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