The more things change, the more they remain the same.’ Somebody came up with that rather deep line at some point in history, but, despite its borderline pop-philosophy nature, I’ve found that it sums things up rather neatly – certainly in my own experience, at any rate. Relationships, work, governments – just when you think there’s something new in store, the realisation soon sets in that what you’re seeing is merely another variation on the theme; a rivulet that’s wandered off from the river, if you will, but with the same water in it. So the question is, does the new Porsche Boxster (internally designated the 981), the first all-new Boxster since the very first 1996-vintage car, burst clean out of its original mould, or is it old claret in a 2013 bottle? The answer, as always, is to be found in the best seat in the house – behind the steering wheel.
The last time I found myself looking at a Boxster’s steering wheel, it had flappy paddles on it (mated to a 7-speed PDK ’box), a world away from the standard push-pull buttons that are deeply frustrating to use (I also had a Jaguar E-Type keeping me company).
This time around, the meaty wheel was free of any buttons/paddles, because I was piloting a row-it-yourself 6-speed manual, a new experience for me in a Porsche. I can tell you right away that it’s a super-sweet gearbox – crisp as a Pringles chip, and with the sort of short throw that every sportscar should compulsorily have.
I can understand why Porsche purists will have a manual ’box and no other – but I also know that if I were breaking the fixed deposit and plumping for a Porsche (any Porsche), the PDK with the (sadly optional) flappy paddles would be on my spec list. It is, in a word, fantastic – even smoother and quicker than the previous-gen unit, and with a delicious double-brap when you downshift; it just lets you get on with the job of driving (preferably hard driving) and takes care of the rest. Even if you’re in full auto mode, it’ll hold its revs at the redline – and in this car, you will hit the redline a lot, believe me.
It’s not all sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll, though – a nifty ‘coasting’ function in this unit cuts the revs to 700 rpm if you gently get off the throttle, in a nod to fuel efficiency (Mumbai cabbies have been doing something quite similar for decades, but still); it’s also smart enough to not kick in under hard driving, when you want to get some engine braking into the equation by backing off the gas. Both gearboxes also come with switchable engine stop/start and brake energy recuperation as standard.
At the business end of these gearboxes are the jewels in the Boxster’s crown – a 2.7-litre, 265 bhp flat-six in the standard car and a 3.4-litre, 315 bhp powerplant in the S variant. Both engines have been worked over in terms of output (10 bhp/1 kgm more in the base variant and 5 bhp more in the S, which still has 36.8 kgm, but now at a higher 4,500 rpm peak) and efficiency, with Porsche claiming up to 15 per cent more frugality. What hasn’t changed a bit is the hugely entertaining nature of the driving experience – there are few things in the automotive sphere that are more exciting than a Porsche flat-six at full chat. It’s perfectly docile at just above idling rpm, allowing you to handle the cut and thrust of daily-traffic driving with ease, but hey, this is a Porsche – why on earth are you mucking about in traffic?
For best results, find the friendly neighbourhood open road (preferably with a few tunnels) and give it both barrels – that’s when the senses really begin tingling. The new engines are more eager throughout the rev range, but the mid-range is near-magical – once you’re in the 3,000-6,000 part of things, there’s almost endless shove, and it’s a dead-cert guarantee that you will hold gears longer than strictly necessary, just to revel in the soundtrack (especially with the optional sports exhaust – brilliant) and the adrenaline buzz.
You’re unlikely to confuse it with, say, a 911 GT3 RS, but I tell you what, this car provides enough of a rush for all but the most fanatical speed freak. A sprint from 0-100 kph is demolished in less than 4.8 seconds, and a top speed of 275 kph will lose you your driving permit quite efficiently, thank you very much. In these days of forced induction, it’s nice to enjoy a naturally aspirated engine, especially one that seems to be symbiotically connected to your right foot – every little modulation of the accelerator produces exactly the right response from the flat-six.
This brings me nicely to the one thing that’s had a lot of Porsche fans jumping up and down with indignation – the new electro-mechanical steering unit, which saw its debut in the hallowed 911. ‘How dare they mess with perfection?!’ seems to be the general mood, and if you’ve driven older Porsches, you may well join the chorus. The older hydraulic-assisted unit was among the most talkative in automotive history, transmitting every single hairline crack in the road straight to your hands. In the previous-gen Boxster I drove a while ago, I was making constant little corrections in a straight line, but no longer – the new unit stays arrow straight, unless you don’t want it to. The wheel still has a lovely heft to it, it doesn’t lighten up when you’re going fast and it’s still fabulously direct, so my humble two-bits to everyone out there is to calm down, because the new unit is not mute and it certainly hasn’t sold out – a Porsche steering unit will always be a Porsche steering unit, regardless of whether it’s being helped by oil or electricity.
Driven in anger, one thing becomes immediately clear – this car is still the best pound-for-pound roadster in the world. The chaps in Zuffenhausen have pulled yet another rabbit out of the hat and produced a something that dances like a butterfly, stings like a bee and goes like stink. The Boxster feels superglued to the road, to use a cliché, and it has no idea what ‘body roll’ means – it’s nimble, incredibly rigid and has tremendous body control at all times, a feeling which gives you a great deal of confidence. The revised underpinnings contribute to increased all-round stability, and the ride, though unsurprisingly firm, is never harsh enough to rattle your teeth. With PSM turned off, power-oversteer is but a step away, and the driving experience remains full-on and tack sharp.
As I said earlier, the best seat in the house is behind the wheel, and the new cabin makes the driving experience that much sweeter. Since the car’s wheelbase has gone up by 2.36 inches to 97.4 inches, the cabin has more room to stretch out in, as well as to adjust your seat; the seats themselves are lower, though, so rear visibility is a bit compromised. You now get a Panamera-style centre console, and the overall cabin quality has gone up. The roof is now fully automated and stows away above the engine at the rear (and you can do this at up to 50 kph), although there’s no longer a hard tonneau cover for it, so it sits there in a slightly ungainly manner.
With the top down, sound-deadening has also been improved, in that you can hear more of that raspy engine note, especially if you have the optional sports exhaust selected. Speaking of options, the permutations and combinations are mind-boggling – wheels, brakes, steering wheels, paddles, headlights, infotainment, seats, suspension, PTV, Sport Chrono and many others. Be very careful about what you really need, because in true Porsche fashion, loose behaviour with the options list will push the Boxster’s price into 911 territory.
And what about the shell in which all this good stuff is packaged? It’s gorgeous, that’s what. The car is now longer by 1.8 inches, but visually it looks even longer; never does it look anything but compact and sleek, though. With extensive use of aluminium, the S is also 35 kg lighter, unlike the latest iterations of its roadster competition, all of which have become heavier. The wheel arches are larger and more aggressive, and the cab-forward styling is crisp, muscular and edgy, with more than a few cues to the legendary Carrera GT. At the rear, a really nice touch is the spoiler, which bisects the tail lights and creates a raised detail. All in, it’s the best-looking Boxster yet – in answer to the question I asked right at the beginning, it’s a fresh, crisp wine in a brand new bottle. And yes, the more it has changed, the more it has remained the same, but this is no bad thing, because the ‘same’ means that it’s still one of the purest driving experiences in the world – only better.