Symptoms of a split personality usually call for a visit to the shrink. But at Porsche, vacillating between mid-engine and rear-engine convictions has proven healthy for the soul.
Sixty years ago, when Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry collaborated on their first production model, the goal was to exploit lessons they had learned racing mid-engine Auto Unions. When that didn't pan out, the Porsche 356 arrived with a rear-engine layout that was subsequently passed on to the immortal 911. Then in 1953, Ferry was finally able to scratch his mid-engine itch in the 550 Spyder, Porsche's first racing car. That branch of the family tree still thrives in the RS Spyder that won last year's American Le Mans LMP2 championship.
For its roadgoing models, Porsche uses trickle-down technology to feed its schizo habit. The new engine and PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe) dual-clutch transmission recently introduced for the 911 arrive wrapped in modestly face-lifted Boxsters and Caymans this March. As a preview of coming attractions, Porsche offered us a few hot laps in one Boxster S around Willow Springs Raceway's tight Streets of Willow course.
Consider this the second coming of the 987-series platform that Porsche introduced in 2005. While the body and the chassis are largely carryover, new lamps and fascias provide a fresh appearance and improved night visibility for the Boxster/Cayman quartet. Inside, the 911 dash and console upgrades play here nicely, albeit in a cost-conscious form.
There are power and tech upgrades galore. Larger front brake rotors and a six-speed manual transmission are now standard. The seven-speed PDK automatic, which costs an extra $3420, gives two-pedal owners better control, improved acceleration, higher cruising mileage, and a launch mode for smoking the rear tires.
The base Boxster and Cayman receive power and displacement bumps, while S-model engines clear the 300-hp hurdle for the first time thanks to direct fuel injection, a higher compression ratio, lighter moving parts, and reduced friction. The 3.4-liter flat six's redline has been raised to 7400 rpm.
Willow provided an excellent refresher about why we love Boxsters old and new. They're light on their feet, impeccably balanced, and easy to drive to and through the limits of adhesion. Compared with their big brothers (911s), the steering is more communicative and the tail is less likely to pass you by when control is relinquished to Sir Isaac Newton. A new limited-slip differential working in conjunction with revised suspension calibrations enables heavier corner-exit throttle tromping without wobble or wheel spin.
The PDK box's track mode holds each gear to the redline, and downshifts entering bends are smoother and quicker than you can say "heel and toe." That's great, because maintaining a grip on the wheel and tapping the spoke-mounted shift buttons on cue is a challenge. When this shortcoming was voiced to R&D boss Wolfgang Durheimer, he confided that a fix - optional paddle shifters - is in the works. We are thrilled.
The $64 question is whether these Boxster/Cayman improvements will be enough to sway Porsche's die-hard rear-engine contingent in favor of the company's theoretically superior driveline configuration. We're guessing no. But as long as Porsche continues serving both camps, we have nothing to complain about.