2009 Porsche Boxster S

Faster than ever, but has it lost its charm?

2009 Porsche Boxster S

If the original Mazda Miata is what re-ignited love for sports cars, the Porsche Boxster certainly cemented their return as capable, practical, and fun vehicles to own. Back in 1997 at your local dealer, you had a choice of transmission, a few options, and not much else. And with striking mid-engined proportions and only 205 horsepower, the Boxster was clearly an entry-level Porsche aimed at enthusiasts who simply wanted to enjoy their time behind the wheel.

A little more than ten years later, however, and you’re able to get — for the first time — race-bred ceramic brakes that shorten stopping distances, a limited-slip differential that raises cornering speeds, a direct-injection engine that boosts horsepower and efficiency, and a dual-clutch (PDK) gearbox that shifts gears faster than humanly possible.

But despite being the technically better machine, is the latest Boxster too far removed from its roots?

FAST FACTS

Fastest Boxster ever: 310 horsepower, 0-60 in 4.9 seconds

Available with Porsche’s new PDK semi-automatic gearbox, replacing the Tiptronic option.

Equipped with PDK, the direct-injection Boxster S manages an astounding 25.5 mpg

RACE CAR PEDIGREE

To find out, I tapped someone who was at the original launch of the Boxster and is infinitely familiar with sports cars, Hurley Haywood. Haywood is a five-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, two-time winner of Sebring, has 18 IndyCar starts, and is an honoree of the Motorsports Hall of Fame America. Nearly all of his trophies are behind the wheel of mid-engined machines.

“Well, we did the original Boxster’s world launch driving from Phoenix, AZ to Sedona, AZ,” said Haywood. “My first passenger in the car was Jerry Seinfeld; he and I literally both had our mouths wide open at how cool and how high its capabilities were.”

Haywood admits that if he and Seinfeld could return to the event ten years ago, they’d likely laugh because the new car is so ahead of the old one in terms of capabilities. But what about the sports car experience?

“We loved how fun it was to drive. It sounded cool, it was such a new thing to the market that everyone wanted to see it, get close to it, and wave at you,” he said.

COMPETITION

The market for sports cars is very different now. The $46,600 base-model 2009 Boxster — now with a standard 6-speed manual transmission, larger front brake discs, and slightly more horsepower (up 10 to 255) — competes against a raft of cars, including the 250 horsepower Audi TT 3.2 Cabrio ($45,140), 300 horsepower Mercedes-Benz SLK350 ($51,825), and 255 horsepower BMW Z4 3.0si ($42,700). If you could have the Porsche’s suspension, looks from the Audi, the engine from the Mercedes, and the price of the BMW, this article would be over.

All have distinct personalities, and illustrate the problem of the modern convertible: the Boxster, and every competitor in its class, are well-built and perform well enough to use year-round. It’s a problem because while the Porsche is markedly better on the track than the other cars, most owners won’t see more than the apex at the Starbuck’s drive-through lane, nearly negating its track-honed development. What about if you move to the conspicuously better-performing $56,700 Boxster S?

Now with a 310 horsepower gasoline direct injection engine that reduces fuel consumption by 15 per cent, CO2 emissions by 16 per cent, and increases horsepower by 15 over the previous model, the S will smack 100 in five seconds and hit a 162 mph top speed. The cars I drove were equipped with the optional dual-clutch Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK) gearbox, with absolutely seamless gearshifts — certainly far better than a conventional automatic for performance driving, too. The transmission isn’t cheap at $3,420, and to have the ability to do launch control starts, you’re looking at an extra $960 for the Sport Chrono Plus package, which gives you a clock, lap timer, and a sharper Sport + mode.

ON TRACK AND INSIDE

On-track, the S is easy to drive quickly, thanks to advances in Porsche’s stability management system (brake pre-loading and brake assist are standard on all Boxsters). Another plus is the ability to mate any suspension setting with any PDK gearshift setting, whereas most performance cars force you into a sport mode that breaks your back and snaps your neck on every upshift.

Inside, it’s easy to see why Haywood remarked that a mid-engined car is inherently easier to develop than a rear-engined one. Apart from the handling benefits afforded by the layout, two nicely-sized trunks, front and rear, loads of interior room, and great visibility for a sports car because of its low front end are other attributes. These details make the car much easier to live with than other sports cars in its class.

Porsche also upgraded the audio and optional communications systems, offering hard-disk based navigation for shorter load times and — for the first time — a touchscreen display. Modules are available, too, in order to hook up everything from Bluetooth phones to iPods. The front of the unit even has a SIM card slot, allowing the car (with its integrated microphone, speakers, and antenna) to act as a mobile phone. Porsche Communications Management 3.0 with navigation costs $3,110; steep, but extremely well-integrated into the car.

The iPod adapter (actually a 30” cord) is $440 on models equipped with navigation — more than the cost of an iPhone and an iPod Nano combined.

THE VERDICT

As expected, the asking price for the new Boxster S is significant, starting north of $55,000. And you’ve got to spend closer to $60,000 for the best-equipped models (this price isn’t including the $8,150 ceramic brake or $950 limited-slip differential packages.) All that dough isn’t for nothing, however, as the outright performance of the Boxster S nearly reaches that of a 911. Its price, however, is comparable to the 414-horsepower BMW M3 Coupe at $57,500 — obviously not a convertible but if Porsche is right and the S model is for performance-minded drivers, the BMW will be on your shopping list.

While undoubtedly Porsche has made the best Boxster yet, it’s just too fast and capable to be considered truly as cool and accessible as it once was. It’s still one of the best driver’s cars at any price — but iconic sports cars are sometimes about more than grip, horsepower, and shift times.

POSITIVES – Much faster than the outgoing Boxster – On track, it’s quick and nimble – Nearly 911 performance for thousands less

NEGATIVES – Has lost some charm – PDK semi-automatic impressive, but still more fun to shift yourself – Both rivals (Mercedes-Benz SLK and BMW Z4) have moved to folding hard tops.

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