New Boxster S is one fantastic sports car.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $41,430
As Tested $55,310
We fell in love when we first drove Porsche's Boxster a few years ago. We called it a sweetheart. Well, now we've found another lover: the Boxster S.
It isn't just the powerful new engine, though it sounds great and leaves the standard Boxster in the dust. And it isn't just the S model's bright red brake calipers, easily seen through the elegant spokes of its specially designed wheels. We love the Boxster S because it does everything better than the Boxster while maintaining what made the original model wonderful. Like the original, the Boxster S presents a classic sports car visage that reminds us of post-war Porsche Speedsters. Yet it rides better, sounds better, handles better and is substantially faster than the Boxster. We're talking night and day here. More important, it is arguably the most enjoyable sports car in this category.
Fortunately, there's good news for those who cannot justify the extra $8,500 for the Boxster S. Porsche has revised the interior of the standard Boxster for 2000 - a source of disappointment in the 1998-99 Boxsters. Gone are the cheap plastic bits, replaced by high-quality trim. A new headliner presents a more attractive appearance and reduces noise when the top is up. We think everyone should have a Boxster in the driveway.
For 2000, Porsche has expanded the line to two models: the $41,430 Boxster and the $49,930 Boxster S. All Boxsters are roadsters, convertibles.
The S model comes with Porsche's 3.2-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine, a bored out version of the Boxster's 2.7-liter engine. While the Boxster offers 217 horsepower and 192 foot-pounds of torque, the S serves up 250 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds. The S also comes with a six-speed gearbox in place of the Boxster's 5-speed, plus a headliner for the convertible top.
Boxster looks clean, purposeful, and pure Porsche. From the front, the Boxster looks just like the 911, and in fact they share front-end sheet metal. But from the rear, it suggests a blend of a couple of ancestors from the 1950s, specifically Porsche's 356 Speedster and 550 Spyder.
Naturally, the proportions are different between Boxster and 911. The Boxster is a mid-engine car. Unlike the rear-engine 911, the Boxster engine is mounted ahead of the rear axle -- rather than over the rear axle or behind it. This mid-engine configuration yields excellent weight distribution. Just as important, it puts most of the car's mass between the front and rear axles, a big asset when making rapid maneuvers; and that's what cars like this are all about.
Riding a 95-inch wheelbase and measuring 171 inches overall, the Boxster is about 10 inches longer than the BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK. It's also a bit wider, with a wider rear track. Fortunately, the extra dimensions do not translate to a weight penalty. The basic Boxster scales in just over 2,800 pounds, which is a little lighter than its competitors; the S model weighs just 55 pounds more than the base.
Propelling this tidy package is an update on a traditional Porsche design: the horizontally opposed or boxer 6-cylinder engine. With cylinders opposed 180 degrees to one another, boxer engine designs offer packaging advantages, because they lie flat. This flat design helps engineers keep the car's center of gravity low. At a glance, the engine is classic Porsche, with roots that date to Ferdinand Porsche's early work in the 1930s. But there's a key contemporary difference: Boxster's flat-6 is liquid-cooled, eliminating the old 911 cooling fans and lending a distinctly new sound to the power delivery. The Boxster engine represents the state of Porsche art with twin overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and variable cam timing. Power on the base engine has been increased from 201 to 217 horsepower for model year 2000. And the new Boxster S model's 250 horsepower compares well with the BMW M Roadster's 240 horsepower.
Two transmissions are offered: the standard 5-speed manual gearbox and Porsche's 5-speed Tiptronic automatic. The Tiptronic offers its operator the choice of full automatic operation or fingertip push-button self-shifting, similar in concept to a Formula 1 racing car. It's the best compromise between stick and automatic on the market and works extremely well, but at $3,210 it's also the most expensive. The manual gearbox provides better performance and efficiency and seems more fitting for the Boxster. We prefer it.
Braking is superb, with oversize vented discs on all four wheels plus Porsche's latest antilock system. The traction control system, which includes an automatic brake proportioning system, is available as a separate option for $870.
The interior for both models has been substantially improved for 2000. The trim has been upgraded throughout. A luxurious new headliner has been added to Boxster S that enhances the appearance and cuts wind noise when the top is up.
Consistent with virtually every Porsche ever made, the Boxster is all business inside, with plenty of room for two, highly supportive leather-surfaced bucket seats, contemporary amenities and excellent control placement. However, the instruments represent something of a departure from Porsche tradition. Three round pods are fused together, with the speedometer on the left, coolant temperature and fuel on the right and a big tachometer dominating the center. The speedometer and tachometer are analog, but there are small digital readouts at the bottom of each pod for the odometer and clock. A digital speedometer at the bottom of the big tachometer provides some useful redundancy. Overall, it's an attractive and effective blend of classic with contemporary.
A pair of steel tube hoops, mounted behind the seats and extending above the seatbacks, provides extra protection for drivers unlucky enough to find themselves upside down. Dual airbags, three-point seatbelts and side-impact protection complete the list of passive safety features.
The Boxster's standard convertible top is power-operated. When the top is down, you can stretch a wind deflector between the upper seatbacks to minimize interior buffeting. It's a $365 option we recommend. Porsche also offers a $2,295 removable hardtop option that includes a rear window defogger; it's useful for harsh winter weather and driving through the mean streets.
Although the seats in the basic car have leather inserts, you can spread more cowhide around the interior with the leather interior package ($1,990) or spring for special leather ($2,370). Other optional interior amenities: a trip computer ($449), Hi-Fi Sound System with six speakers and four-channel amplifier ($600), headlight washers ($224), cruise control ($550). All of the foregoing makes it clear to us that option shopping is something to approach carefully with this new Porsche.
Luggage space is apportioned between fore and aft compartments, and is surprisingly good for a small two-seater. Getting at the engine, however, is another story. Although you can get to fluid reservoirs readily enough, access to the engine itself comes from below.
Our Boxster S splashed through near hurricane conditions, but felt safe and secure as we pushed slowly through dense fog along the ridgeline of Virginia's Skyline Drive. With visibility reduced to 50 feet, we plodded comfortably along at 30-35 mph. On the far side of the mountains, we picked our way through traffic and flew west toward Summit Point Raceway near Charles Town, West Virginia.
This exercise highlighted the Boxster's impressive grip in the wet. At first, I was tentative on West Virginia's narrow roads, braking, then accelerating gently out of the tight corners to avoid wheel spin and a possible spin. Gradually I grew confident of the excellent brakes and surprisingly good grip. Then I became aware of how well the traction control worked and discovered it's difficult to make a mistake in this car. You can apply the throttle aggressively in a slippery turn and the traction control will prevent a spin. (Of course, you can still push off the end of the turn, but common sense should prevent this.) Picking our way through traffic in the rain, we seemed to be in another class altogether. More than a machine, this car became an extension of my being. A few laps on a flooded racetrack confirmed that the Boxster is one sure-footed sports car.
As much as we liked the original Boxster, the S offers a significantly better driving experience in every area. First of all, it's got a lot more power, but it also revs much more freely. Where the Boxster feels strained, the S feels robust. The Boxster's belt whine at low rpm does not seem present in the Boxster S. Both engines sound wonderful at high rpm, generating a classic Porsche sound similar to that of the 911 and Porsche race cars. The Boxster S develops 85 percent of its peak torque at just 2000 rpm, providing outstanding throttle response. While Porsche claims the Boxster will dash from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, the Boxster S performs this same feat in just 5.7 seconds. Top speed is estimated to 155 mph in the Boxster.
But the real fun here is this car's precise response to driver commands. Mid-engine balance, an excellent chassis, and firm suspension tuning add up to a level of agility and stability that seems a cut above the Boxster's key competitors. There's not a hint of wrestling to guide this agile newcomer down to the apex of a fast turn. It seems to anticipate the driver's intentions without a hint of hesitation or uncertainty. The ride quality is firm, but that adds to its appeal.
There's no question the Boxsters have plenty of competition: Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3, Honda S2000, Chevrolet Corvette, Audi's upcoming TT roadster, but the Porsche is arguably the best of these in pure sports car terms.
The Porsche Boxster is an almost flawless sports car. It looks great and it sounds great. It provides a wonderful driving experience. And it has its own persona.
The price differential is large, but with its superior dynamic capabilities and general improved feel, the Boxster S is a big step up from the standard version. In short, the Porsche Boxster S is just a fantastic sports car by every measure.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.