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First Drive: 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder

Porsche's Boxster S is one of our favorite cars for its balance, capability, and forgivingness. It's a stretch to say we thought the latest car need any significant improvements, but that hasn't stopped Porsche from delivering a new Boxster that's lighter and more powerful.

Combining a lightweight philosophy with an open-air spirit, the Porsche Boxster Spyder features a manual soft top and sheds 176 pounds compared to the Boxster S. At 2811 pounds for a manual-transmission car, the Boxster Spyder is now the lightest car Porsche sells. You can imagine how excited we get when one of our favorite cars is blessed with two of our favorite traits: lightness and power.

Spyder also means "leave the roof at home"
While it's instantly recognizable as a Boxster, the Spyder's curved bulges behind the seats and distinctive soft top differentiate it from the base and S cars. The two-piece roof is removed and replaced manually, with the driver exiting the car and working a number of hooks and clips. It's a fairly involved task for one person, requiring you walk back and forth between driver and passenger side multiple times. A well-practiced Porsche employee casually performed the take-down in 90 seconds, but the reality is that most owners will likely leave the top off for the majority of the time.

When you've had enough sun, the vertical section that clips behind the seats can be removed for a shaded but open driving experience. With the manual top, the rear deck lid is replaced with a single sheet of aluminum. Together, the top and lid result in a 46 pound weight savings. Mass is also cut with aluminum doors.

Subtle changes to the front fascia have also been made, and the fixed rear spoiler is larger. A Porsche graphic is applied to the lower side of all Spyders and the exhaust tips are painted black. The ten-spoke 19-inch wheels also save weight over the 18-inch wheels of a Boxster S.

To shave just 2.2 pounds, the Porsche team installed lightweight interior door panels that strip out the map pockets and use a loop of nylon strapping as a door handle. The rest of the interior controls are familiar Porsche switchgear. The standard color scheme calls for black soft-touch surfaces accented with hard panels in the exterior color along with red seat belts and door handles. Red and beige interiors are also available while an optional package covers the steering wheel, brake lever, and shift knob in Alcantara.

More significantly, the product development team has stripped out air conditioning and the radio. Lightweight sport seats with carbon-fiber backs also work toward reducing weight. The seats are comfortable and well padded, but their adjustability is somewhat limited and they're clearly suited to slimmer passengers. Of course, Porsche is happy to undo any of its laborious weight-cutting work should you desire. Air-conditioning, a radio, navigation, and plusher seats can all be optioned in. If you're that guy.

Moderate mechanical changes
The 3.4-liter flat-6 of the Boxster S powers the Spyder, but output is up 10 hp and 7 lb-ft thanks to engine control modifications. Total output now mimics that of the Cayman S at 320 hp and 273 lb-ft. Buyers can choose from either a six-speed manual transmission or the seven-speed dual-clutch PDK.

The suspension has received a complete rework with new springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars, resulting in a ride height that is 20 millimeters - 0.8 inches - lower. As a result of dropping the suspension and removing weight from the roof the center of gravity is a almost a full inch lower than the Boxster S. The larger wheels accommodate wider tires, which are now run at a lower pressure due to the weight reduction. Traction also improves with a standard mechanically locking rear differential.

Still a Boxster, subtly a Spyder
Setting out in the Spyder, it's instantly clear that this is still very much a Boxster. It's still the same car that we love, with a firm clutch pedal, positive stick shift, and phenomenal steering. Winding on mountain roads in Carmel, California, the Boxster's poise and confidence is exercised by blind turns, battered pavement, and gravel spilling over from the shoulders.

The Spyder part is less clear. Porsche has the numbers to prove the Spyder's changes make a difference, namely a 0-60 mph time that is 0.2 seconds faster than the Boxster S. But the increased lightness and power don't trumpet their presence. Of course, when turn-in is so brisk and acceleration so visceral as it is in the Boxster, deciphering such subtleties can be fuzzy. If anything, it's the suspension changes that are most noticeable, creating a busier, stick-to-the-pavement ride. It's not harsh, but there's a distinct difference in daily comfort between the Spyder and other Boxsters.

We didn't test with our own equipment, but Porsche claims the Spyder will blast to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds when equipped with the Sport Chrono Plus package and a PDK transmission. Maximum speed with the roof in place is 166 mph with the top down, or just 125 mph with the roof in place.

Some people don't like Spyders
The Spyder will arrive at U.S. dealerships in February 2010 with a base price of $62,150 compared to the starting price of $58,950 of the Boxster S. That's a reasonable price in our opinion, but still Porsche recognizes that the Spyder's comfort and practicality compromises won't appeal to everyone. Spyder sales are expected to account for about ten percent of all Boxster sales. For the purist who's buying their Boxster for its true sporting capabilities, though, the Boxster Spyder is undoubtedly the best yet.

Porsche Boxster Spyder
Base price: $62,150

Engine: 3.4-liter DOHC 24-valve flat-6
Horsepower: 320 hp @ 7200 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drive: Rear-wheel

L x W x H: 170.9 x 70.9 x 48.5 in
Cargo capacity (front/rear): 5.3/4.6 cu ft
Curb weight: 2811 lb
EPA rating: 19/26 (est.)