Chris Harris drives the Porsche 718 Boxster

Out with the old, in with the new… TG’s fresh face meets the latest Boxster

Memories bear heavily on the Porsche family. The most successful sports car company in the world is famously reserved and will only occasionally indulge in self-congratulation. But it is as much shaped by its past failures, as it is by spiralling sales figures and endless Le Mans wins.

Words: Chris Harris

This feature was originally published in Issue 282 of Top Gear magazine.

That is why Porsche reveres the 993 series 911 in a different way from you and I. We see the perfect, compact air-cooled 911; it sees the car that began the current, and still burgeoning, profitable cycle of growth. It views the Boxster the same way. Without the 1996 Boxster and the 996, there would have been no cash surplus to build the Cayenne, and without the vast revenues gleaned from the controversial Pork-truck, you wouldn’t have had any GT3s for the past 10 years. But the Boxster is a linchpin, and Porsche doesn’t mess with the family furniture.

Except, it seems, when the EU dictates it must. Last year Porsche turbocharged the base 911 in the name of reduced emissions, and this year the Boxster is clinched by the same EU-mandated gastric band. The only problem being the mid-engined machine cannot accommodate three pairs of opposed cylinders, and must make do with just two. That’s right, the Boxster now has four cylinders – or, as most people would put it, a cheap engine.

It also has a new name, the 718 Boxster, which is an obscure reference to the 1957 718 RSK that would become one of Porsche’s most successful four-cylinder racers. Quite what that has to do with a £62,000 (as tested) roadster is anyone’s guess. Still, if Porsche wants to sully its hard-earned heritage in this way, who are we to stop it?

I’m not going to write the 718 bit again because it irritates me, and you know I’m talking about a Boxster anyway.

The car I drove was a Boxster S. I’m not going to write the 718 bit again because it irritates me, and you know I’m talking about a Boxster anyway. As ever, there are many different wheel, suspension and other options available, but our car seemed to offer a sensible balance: 19in wheels, the middle suspension setting with an optional limited-slip differential and manual gearbox.

The redesign is clean and cohesive. There’s more tension and geometry than before, and a fancy rump which panders to Porsche’s current badging fetish. It’s undeniably pretty, though beyond that you’ll have to make your own mind whether you like it or not. I think I prefer the previous car – a theme I’m afraid might continue into other aspects of the seven… one, er, Boxster.

I can’t remember being more emotionally confused in advance of twisting a key before: intrigued, fascinated and, well, worried. The starter churns smartly and then, ker-thrum, a little blurt from the sports exhaust and the voice in my head says: “It’s a Beetle”.

Ten seconds later, it says, “Nope, it’s a Subaru” and promptly changes its mind to: “Actually, it’s a 1969 Porsche 912.” Confusion reigns because I’m trying to categorise the noise, and because I cannot square the noise with the appearance of the vehicle. It looks like a Boxster, so it should make Boxster noises, you know, yelpy flat-sixy-sexy, all expensive and Porsche sounding. This parps like a Beetle, or a Scooby, or a 912. Know what? I’m going to leave the noise alone for now; it is, after all, just noise.

The rattly thing out back is a 2497cc, turbocharged flat-four pushing 350bhp and 309lb ft. It weighs around 60kg more than the old engine and really likes 98 octane fuel.

The driving position is unchanged, the clock faces are claimed to be new, but these eyes can’t spot any difference and there is – hooray! – a stick between the seats and three pedals in the footwell. The moment you apply some throttle, the idle warble of the opposed cylinders smooths to a disappointingly accurate impression of an in-line four and the car scoots away. The problem being, your ears are so disappointed that you forget to acknowledge that the relationship between the throttle and clutch is superb for a turbocharged motor – it’s positive and there’s no real sense of delay once you’re above 2,000rpm, and that becomes a positive when the boost arrives immediately and the car scoots off like no Boxster I’ve driven before now.

Let’s be blunt, the change from six to four has turned this car from dainty pugilist to angry slugger – Porsche claims 9.7secs for the 0–100mph sprint, 0.5sec less in the self-shifting PDK version. It’s not long since GT3s were kicking out such times. The 4.4secs zero-to-60 is testament to the new-found urge, as is the fact that what used to feel like overlong intermediate gearing now seems entirely natural – though why you need to make second exceed the motorway legal limit by 7mph is anyone’s guess. Crazy people, those Germans.

Let’s be blunt, the change from six to four has turned this car from dainty pugilist to angry slugger

It’s not a sexy motor, this. Every adjective you conjure to describe it is unemotional and industrial. It’s a developer of force that elicits respect for the ferocity with which it clips the vehicle down the road, but not the manner in which it does so. There is also a huge difference between its character with the roof up and down. With the cabin covered, it drones at a cruise like a poorly minicab – it really is that unpleasant, but throttle openings bring some relief.

Uncovered, the drone disappears and, with the engine in Sport and the optional sports exhaust engaged, there are times when you find yourself thinking “This isn’t too bad”, and it crackles away on the overrun, but anyone with knowledge of the old car will find themselves tempering any faint praise with the knowledge that in evolutionary terms, changing from being one of the best-sounding cars on sale to one that occasionally sounds OK isn’t great news.

This is now a much, much faster car, though. It pulls all the way from zip to over 7,000rpm, the torque curve is flatter than an Antiguan test wicket and, for something so heavily turbocharged, throttle response really is special. But just not as special as it was in the old six-cylinder car. There is no great turbo wheeshing and whooshing, which is odd because these must be some of the hardest-working turbochargers in the car world. When you back off the accelerator pedal, the actual throttles stay open and the ignition is cut – doing this while keeping the exhaust bypass valve shut keeps pressure in the turbocharger and therefore reduces response time. If you like your rallying, this car isn’t unlike a Subaru WRC with anti-lag. Come to think of it, that popping on a trailing throttle does have a hint of McRae about it.

The gearshift is a work of genius, not too try-hard sporty and irritatingly notchy, just smooth and fluent. The seating position is perfect, the seat itself worked for my stumpy frame and the chassis, blimey, it really is something special. Spring rates are up 10 per cent, the roll bars are thicker and much of the GT4’s rear frame has been copied, but this balance of compliance and roll-resistance is hard to criticise. The test car used the middle of the three suspension options – adaptive dampers with two settings. I only drove the car in the softer setting because it felt stiff enough for UK road use. When will carmakers realise we don’t need our teeth chipped every time we travel fast?

The electric steering rack which caused such controversy in the last Boxster has been revised and is now 10 per cent quicker. Normally I wouldn’t like such a change, but the extra support afforded by the new spring rates makes the change feel less aggressive than it sounds on paper. And the optional torque-vectoring limited-slip diff is a must for anyone who intends to enjoy driving their new Boxster S. Such is the torque available that, even on a dry surface, without the diff the car will spin up an inside rear wheel in second gear. When it’s wet, make that third.

And this is why if you are considering buying one of these missiles, you need to spend some time in it first. If the change to four cylinders has a somewhat stultifying effect on the occupant’s ears, it actually brings the chassis to life. Switch all the systems off and the Boxster wants to slither about all over the place. The clever bit is you can still enjoy all that mid-engined balance and drive the car neatly, but there’s a whole new world of yobbery at your disposal, should you choose it. I rather like this newly discovered genome of poor behaviour, but just as I still can’t square the new noise with the Boxster shape, so I find the concept of one fulfilling the same role as a drifty M3 a little confusing too. Boxsters are dainty and accurate. They cut with guile and panache. It’s like discovering your spinster aunt is a meth addict.

The steel brakes are more than good enough for any kind of road driving – the pedal feel is especially good. The Sport and Sport Plus functions that used to be buttons in the console are now operated by a rotary control on the steering wheel, to make you feel like a 918 driver. The new infotainment package brings a bigger screen and all manner of connectivity, including Apple CarPlay, and for some reason there’s a real-time steering-angle monitor. Nope, no idea either.

Porsche claims some big advances in efficiency with this new engine, up to 13 per cent better fuel economy and reduced CO2 emissions. Driven moderately, I can believe the 26.4 urban and 34.9mpg combined figures, but a word of caution: like any turbocharged engine, if you give it the beans the whole time, those figures tumble and you’ll empty the 64-litre tank at something well under 20mpg. Curiously, the non-S car only has a 54-litre tank, Porsche wants £81 for the larger one that’s standard on the more expensive version. Charity does not begin in Stuttgart.

And so what we have here is a car that has lost a good deal of its emotional appeal. It is faster and, most of the time, more efficient. It has improved in ways that would be lauded in a family saloon car, but which are less worthy of celebration in a machine which is supposed to work more subjective magic. Despite the extra speed, I’d prefer a nearly new six-cylinder car from last year, but here’s the bit that will really stick in the craw of the opposition: even though Porsche has made the new Boxster less desirable than the old Boxster, it is still by far the best car of its type.

What do you think?

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