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TG drives the Porsche Boxster S

  1. As views go, the Black Forest in February is fairly undemanding. Endless ranks of trees shot through with a broken, grey scar of a road, the view compressed by a horizon-wide cataract of cloud. The palette is of nature’s workhouse shades - brown, grey, dark green, more brown, a small despair of black - but the tones are muted to the point of desaturation, a forest viewed by a colour-blind god. Honestly? It’s a bit heavy on the wantonly melancholic. Evergreen Goth.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Photos: Lee Brimble

    This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Well, it would be, if I weren’t barrelling through it in a brand-new Guards Red Porsche Boxster S with the roof down on a sub-zero day, equipped with a comprehensive grin and the 3.4-litre flat-six making a raw-throated, rasping howl as it savagely hunts down a 7,800rpm red line. An engine happy to be used to the fullest, revvy as hell. It’s like popping a red phosphorous flare in a dark room - the view just got brighter and more exciting, but four times as dangerous and likely to make your eyes water.

  3. It feels effortless. A bit slow, even. But that’s because this new Boxster is making short work of long problems, sucking up the thump of broken tarmac like a big coupe, PDK seven-speed gearbox shuttling between ratios like a robot conjuror. It doesn’t feel like a small roadster. Heading towards much twistier roads, I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not.

    The thing is, I’m in a roadster, right? So I should be trading off some jiggle and twitch for a later fun-stuff pay-off, be prepared for a light buzz of tinnitus after a good three-hour motorway doze. But that’s not happening. And I know this particular area of Der Schwarzwald: the roads are blitzed by freezing winters and baking summers so regularly that they have the smoothness and texture of the average teenager’s face. This car must be good. Is good.

  4. It’s a low-tech setting, but turns out to be a very state-of-the-art Porsche solution. This Boxster is all-new, and, although the proportions are familiar, the differences from the previous car are stark. The front end is sharper, as are the side intakes to feed the mid-mounted 3.4-litre flat-six, the rear dominated by a spoilerish ridgeline (the Carrera GT not a bad reference) that runs through the rear lights and across the body. It looks longer, lower, more technical. But just as neat. Which belies the multifarious changes.

  5. On a basic level, every parameter that makes a difference has been subtly tweaked. You sit further down in a car that now sits ever-so-slightly lower overall by a fat-finger width of 13mm. The wheelbase is 60mm longer, and the track widths - between the wheels widthways - are up by 40mm at the front, just under half as much at the back. The car itself is a smidge longer, but the front overhang has been shaved to compensate, so the car’s lines are more elongated than before, making it look striking without being fussy. Standard Boxsters run 18-inch rims, the S 19s, with 20s as an option on both. On a car this modestly proportioned, they look big.

  6. It comes in two flavours as before: straight Boxster with a 2.7, 265bhp and 207lb ft of torque, or as this S with a 3.4, 315bhp and 266lb ft. The basic format is the same: fabric roof, two-seat roadster with a mid-mounted flat-six and rear-wheel drive. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual. Which bodes well.

    The body is made from a fairly conservative mix of steel and ally, but the doors, bonnet and rear-luggage-compartment lid are wrought from unalloyed aluminium. Despite more kit, the Boxster S actually weighs some 30kg less than the old version, even with the heavy PDK ‘box. The roof itself is a layered, fabric sandwich and comes in three bits, with the frame of the front section made from magnesium for lightness. There’s no convertible ‘lid’ on the new Boxster, with the forward section of the roof forming the top deck when retracted. A simplification that dropped 12kg alone. It works beautifully. A deft pull of the switch at any speed up to 31mph, and you’ll drop the top in just nine seconds via a Z-shaped fold. A new fleece lining means that it’s snug and quiet up, and during some torrential rain performed pretty much as well as a straight tintop. It also looks good both ways - handy in the UK, where you’ll see it up more often than not.

  7. To drive, it’s relentlessly impressive. Do it properly and you’ll be rewarded with a car that claws through a chosen line even when the road is off-camber or viciously bumpy, with a soundtrack that sounds like a bass-heavy metallic chainsaw. Do it the slow-but-fun way and you turn the wheel, sense the understeer drag you inexorably away like a not-quite-beaten addiction, stamp the throttle and be rewarded with a pivot that neatly points the rear where you want it. It’s fast, fun, light, small-feeling and… natural. Which is a surprise when you realise that the car we’re driving appears to have had the entire Porsche options list thrown at it. Everything. As if someone in the Testwagen Department simply pointed to the brochure and said, “Yes, please.”

  8. They weren’t kidding; it’s a carnival of acronyms: PDK, PASM, PTV, PCCB, PSM, with extra leather, luxe and Sport Chrono. Adjustable suspension, active engine mounts (previously only seen on the 911), torque-vectoring, intelligent traction control and stability - if you check out the spec list, this thing should seem as natural as Gran Turismo VIII. But somehow it contrives to make nearly everything feel like old-fashioned roadster fun. At the sharp end, driving it between some very old, solid-looking trees - less Little Red Riding Hood, more Big Bad Wolf kind of forest - you can almost kid yourself that you’re the one with the expanded skill set. Almost. But not quite. You can sense the helpful poltergeists.

  9. The PDK is a sticking point. A £1,922 option that delivers a huge dollop of technological brilliance, it’s unthinkingly impressive as a friendly auto in town, but manages gently to corrode some of the driving involvement. From purity’s point of view, in normal mode, the PDK’s incessant CO2/mpg-philic need to be in the highest gear possible at every opportunity can be wearing, and at odds with the car’s intent as something fuss-free and simple.

    It also likes to coast - dropping the revs to a mere 600-odd when running downhill in a high gear. You can instigate coast by pulling for a higher gear than the car has chosen via the up paddle - an amusing game for a bit, even though it does feel like something you’d find in a next-generation Prius. Add stop/start, and you feel like there’s a car with a very simple premise (fun little roadster) doing a lot of very grown-up things.

  10. Of course, you can prevent the obsession with low rpm by putting the car in Sport Plus, but that just makes the Boxster a bit gung-ho. The exhaust opens up, it’ll change down as soon as it gets below 4,000rpm, rev hard and long, blip the downchange and generally feel six-beers aggressive. In fact, by far the best way to drive the car is merely to tap the gearstick into Manual (a quick lever flick to the left) and choose gears yourself. It’s smooth, fast and supremely easy. And still leaves you wondering whether that standard six-speed manual might be a much more intuitive car.

  11. It’s almost worse the further you delve, because you realise just how much stuff is going on underneath. This S brakes like a demon, a hair’s breadth from being overbraked, and you realise that it should: the optional brakes are 350mm PCCB carbon ceramics with huge six-piston calipers on the front discs, lifted straight from the new 911. It’s not you coaxing the perfect stop - just that the brakes are so bloody powerful, they could stop the Earth rotating and make Germany do a small tectonic wheelie.

  12. There’s standard PSM (Porsche Stability Management) as well as the aforementioned options like PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) and PTV (Porsche Torque Vectoring). PSM deals primarily with stopping you hitting things, PASM mitigates bumps and PTV maintains drive. Basically the PTV is a partner to the Boxster’s mechanical differential. Punt the car into a hard corner, and the PTV system brakes an appropriate rear wheel and directs excess torque to the opposite wheel via the locking diff, like a very sophisticated fiddle brake. Ever seen a tank turn around? Well, this is basically a brainy version of the same thing - pivoting the car around a point some way away from the steering front wheels. In slower corners - and if you’re looking for it - you can just feel it working. I’m just not sure the Boxster needs it. I found several greasy hairpins up in the mountains where the little Porsche (PSM and traction disabled) found a neat balance, and it didn’t seem like the PTV was interfering too much anyway. Mind you, that might just be because it was very subtle.

  13. Another 911 carry-over is the new electro-mechanical steering. Yes, it’s a grail of efficiency, cutting CO2 and increasing mpg by margins that far outweigh its complexity (it can save up to a litre of fuel every 600-ish miles, apparently), but, according to Porsche, ‘negative or unnecessary influences are filtered out’. Now the steering is precise, light, accurate and… a touch insensate. It is no doubt ‘better’ by measurable parameters, but the algorithm that decides upon ‘unnecessary influences’ is a bit keen, filtering out chunks of information I’d have preferred to process myself. Again, I’m not sure a car as small and sporty as the Boxster really benefits from having a few nerves severed, even if you do get some ‘unwanted’ or ‘unnecessary’ tingles now and again. There’s even Power Steering Plus on the options list, with Super-Extra Assistance below 31mph for city driving. Which says a lot.

  14. For a good eight hours, I’m slightly confused by the New Boxster. It’s a quandary. Now more than ever, it shouldn’t be thought of as the entry-level Porsche, just the smallest. It has all the abilities and equipment of the bigger cars, in a smaller package. It suffers very little in comparison to its brethren. However, in becoming a sophisticate, it’s overlaid some of its basic, innocent charm. But then I go for a last drive, just as the cloud is changing colour from grey to slightly darker grey, flip around a mountainside and find a view painted by Care Bears high on powdered extract of kitten. Condensed, chocolate-box panorama. The road falls away towards the sunset, a mix of hairpins and fourth-gear bursts, the trees green staves in the gold. And I stop thinking too hard and just drive. And you know what? The Boxster is still a terrific little roadster at the top of its game. The best, in fact. It just doesn’t need quite so much tinsel to make it really shine.

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