Ever since Porsche started building cars, the company has shone in motorsports. The prime domain for the cars from Zuffenhausen has been circuit racing, but they have also starred in rallies and in the mountain hill-climbs that were very popular in post-World War II Europe. It’s a minor sport now, but mountain hill-climbing drew big crowds and worked wonders for manufacturers’ reputations. The late Gerhard Mitter, a multitalent who raced for Porsche in the 1960s, said three things made a Porsche stand out, especially for roaring up a mountain: “The cars are extremely light, the engine sits close to the driven wheels, and the controls feel like extensions of the driver’s arms and legs.” Thirty-five years after his untimely death at the wheel of a BMW F2 car, Mitter’s assessment of the marque’s virtues still stands. It’s obvious even in street cars such as the second-generation Boxster. Although this is a high-tech car par excellence, it still displays the trademark virtues of light weight, strong traction, and utterly intuitive controls. That was the message that came out of a two-day drive in a 276-hp Boxster S to three hill-climbs in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
While many classic racetracks have disappeared over time, most of the old hill-climbs have survived for the simple reason that they were (and often still are) staged on public roads. We chose three distinctive “tracks” in three different countries: Freiburg-Schauinsland in Germany, St.-Ursanne-Les Rangiers in Switzerland, and Gaisberg in Austria. All three locations are easily accessible from major airports, can be used free of charge, and are open year-round. Amateur racers and classic-car aficionados should bear in mind that meetings still take place annually in St.-Ursanne and on the Gaisberg. Since our Boxster was fitted with the optional Sports Chrono package that includes an in-dash stopwatch, we had fun beating the clock. Predict-ably, you can shave off a lot of time just by learning the braking and turn-in points, but after the fifth or sixth run, the growing danger of leaving a ditch with your name in it curbs your enthusiasm-especially when it rains, as it did during most of our 930-mile trans-Alps tour.
Although Porsche’s marketing department refers to it as the New Boxster, the 2005 model looks suspiciously similar to the 1996 original. Project leader Hans-Jrgen Whler says that although it looks the same, “about 80 percent of the parts are new. Beneath the skin, there is still a strong link to the 911. In terms of appearance, however, greater differentiation is ensured by the redesigned round headlamps and by the bespoke instrument panel. The goal was to move the two models further apart and to freshen the Boxster without making its predecessor look old.” Mission accomplished. The mildly flared wheel arches give the car a more dynamic stance, and the more sculpted rear
end broadens the shoulders. Inside, the Boxster S adopts the busy center console from the 911 Carrera S. Bespoke items include the shift lever, a set of redesigned dials with white faces for the S, and round chrome-rimmed air vents. Repositioned pedals and seats allow for more head- and legroom.
In fact, the extra room is the first thing you notice inside the new Boxster. The steering column adjusts for rake and reach, the pedal box has been moved forward a fraction, the seat can be pushed farther back and lower down, and it comes with optional movable side bolsters for better lateral support through corners. The center console is reminiscent of a Christmas window display at Tiffany’s. There are more buttons, knobs, switches, and monitors than one could possibly decipher at the first attempt. Another layer of confusion comes from the three electronic displays in the gauge cluster that double as on-board computer, shift indicator, digital speedometer, trip master, and much more. Ah, the curse and blessing of modern times. Welcome innovations include a much bigger cooled glovebox, a DVD-driven navigation system, a reengineered power-operated roof that has three instead of two layers of fabric and a heated rear window, four side air bags (two in the doors, two in the seats), taller headrests, and a more effective wind deflector.
The ninety-minute drive from Stuttgart to Freiburg is all autobahn, so the Boxster gets an early chance to stretch its legs. Although the power output has gone up from 258 to 276 hp, the difference in straight-line performance is marginal: 0.2 second off the 0-to-62-mph time, while top speed goes up from 165 to 168 mph. But in real-world terms-torque delivery and throttle response-the uprated 3.2-liter flat-six offers more urge, feedback, and immediacy. Maximum torque of 236 lb-ft (up a scant 7 lb-ft) is now available between 4700 and 6000 rpm. Although peak power is delivered at an unchanged 6200 rpm, the redline was lifted to 7200 rpm, ensuring seriously beautiful noise.
There’s no better place to sample this Boxster music at full volume than up a sweeping hill where the hungry intake rasp and the full exhaust roar are echoed by tall walls of stone and lines of trees. Schauinsland is ideal. A stone’s throw away from the picture-postcard city of Freiburg by the Rhine, this hill-climb is in the foothills of the Black Forest. You can tell that this road was used for competition recently, because there is double-thickness Armco barrier lining most of the 127 corners that lead from the start at Friedrichshof to the finish line at the summit. Last year, the Green Party interfered, and the track’s license was temporarily suspended. The record for this seven-mile drive stands at an incredible 4:59.20 minutes, but there was no chance of repeating this, because the police had posted a radar-enforced 43-mph speed limit.
So we shed the driving gloves, put on our shades, lowered the roof (it still needs to be latched and unfastened manually), and took our time sampling the spectrum of early-autumn scents that ranged from ripe ceps to wild brambles. It might not be what you want to do with a new Boxster, but taking it easy revealed some surprises, such as the composed ride. Although our test car was shod with optional nineteen-inch Michelins, the suspension tremble in the steering wheel and the occasional front-end pitch we remember from last year’s car have all but disappeared. And who would have thought that the rev-hungry 24-valve engine would happily hum up the hill in fourth without protesting, except in tight hairpins.
Switzerland’s most famous hill-climb is at Ollon-Villars, but the prospect of having to traverse the entire radar-infested country was so off-putting that we chose instead the run from St.-Ursanne to Les Rangiers, a convenient two-hour drive from Freiburg. A mere 3.3 miles long, this has a flat-out bottom section that gives way to a top part (Little Susten) that could easily double as an Alpine pass. The current speed king is a Frenchman who mastered the track in an F3000 single-seater in 1:48.71. We arrived in St.-Ursanne just in time for a downpour that would have floated Noah’s ark. While photographer Charlie Magee tore out what little remains of his hair, I tried to discern the racing line followed by such famous Swiss drivers as Clay Regazzoni, Jo Siffert, and Herbie Mller.
In conditions like these, the Boxster’s Sport mode, available with the Sport Chrono option, strikes a nice balance between safety net and abyss. The faster throttle response, more aggressive rev limiter, less intrusive stability-control calibration, and tauter damper setting (in cars fitted with the optional PASM, or Porsche Active Suspension Management) allow you to push the car without falling down the hillside. You get a taste of full-throttle wheel spin in first and second in the dry, which is extended to third when it’s wet. In addition, you get a mild tail sidestep in the dry and more than enough oversteer on slippery blacktop. The hairy-chested can deactivate stability control and adjust their driving style accordingly. The mid-engined Boxster needs more sliding space than the rear-engined 911, so it’s imperative to turn in early and to lay the power down quickly. If you’re not absolutely confident about what you are doing, there will be too much initial understeer and subsequently not enough road for the full-throttle (or lift-off) maneuver that is bound to follow.
Although Switzerland borders Austria, the most faraway places of the two countries are almost 1000 miles apart. The quickest way to get from Les Rangiers to the Gaisberg is via Munich, but the most picturesque route takes you through Voralberg and Tyrol, through the Arlberg, and past the Brenner Pass. Since we are traveling in convoy with a chase car, the pussy-footed Boxster S returns a hyper-frugal 22 mpg. When it’s let loose to race back from Salzburg to Zuffenhausen, the car increases its consumption to 15 mpg. While the fuel tank’s capacity is unchanged at 16.9 gallons, the trunk volume has been increased to 9.9 cubic feet by replacing the space-saver spare with a can of sealant and a compact electric compressor for tire inflation. Despite a wider body and fatter wheels that enlarge the frontal area, the drag figure of the Boxster S was pared down from 0.32 to 0.30. At the same time, lift was reduced by 30 percent thanks to a flush-fitting underside, ground-effect aprons, and a lot of wind-tunnel work aimed at improving directional stability at high speed.
First held in 1929, Gaisberg is one of the oldest European hill-climb races. Despite its proximity to the city of Salzburg, the gray ribbon that runs up the rocky and wooded Gaisberg mountain is not heavily traveled during the week. Out of the three courses we sampled with the Boxster S, this one is by far the trickiest, meanest, and baddest. A combination of narrow pavement, blind corners, sudden surface changes, steep climbs, and yawning drops calls for a prophetic mix of confidence and caution. The fastest man on this 5.4-mile-long roller-coaster ride was Rolf Stommelen, who ran it in 3:39.2 minutes in a 910 Bergspyder. The Austrian authorities recently posted a ridiculous 30-mph speed limit, but we were told that Easter happens more often than a radar trap on the Gaisberg, so we gave it stick-until the mountain was dipped in fog so dense that not even the birds dared to fly from one branch to the next.
After a break for four cappuccinos and two apple strudels, the weather finally improved from torrential to steady rain, and we could do a few eight-tenths wet runs up to the midway point, where the only long straight lets you relax for a few precious seconds. In Sport mode, the Boxster S puts you on red alert on a wet washboard road. Back in normal PASM mode, the car was more cooperative and more stable overall. Despite the oversized wheels and tires following every imperfection, we could feel the benefit of the wider track and its revised lightweight suspension, with more sure-footed roadholding and an even more immediate response to steering and throttle orders.
On the way to Stuttgart, we diverted to two more hill-climbs that once were popular but now are almost forgotten: Sudelfeld near Bay-rischzell and Wallberg near Rottach-Egern. Very busy in winter and yet virtually deserted in summer, these fast and well-maintained mountain roads allowed the Boxster to shine.
The transition from old to new is not quite as impressive as the step from the old type 996 911 to the 997. But the Boxster S in particular has become a more complete sports car. While Porsche is proud of the sportier character and the more upscale presentation, we were particularly impressed by the blend of balance and performance.
More capable and-on an equipment-related basis-six percent cheaper than its predecessor, the new Boxster S is a better Porsche and an even more desirable roadster. Available in November, it also makes a dynamically compelling and financially interesting alternative to next year’s 911 cabriolet. Gerhard Mitter would have loved it.