for modern life's rubbish, either; the cup-holders and door pockets have been deleted.

Modern life being what it is, most of these things are still available as options. As are things like Porsche's Sport Chrono pack, which buys you the dash-mounted stopwatch, and a button on the centre console that sharpens up throttle response (cost: £520). Go for the dual-shift PDK transmission, and you'll get a Sport Plus button, that speeds up shift times and oversees a launch-control system (that'll be a total of £1,920).

And that's just the tip of one expensive iceberg. The fact is, the whole options thing is a bit of a conundrum. What looks at first glance like a Boxster unplugged has the potential to be anything but. You can have regular leather seats and the full audio system as a no-cost option, or the full-on PCM ‘communication module' with the touchscreen. Order that and aircon, and a good chunk of the 80kg weight-saving must surely pile straight back on.

Ceramic brakes are another pricey option (£5,235), but more in keeping with the car's lightweight ethos because they reduce its unsprung mass. The sports exhaust, which gives the Boxster a rasping character boost, is another option that should surely be standard here, but isn't (£1,249). In other words, an idiot Spyder buyer could easily send this supposedly lo-cal Porsche to the all-you-can-eat buffet, or simply tick the wrong boxes, and ruin it. In fact, a fat idiot Spyder buyer would ruin it simply by getting into it.

Though ruin in this context is a relative term. Because even a poorly specified Boxster Spyder is still a very, very good thing. The Spyder gets Porsche's brilliant direct injection 3.4-litre flat-six power unit, with Variocam Plus variable valve timing. It's almost identical to the Boxster S but for a few important differences. With 320bhp to call on, it's 10bhp more powerful. Peak power is at 7,200rpm, 950rpm higher than in the regular car. It has more grunt too, and a slightly flatter torque curve.

This means it laps the 'Ring seven seconds faster than the standard car. It also means our time exposed to mental trucker man is pretty minimal, thank God. We head deeper into the valley, and by now we're having so much fun I honestly can't think of anything that would work better out here. As much power as any sane individual could ever need, magnificent drivetrain, easily exploitable chassis... It's quite a thing, this car - especially with the roofy ‘thing' stowed away and the breeze aerating us.

Porsche doesn't just do great engineering, it knows how to plug the driver right into the heart of the machine. So your relationship with all the major controls is perfect, the level of tactility not far adrift from what's available in a decent racing car. It's an intuitive, instinctive car to drive. (All the more intuitive and instinctive if you order the Alcantara trim for the wheel, gear lever and handbrake, and short-throw shift, both optional, obviously - £349 and £372.)

But although it has terrific responses, it also rides surprisingly sweetly, especially for a supposedly stripped car. Local government ineptitude might have saddled the UK with some of the most hopeless road surfaces on the planet, but America's infrastructure is piss-poor too. The Boxster Spyder has stiffer, fixed-rate dampers rather than an active system, shorter and harder springs, firmer anti-roll bars and a more aggressive, negative camber on the wheels. On these satisfyingly twisty but broken roads, it could be horribly compromised. But though firm, it's also wonderfully compliant and manages to find a Lotus-like suspension sweet spot which preserves body control without destroying your dentistry.

Traction or grip aren't issues either. The Spyder has a limited-slip diff, and the Boxster's chassis has always been unflappable. Even on tight, slippery second-gear corners, where overhanging trees have kept things interesting, it doesn't bite. Great brakes too, steel or ceramic. It's an exceptionally good car.

But not perfect. The roof is a bit silly, and we prove this by taking so long to fasten it on - it hooks over two exposed clasps on the rear deck - that Yorkie man actually manages to catch us up in the middle of a super-twisty forest section (what the hell is he doing up here?). Imaginations working overtime, we make good our escape just before he can blast us with his 12-bore.

Then there's the small matter of how much a judiciously specced Spyder would actually cost. Working off the regular Boxster's options price list, I manage to get my optimum Spyder up to a rather worrying £54,353 without trying too hard. Which takes it perilously close to used 997 GT3 money, and that's a whole different ball-game.

Make no mistake, this is a sublime car. It has an abundance of all the things I treasure most in a sports car - performance, agility, linearity, character. But there's a whiff of opportunism about it, and I suspect that Porsche's people - the princes of lightweight gudgeon pins - could strip a bit more than 80kg out of this thing, to make it even more focused.

As it is, the Spyder's marketing message has become entangled with the engineering one. It clearly fancies itself as a successor to Jimmy Dean's infamous 550 Spyder, but instead of being too hard to handle, it's possibly just a bit too easy. It's no bastard, little or otherwise.

Jason Barlow

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