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Deep Dive: The Porsche 550 Revival Lives

Georg KacherwriterScott Olsenillustrator

One year ago, Porsche chief Mattias Mueller let it known that a compact, open-top, two-seater would make a useful addition to the brand. Only nine months later, however, Herr Mueller stated that the time may not yet be right for such a new entry-level model. Misunderstanding, change of strategy, red herring? A bit of everything, it seems. Having spoken to the vehicle line chiefs from Weissach and to representatives of the supplier community, we are confident that proposed mid-engined project 551 has not been cancelled.

However, it will no longer go into production in 2014 as originally planned; nor is its fate inseparably linked anymore to Volkswagen's VW215, better known as the BlueSport. Although Porsche is still working on a low-cost version of its new mid-engined platform - dubbed MSB-M - the 551 program has been delayed until 2017.

How come? Reason number one: VW has gone lukewarm on the BlueSport, which is now deemed too expensive, too radical in concept, too small for North America, and of too narrow appeal to generate sufficiently high production volumes. Reason number two: Audi has never really like the idea of Porsche fathering the proposed R5 that would be positioned between the TT and the R8. Reason number three: Porsche has its plate full completing certified money makers like the Audi Q5-based Macan crossover, the facelifted Panamera, and half a dozen derivatives of the new 991-generation 911.

"We need to concentrate on our cash-cows before entering a new segment where profit margins are notoriously critical," explains a senior strategist from Stuttgart. "But once we are done with the 918 Spyder, the 960 [Ferrari-fighting] supercar, and the new Panamera, a window will open between 2016 and 2018 which may be wide enough to get the Mimo[551] project under way after all."

A Porsche-only product, but with VW economies of scale

The Porsche 551 is inspired by the legendary lightweight 550 roadster built between 1953 and 1957 and is based on the brand-new modular sports car matrix, known in VW Group parlance as MSB. Due in 2016, MSB will work for front-, mid-, and rear-engined models with either rear- or all-wheel drive. In theory, the mid-engined variant (MSB-M) would cover the entire spectrum from the four-cylinder 551 to the V-12-powered Lamborghini Aventador replacement. To meet this ambitious target, MSB-M must be extremely flexible in terms of dimensions, weight, and engineering content. Common denominators earmarked for all variants include the electronic architecture, the A/C modules, and the various shared engines, as well as elements of the vehicle structure such as platform and firewalls. While the number of fixed hard points is relatively small, the scalability breaks new ground by offering a wide selection of bodystyles, chassis variations and drivetrain applications.

If all goes according to plan, the Porsche 551 will later be twinned with the next-generation Boxster and Cayman. Joining forces with VW and Audi would, of course, significantly improve the economies of scale, but there is probably enough volume in the $45,000 to $60,000 ([euro]35,000 to [euro]45,000) bracket for Porsche to go this alone. Although the global demand for affordable sports cars is declining, a strong product and a strong brand name should still make a serious impact.

Retro design, modern power

The 551 would be launched as a roadster, but a coupe edition is set to follow suit in 2018. At this point, two design proposals are fighting each other for approval. One is notably more retro, displaying prominent power domes behind the rollover hoops and striking longitudinal air vents inspired by the original 550. The rivaling concept looks much cleaner, more modern - and somewhat more anonymous.

In either case, the sole available engine would be a turbocharged flat-four cylinder. Featuring aluminum block and heads, variable valve timing, an adaptive intake system, direct fuel injection, and a choice of one or two turbochargers, the only initially envisioned displacement is 1.6 liters. Expect three different tuning stages rated at 180 (551 base), 210 (551 S), and 240 (551 R) hp. The manual gearbox and the optional dual-clutch PDK transmission each sport seven forward ratios, just like the larger 911.