The second you sit down low into the firm sport seat, legs stick-ing out ahead of you, thumbs slotting into the perfectly proportioned steering-wheel rim where it tapers at quarter-to-three, everything feels familiar. Then you turn the ignition key located to the left of the wheel -- echoing the days when Le Mans racers twisted the key with their left hand and selected a gear with the right to save time -- and wuuum! Rev the mid-mounted flat six, and again it's deja vu as a slightly loose and raspy metallic roar trembles through the seatback and reverberates in your eardrums. No doubt about it, this is the Porsche Boxster we remember.
It's not, though. Despite the familiarity, this third-generation Boxster is basically all-new: a new engine, new platform, new dimensions, new technology, and, perhaps the most controversial, new electric power steering. More on that later. It's the Boxster's biggest-ever evolutionary leap. Just as with the 911, an all-new body structure -- a mix of aluminum and steel -- replaces its all-steel predecessor, helping trim about seventy pounds from the curb weight despite an injection of growth hormones. Width is essentially unchanged and there's an extra 2.4 inches between the axles, but the car is only 1.3 inches longer overall due to shorter overhangs.
Inside, there is a little extra room thanks to the longer wheelbase and also because the pedals have been moved slightly farther back, a neat trick that provides additional legroom. The seating position is now fractionally lower, and the rising center console places the gear lever closer to the driver's right hand. It's a very sporty, poised driving position. Our car's fully leather-lined interior looks great, with crisp instruments and easy ergonomics, but it's a pity that some of the highly visible plastics look decidedly downmarket.
In spite of the continuing commonality between the 911 and the Boxster under the skin, the styling of the two cars is now much more strongly differentiated. It all starts with the doors. Previous Boxsters got 911 hand-me-downs to cut costs, and as a result the styling had to mesh with the 911 doors. Not anymore. Substantial extra investment from Stuttgart means the new Boxster gets bespoke doors, which are much flatter than the 911's, and the character lines that are etched into them flow into and bear influence on the rest of the body. Up close, you'll see crisp edges ironed into the top of the front fenders that lead toward the new, more vertically stacked headlights. The same kind of crisp lines flow along the top of the more muscled rear fenders. The new design looks taut and sinuous, pointy and dynamic, low and aggressive. It's a fantastic-looking car.
We collect our Boxster S in Rome and head toward Bridge-stone's test track, an hour or so away near Aprilia. The roads, especially the autoroute on-ramps, are a mess, with fractured, crumbling asphalt that looks ready to swallow Fiat 500s whole. As soon as we set off, we're grateful for the stretched wheelbase and retuned PASM adjustable dampers, all of which helps to take a little of the edge off the ride compared with the previous Boxster, a machine that was still admirably compliant for such a sporting car. The ride is perhaps even more impressive in light of our car's optional twenty-inch wheels, the largest ever fitted to a Boxster.
The all-new fabric roof helps the refinement, too, with an extra layer that quiets the interior. The new top goes a long way toward tackling the sometimes-excessive noise that swilled around the cabin in the previous Boxster, and it's quicker to retract as well: the old car's already-rapid twelve seconds has been slashed to just nine. In real terms it's even faster, because its predecessor required you to unclip a latch on the header rail manually before the electrics could do their thing. This iteration is fully automatic at the press of a button. With the roof open, both driver and passenger are well cocooned from the elements, wind tickling the scalp at typical cruising speeds and swirling into a bluster only at much higher velocities.
But here's what's really great about this roof: folding-hard-top rivals such as the BMW Z4 and the Mercedes-Benz SLK insist that you come to a stop before the roof can be lowered, whereas the Boxster will bound along at speeds of more than 30 mph and still bare all. Have you ever lowered a convertible top at 30 mph? It feels insane; the roof whips away from the header rail like a toupee being ripped off by a tornado. And, when it stows, it doesn't stow in the same place that you keep your luggage, as it does in those other roadsters. So, top up or down, there's always a decent chunk of storage space in the trunk -- and, as before, there's another luggage compartment where most cars have their engine. It's a shame, though, that the new Boxster ditches the flush-fitting metal cover that once sat snugly atop part of the folded roof. The uppermost section of the roof is now fully on display, and the gaps between it and the bodywork are large and ungainly.
There are no complaints with the optional seven-speed dual-clutch PDK transmission that's fitted to our test car. The old unit was quick but slurred its shifts, adding a fuzziness that simply didn't fit with the sharp responses streaming back to the driver from everywhere else. The improved gearbox shifts more quickly, but there's also a crisper thunk as the next gear engages. It makes the experience more interactive yet no less refined. And, unlike so many automatics, it doesn't balk at multiple downshifts; pull the paddle four times in quick succession in seventh and, as long as you've got revs to spare, you'll nail third every time. It's by no means the soft option that the old Tiptronic once was. Still, there's no doubt that the standard six-speed manual will be the only choice for Porsche purists. It's an evolution of the unit in the previous car, meaning that the 911 maintains its seven-speed novelty.
The Boxster again launches with two engines and -- mirroring the 911 -- the base unit shrinks by almost 200 cubic centimeters, to 2.7 liters, while the engine in the Boxster S remains at 3.4 liters. The 3.4-liter unit sees an increase in both performance and economy: an extra 5 hp (now 315 hp) and an unchanged 266 lb-ft of torque combine with what should amount to a 2- or 3-mpg gain when official EPA figures are released. There's all sorts of clever stuff at work to achieve that improvement, including rapid heating of the powertrain components to reduce friction when the car is cold and a "sailing" mode that decouples the engine and gearbox when you gently back off the accelerator. And if you're driving hard and want engine braking when you back off the gas? The car knows, sensing that throttle control is more incisive and keeping the drivetrain connected. We tried -- and failed -- to trick it, but you can manually disable the system if you really don't like the idea.
With so many rivals switching to turbochargers in a bid to slash emissions and maximize mileage, it's become increasingly rare to drive a new car that's normally aspirated. So it's a treat when the 3.4-liter flat six's throttle response is absolutely in sync with your right foot, every fraction of extra accelerator travel yielding a symmetrical response, the revs crackling and zinging and spinning freely as you wind them beyond 6000 rpm. There might be more lethargy in the way it hauls itself from lower rpm than you'd experience with a 911 Carrera S, but, really, it's still intoxicating.
This, however, makes for something of a confusing juxtaposition with the steering. After all, Porsche could have gone with turbochargers to save fuel and lower emissions, but it didn't. Instead, it has carefully developed its stellar, normally aspirated flat six, because normally aspirated engines are crisper, more responsive, and more precise, and people who love driving love driving them. But then Porsche dropped its hydraulically assisted steering -- an equally important part of the Porsche DNA, we'd argue -- for a fully electric setup in a bid to save what amounts to a thimbleful of fuel.
Before driving this Boxster, I hadn't realized that the fizz of the normally aspirated flat six is, for me, cerebrally inseparable from the crackly feedback of Stuttgart's brilliant steering. But it is, and as much as I respect what the engineers have done with the new system -- it's accurate and quick and all that stuff -- the emotional connection is gone.
Porsche insiders defend the electric steering by saying there's no longer any need to run hydraulic lines from the engine to the steering, which saves weight and cost and complexity, plus it saves fuel. There's also enhanced safety, in that sensors moderate the forces acting on the steering during, for instance, an emergency stop, actively reducing the stopping distance. I don't care. The rack feels mute, and that's just not right.
The neutered steering feel is a negative, but it doesn't stop the new Boxster from being a truly sensational sports car. At the track, surface still wet after a violent hailstorm, the Boxster attacks a slalom with the adaptive dampers firmed up. As the car darts from side to side, it feels incredibly rigid and its body control is excellent, the nose flicking immediately and obediently in tune with every twirl of the wheel. It feels almost hyperactively alert, but in a good way. Push hard and overstep the mark a little, and there's a very different response from what you'd feel driving a last-generation 911, which typically slips slightly into understeer. Instead, the back end of the Boxster starts to slide a bit and the weight in the rear begins to come into play, gently tucking the nose of the car back into the apex. It feels graceful and progressive, a sensation you'll want to feel some more.
But if you really want to exploit this excellent balance, you'll need the optional Porsche Torque Vectoring system and its mechanical limited-slip differential. Our car has it, which gives a real precision to the way you can steer the car from the rear, and, on this damp track at least, it's easy to carve huge drifts through even the larger corners.
The Boxster is still a very connected, very visceral drive, no matter what all the improvements to ride quality and refinement might lead you to expect. We're left unsupervised on the track for a couple of hours and, frankly, it's gut-wrenching to hand back the keys.
For some, only a 911 cabriolet would be enough, but, for most of us -- and for almost half the price -- the new Boxster is a damn good substitute.
PORSCHE BOXSTER SPRICE $65,050 (with PDK automatic)
ENGINE 3.4L flat-6, 315 hp @ 6700 rpm, 266 lb-ft @ 4500-5800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed automatic
L x W x H 172.2 x 70.9 x 50.4 in (European-spec)
WHEELBASE 97.4 in
WEIGHT 2976 lb
0-60 MPH 4.7 sec
TOP SPEED 172 mph