Trickle down can be a wonderful thing whether you’re talking wealth, wisdom, power, or Porsches. Less than a year after the 911 received a major mechanical pick-me-up, Porsche engineers passed the lessons learned to the junior members of their sports car family. The benefits from more power, higher fuel efficiency, quicker acceleration, and the latest automatic transmission technology.
This is the second generation of Porsche’s 987 platform introduced in 2005. While the unibody, suspension layout, and exterior metal is for the most part carryover, a host of alterations have been incorporated into the new editions of the Boxster, Boxster S, Cayman, and Cayman S.
Like the 911, these mid-engined models are all powered by a new third-generation water-cooled flat-six engine code-named 9A1. Ranging in displacement from 2.9-liters (Boxster and Cayman) to 3.8-liters (Carrera S), this engine uses the 118mm cylinder spacing common to all Porsche sixes dating back to the original 911 but with a host of updates, including a simpler cam drive and a two-piece cylinder block yielding lighter weight, reduced friction, and a higher (7400) redline. True to Porsche form, power and efficiency both rise.
Boxster and Cayman models are equipped with 2.9-liter versions of the new engine fed by port fuel injection and rated at 255 hp for the convertible and 265 hp in the coupe. That’s a rise of 10 and 20 horsepower respectively over the 2008 models. Stepping up to the more expensive S models hikes the displacement to 3.4 liters and ups the power to 310 and 320 hp respectively, in no small part because the larger sixes benefit from direct fuel injection (straight into the combustion chamber rather than the intake port).
The other major powertrain news is a shift from Porsche’s antiquated Tiptronic transmission to a new PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe) 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission manufactured by ZF. Hang on for a long list of benefits: multiple shift modes, no interruption of power delivery during gear changes, a handy launch-control function, a 30-pound weight savings, quiet and efficient top-gear cruising, and a generally all-around pleasant disposition. What’s not to like? PDK costs an extra $3420 and some of the hands-on driving fun is sacrificed to the gods of refinement and automation. Another issue is how you shift this automatic. The dual-slot console lever works fine but the buttons mounted in the steering wheel spokes do not. Pressing for a downshift and squeezing the back side of the spokes for an upshift, a throwback to Tiptronic, is counter-intuitive. Also, shuffling the wheel in the heat of cornering battle can result an accidental brush of a spoke button followed by an unintended shift.
While to PDK or not will be the subject of endless bar debates, virtually every other 2009 mid-engined Porsche upgrade is a clear win. The new headlamp, taillamp, and fascia designs sharpen the exterior’s visual sword while providing superior illumination and additional air flow to coolers and brakes. The center dash and console layout handed down from the 911 houses an optional 6.5-inch touch-sensitive navigation screen and a full range of Bluetooth, voice command, USB, and iPod connectivity functions. Base-model front brakes are larger, a limited-slip differential has been added to the options list, and creature comforts such as power-ventilated seats and an electrically heated steering wheel are now available. The six-speed manual-shift gear box also benefits from a light polish. Another benefit for 2009 models is the six-speed manual finds its way into the base Cayman and Boxster.
To provide an early taste test of its newest model range, Porsche offered one Boxster S equipped with the PDK automatic and half a day lapping the tight Streets of Willow road course. The first warm-up stint revealed a new snarl in the exhaust note and added hustle in this mid-engine Porsche’s step. The combination of plus power and torque with a few pounds less weight and the new automatic transmission trims a couple of tenths off the run to sixty mph (a feat accomplished in 4.9 seconds according to Porsche). With the throttle indulged, the new engine swings its tach needle to the 7400 rpm redline with happy abandon. While the seven gear ratios are more widely spaced than in the manual box, there’s plenty of energy available to pull strongly from well below the 4750 torque peak to well past the 7200 rpm maximum power point.
Turn in is crisp and quick with only trace evidence of understeer. Thanks to the added weight carried by the front tires (versus the 911 clan), there’s a satisfying level of communication from the road, through the steering, and into the driver’s hands. Punching the Sport Plus button sharpens shift action and engages tight damper settings. Body roll is minimal, the seats do an excellent job of restraining the driver’s torso during high-g maneuvers, and the chassis is calibrated to extract maximum force from all four tires. Aggressive use of the steering and throttle can induce hints of tail wag but the rotation rate is so deliberate that the drift never really threatens to venture past the point of no return. A brief throttle pressure modulation or a touch of countersteer gathers up the slide and resets the car’s attitude. This is a sports car that not only makes novice drivers look cool and competent, it’s also a willing partner for the track hound intent on polishing his or her skills.
The last bit of good news is surprisingly modest price increases. When they arrive in dealerships next March, the Boxster is expected to cost $47,550 (including destination) while the Boxster S should start at $57,650. That’s a lot of Porsche for the money and about the best deal we’ve seen since premium gas dropped below $2 per gallon.