First Ride: 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster

No one is more concerned than this writer about the Porsche Boxster/Cayman duo’s switch from naturally aspirated flat-six engines to turbocharged flat-fours. In their current guise, these mid-engine purebreds are arguably the best sports cars money can buy. Nothing comes close to their poetic balance, refinement and perfectly tactile controls, all underscored by linear, free-revving 2.7L, 3.4L and 3.8L six-pots that sing for their supper with God’s own soundtrack.

Guaranteed, the Boxster faithful are wringing their hands and squirming in their Pilotis.

But the times they are a-changin’. Manufacturers are moving to smaller-displacement turbo engines in the quest for better fuel economy and reduced emissions. Porsche recently launched the 2017 turbocharged 911 sports car (still six-cylinder, thank you), and here comes act two – the turbo’ed four-banger 718 Boxster.

Guaranteed, the Boxster faithful are wringing their hands and squirming in their Pilotis. I know I am. Has the darling of the sports car world been emotionally eviscerated by its two-pot-ectomy? Lending some credibility to this conceptual shift is the Boxster’s new 718 pre-fix, borrowed from the legendary mid-engine four-cylinder Porsche 718 racecar of 1957-62.

So I’m here at a Michelin proving ground in the south of France, at the behest of Porsche, to spread the word on the 718. No, we can’t drive them. Just a technical presentation and a shotgun ride. Sigh.

As would be expected (and with the new 911), power is up, 0–100 km/h times are down and mid-range torque is the new frontier. The base 2017 718 Boxster, with a starting price of $63,900, supplants the outgoing car’s 265 hp, 206 lb-ft atmo 2.7L flat-six with an all-new 2.0L single-turbo four that makes 300 hp and 280 lb-ft of twist from 1950-4500 rpm. That’s a jump of 35 horses and 74 lb-ft. While the old car was pretty soft on the bottom end and required some revs to find the pace, this 718 will have none of that. In fact, when equipped with the seven-speed twin-clutch PDK, the base 718 Boxster beats last year’s PDK Boxster S to 100 km/h (4.7 seconds vs 4.8).

Move up to the $78,000 718 Boxster S and a bore increase nets 2.5L, 350 horsepower and 309 lb-ft, also on board from 1950-4500 rpm. This car with PDK blows through 100 km/h in 4.2 seconds, and on to 200 km/h in 14.3 seconds (against 4.8 and 17.3 for the outgoing car).

As with the outgoing Boxster, a six-speed manual transmission is standard kit – the seven-speed PDK runs $3,660.

By the Numbers: 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster

There’s a bit more to the S’s increased grunt over the base car than just increased displacement. It also benefits from variable-vane turbo technology. At lower engine speeds, small adjustable vanes in the exhaust track just before the turbo act like a tiny venetian blind, partially closing to increase the exhaust gas flow rate, spinning the turbo up sooner. At high engine speeds they open up, allowing for max high-end power.

Both engines have an air-to-liquid intercooler – the intercooler radiator lives behind the driver’s side air intake.

Sharp throttle response has been a hallmark of the six-cylinder Boxsters, and, as a rule, is not a hallmark of blown four-pots. Porsche has another strategy to help here. When lifting off, the throttle briefly stays open, timing is retarded, fuel is cut and the wastegate remains closed, essentially pumping air through to the turbo to keep it spinning.

Time for my “taxi ride” with a 718 Boxster development driver at the wheel. I’m terrified – not for my life but for my unwavering (here’s hoping) devotion to Porsche’s Boxster.

There are four preproduction 718 Boxster S cars here, and one base 718 – all equipped with the seven-speed PDK tranny. With the Sport Exhaust button pressed, the driver fires up an S and it barks to life with a barrel-chested whooomph. Blipping the throttle sends forth a volley of blats, gurgles and pops. Okay, top marks for theatre. Not sweetly nuanced like the sixes, but by gawd this 2.5L turbocharged flat-four makes a statement. And with a 7,500 rpm redline (300 rpm shy of the outgoing sixes), we know these fours will rev.

We amble over to the acceleration staging area. The $2,200 Sport Chrono Package begets an aggressive Sport Plus setting with, among other things, launch control. You’ll be wanting this. Here’s how it works. Select Sport Plus on the new steering wheel-mounted rotary drive mode selector, press the brake with your left foot and mat the accelerator with your right. The revs hover around 5,500 rpm. When ready, side-step the brake pedal and hang on. It’s so easy a chimp could do it. You’ll be grinning and screaming like a chimp too – no Boxster ever performed a hole shot like this before.

Next we’re on to a high-speed banked oval where my pilot, Ralph, demonstrates the 718’s improved stability and cornering abilities. (Ralph is [probably] not his real name, but I call him this because…) There’s a lot going on here – retuned springs, larger damper pistons, half-inch wider rear wheels, stiffened rear subframe and two (instead of one) adaptive hydraulic engine mounts. Additionally, the steering rack is now ten percent more direct. He tells me this new 718 S eclipses the old car’s Nürburgring time by an astounding 16 seconds. With g-forces distorting my visage into something resembling The Donald on a Mexican rant, I’m thinking, “No shit.”

Naturally, all this newfound speed requires more brake power. The 718 Boxster gets brakes from last year’s Boxster S, and the new S inherits some stopping hardware from the 911 Carrera. Carbon-ceramics are available for $8,450.

Then the fun begins. Within the oval is a technical handling course, moistened for our sliding pleasure. Another reason you’ll be spec’ing the Sports Chrono Package is for the newly calibrated PSM (Porsche Stability Management) Sport Mode. In Porsche’s words, “The new PSM Sport Mode lets ambitious drivers probe the performance limits of the vehicle even closer.” Ralph is ambitious, I’ll give him that. On the first corner he throws the 718 S in a lovely drift and holds it there with the throttle. We sail through with the 2.5L four bellowing away and the 718’s pretty new arse hanging out to dry.

Every corner is an event, with Ralph expertly drawing balletic arcs with his 350-hp rear-drive Stuttgart stylus. The plethora of low-end torque allows for easy breakaway, and the electronics hold the car at wonderful drift angles – Ralph says he has his foot planted the whole time. A couple of laps later he disables everything and then we’re all over the place. It’s about then when I feel the potential for a reunion with my Lufthansa breakfast (it was bad enough the first time), so I politely asked Ralph to return me to the pits.

With feet firmly planted on the tarmac, I get a good look at the 718 Boxster. Yes, it’s sexier. With only the hood, rear deck and windshield carried over, the newly sculpted bodywork lends a further sense of purpose and drama.

It was a given the turbo four-cylinder 718 Boxster was going to put up better numbers than the outgoing six-cylinder models. This is Porsche, after all. The question remains whether the emotional experience stays intact. By all indications from this sneak preview, there’s plenty of emotion to go around. It’s just different.

Pricing: 2017 Porsche Boxster
Base Price: $63,900
Base Price (Boxster S): $78,000
Options: Seven-speed PDK transmission $3,660, Sport Chrono Pacakge $2,200, Carbon-ceramic brakes $8,450, PASM suspension $2,050, PASM Sport suspension $2,370

No one is more concerned than this writer about the Porsche Boxster/Cayman duo’s switch from naturally aspirated flat-six engines to... 3/17/2016 9:37:11 AM