AUSTIN, Texas—As the car sweeps around the last corner and onto the pit straight, the blaze of its headlights in the Texas night makes us squint, even though we’re a half mile away. And as it guns past the grandstand here at the Circuit of the Americas, the Porsche 919 Hybrid is squeezing every erg of energy out of its mechanical soul and converting it into forward motion.
The combination of a turbocharged 900-horsepower V-4 and twin battery-powered 200-hp electric motors deliver thrust, and there’s even a little turbine spinning in the engine exhaust to produce electrical power for the control systems. The Porsche 919 Hybrid is a force vector, a physics equation in three dimensions.
And the 2017 Porsche 718 Cayman and Boxster are just like this. Not that they are race cars, and the back roads through the oak scrub around Austin where we’re driving today are nothing like the COTA racetrack where the 919 Hybrid won the FIA World Endurance Championship six-hour race in late September. The thing is, to enjoy Porsche’s latest sports cars, you’ve got to embrace the fact they are all about efficiency, which is not exactly the same thing as the message of power that you’re used to.
Can a four-cylinder engine be sexy?
Let’s all admit that efficiency just isn’t a very sexy message, even if it comes with a racing number on the door. Maybe this is why so few people realize the Porsche 919 Hybrid carries a turbocharged 2.0-liter V-4. Now more than ever, you build a race car as if it were a ship in a bottle. It’s fast, but it’s also constrained by a net of regulations just like a street car, so efficiency is really more important than unbridled horsepower.
The Porsche 718 Boxster and Cayman are also constrained by regulations—clean air, fuel economy, and crash safety just to name a few. So the 718 lineup was conceived in motorsports style, with efficiency as the prime directive. This is why it has a choice of two turbo engines with four cylinders, not six. And these engines aren’t exactly sexy, as you can tell by the growl they make, which is businesslike rather than soul stirring.
If you’re going to really get what the 2017 Cayman and Boxster are about, you’ll have to be a person who is not so impressed by the number of dogs set to barking by the 718‘s optional sport exhaust. Instead, you need to be more interested in the stopwatch set in the dash of a Cayman or Boxster equipped with the Sport Chrono option package. Think force vector, not screaming machinery.
Here’s your motorsports special, the 718 Cayman
Indeed the power hits with a force-vector bang from the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder that powers the 2017 Cayman S and Boxster S. The variable-geometry turbocharger helps spool up the power very quickly, and the engine’s personality is determined not so much by the availability of 350 hp at 6,500 rpm but instead the tremendously broad range of torque, which peaks at 309 lb-ft between 1,900-4,500 rpm.
The 2.5-liter turbo’s personality is just the thing for drivers who have track-day entertainment in mind for their 718 Cayman. As we’ve told you before, the features and specifications of the 718 take the platform for the Cayman and Boxster to another level of performance. The 718 Cayman is just the right size for speed, a package that sits on a short, 97.6-inch wheelbase that is the best looking thing you can buy with a Porsche badge, including wristwatches. From within the shrink-wrapped passenger cabin, the Cayman feels meant for the driver alone, an impression reinforced by the unique view framed by the windshield and the narrowly confined driving position.
Frankly, the quick-hitting power of the 2.5-liter turbo is best enjoyed with the seven-speed PDK twin-clutch automatic, because this powertrain combination makes you feel like you’re surfing on a Mavericks-size wave of energy. Some engine noise is also piped into the Cayman’s cockpit through a resonator located in the center console, so you can better hear the four-cylinder’s low-pitched growl.
If you want an extra dimension of driver involvement afforded by the manual transmission, we think you might consider stepping down to the 718 Cayman with its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which makes 300 hp at 6,500 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 1,950–4,500 rpm. This is a counterintuitive choice, since it’s more of a challenge to keep this smaller engine on the boil because its conventional turbocharger is a little slower to spool up than the 2.5-liter engine’s variable-geometry turbo. Even so, we enjoyed the challenge with the manual transmission, despite the plastic feel of the shift linkage and the clutch’s slightly vague engagement point. It’s kind of nice when a car needs its driver a little bit, don’t you think?
Good-bye roadster, hello cabriolet
When the Porsche Boxster concept car first rolled onto the stage at the 1993 Detroit auto show, it promised an affordable gateway into the world of Porsche sports cars. But these days, the gateway is not so affordable, as the median household income for Cayman/Boxster owners approaches $300,000. So the 718 Boxster is perhaps best characterized as not a step on the ladder to 911 ownership (where the median household income is close to $600,000), but instead a destination all its own. It’s more like the Porsche cabriolet than the Porsche roadster.
The way we see it, the 2017 Boxster is really about the way it looks. And while it has sadly lost its retro references, it still looks very good thanks to a palette of bold colors for both the exterior and interior. Of course, it’s not exactly a luxury car, as you’re reminded by the two, spindly floating cupholders that deploy from their lair in the dash just above the glove compartment. But the car is quiet, especially because it must do without any extra engine noise piped into the cockpit, since the Boxster’s tight packaging doesn’t leave any room for the Cayman’s setup.
They race Porsches, don’t they?
The 718 might not drive with the racy experience you expect, and it’s fair to say that the durability testing of the 2.0-liter turbo in China (a country plagued by crappy sediment-laden gasoline and hellacious stop-and-go traffic) has had as much to do with determining the personality of the Cayman and Boxster as driving adventures in the Great White North of Canada. Even so, Porsche’s historical dedication to motorsports still matters here.
Of course, Porsche pursues motorsports these days in the modern style, where the driving techniques for the all-wheel-drive 919 Hybrid are the same ones you’d use to hyper-mile a Toyota Prius—a full-throttle blast out of the corners from the electric motors that power the front wheels, delicate throttle inputs for the V-4 engine while coasting along at top speed, and then maximized energy recovery by dragging the regenerative brakes a long way into the slow corners. “Efficiency is the name of the game out here,” Porsche LMP1 racing director Fritz Enzinger says, gesturing at the COTA track here in Austin. “This is our laboratory.”
This is a familiar refrain from many car brands that use motorsports to both experiment with technology and train corporate engineers, yet you don’t have to look far with the 718 to find evidence of its influence. Daniel Hertler, the engineer in charge of the chassis, began his career at Porsche with the Carrera GT, developed the electric-assist steering for the 991-type 911, translated to the motorsports side to work on the RSR and Carrera Cup versions of the 911, and now has returned to the production side with the 718.
Can you believe in Type 718 magic?
In any case, years of motorsports breeding have given Porsche the kind of credibility in the marketplace that is virtually unrivaled except by Ferrari. And that’s why the Porsche corral was jammed full of Porsche enthusiasts at COTA’s WEC race, even if the grandstands for general-admission spectators were more sparsely inhabited.
The question is whether the 2017 Porsche 718 Cayman and Boxster will reinforce Porsche’s motorsports-derived credibility or not. After all, the Porsche brand in China earns as much from the sale of fashion accessories as it does from cars, so it’s a place where many are likely to think of Porsche as “handbag,” not “race car.”
Fortunately Porsche has a plan. We should remember that Klaus Zellmer, president of Porsche Cars North America, has been instrumental in the development of the concept for the Porsche Experience Centers. Once the PEC in Los Angeles, California, opens in a few weeks, Porsche will be closer to its goal of introducing 40,000 people a year to Porsche performance at PECs located in Atlanta, Leipzig in Germany, Los Angeles, and Shanghai. Each will offer a full menu of different driving experiences in Porsche cars, which should make the motorsports heritage more tangible to a whole new audience.
As ever, when it comes to buying a car, the driving experience clinches the deal. This will be the story of the 718, we’re guessing. The 718 Cayman begins at a price of $54,950, while the 718 Cayman S starts at $67,350. Meanwhile the 718 Boxster begins at $57,050 and the 718 Boxster S starts at $69,450. Sure, the 718 seems pretty unsexy at first, yet it does more with less, and this is very much the motorsports-style Porsche way of doing things. You have to admit that speed is a pretty sexy message, no matter what kind of wrapper it wears.
2017 Porsche Boxster/Boxster S Specifications
|Price:||$57,050/$69,450 (Boxster/Boxster S)(base)|
2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4/300 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,950-4,500 rpm
2.5L turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-4/350 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 309 lb-ft @ 1,900-4,500 rpm
|Layout:||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD convertible|
|EPA Mileage:||22/34; 22/32 mpg (city/hwy) (est)|
|L x W x H:||172.4 x 70.9 x 50.4 in|
|0-60 MPH:||4.9/4.4 sec|
|Top Speed:||170/177 mph|
2017 Porsche 718 Cayman/Cayman S Specifications
|Price:||$54,950/$67,350 (Cayman/Cayman S) (base)|
2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-four/300 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,950-4,500 rpm;
2.5-liter turbo DOHC 16-valve flat-four/350 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 309 lb-ft @ 1,900-4,500 rpm
|Layout:||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA Mileage:||21/28; 20/26 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||172.4 x 70.9 x 51.0 in|
|0-60 MPH:||4.9/4.4 sec|
|Top Speed:||170/177 mph|