► New Porsche 718 Boxster S tested
► Fabled NA six makes way for turbo four
► Is the S worth the premium? We find out...
The new Porsche 718 Boxster is the first mid-engined flat-four Porsche since the 914 of the 1970s. Enthusiasts are fretting because the new roadster replaces the previous Boxster’s 2.7- and 3.4-litre naturally aspirated flat-sixes with a choice of flat-four turbos. They worry that the noise, response and character so pivotal to this car will be lost. To be honest, so do we.
We’re driving the Boxster S (£50,695), and entry-level 718 Boxster (£41,739), on road and a test track to find out if those fears are unfounded.
What’s all this about a 718 Boxster?
Bit naff, isn’t it? The 718 denomination has been adopted in an attempt to create a bloodline back to the mid-engined 718 sports cars that won Le Mans and the Targa Florio, in the 1950s and ’60s, with a flat-four engine. But it all seems a bit contrived and clunky. Like changing your middle name to Bellof and signing on at a trackday, it doesn’t suddenly grant you the same skills.
The 911 is a 911 because it has five decades of heritage, and maybe you could call a new car a 718. But you can’t just take an existing model and slap some old numbers on it and expect it to carry the same degree of cachet; it just doesn’t work like that.
So this is a facelift with a new engine, like the 997.2-generation 911?
No, it’s more comprehensive than that. The design is almost entirely new, with the only carryovers being restricted to the luggage compartment lids, windscreen, and electrically retractable fabric hood. Look at it and you’ll notice a wider, tauter design. It’s noticeably different and undoubtedly a thing of beauty, but I don’t find it any more covetable than its predecessor.
The steering ratio (adapted from the 911 Turbo) is 10% quicker, the brakes are uprated (old Boxster S set-up for the 718 Boxster; new four-piston 911 Carrera brakes for the S), and the chassis is tuned with larger pistons in the dampers, stiffer springs, chunkier anti-roll bars, half-inch wider rear wheels, new tyres and a strengthened rear subframe.
You can specify Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM, Porsche speak for adaptive dampers) with a 10mm lower ride height, or the PASM Sport chassis (presumably SPASM) that brings your backside 20mm lower to the terra firma than standard.
Inside you get a lightly tweaked dash, and the far superior touchscreen infotainment is familiar from the latest 911; it’s standard, but nav remains optional.
But really it’s all about those new turbo engines. The 718 Boxster gets a 2.0-litre flat-four good for 295bhp and 280lb ft, 38.2mpg and 168g/km of CO2 with the six-speed manual; the 718 Boxster S gets a 2.5-litre flat-four with a variable-turbine turbo. It records 345bhp and 310lb ft, 34.9mpg and 184g/km with the manual.
Both models are 35bhp more powerful than their predecessors, with the Boxster up 74lb ft, the S 44lb ft. Those peaks arrive from 1950rpm (Boxster) or 1900rpm (S), which promises low-down flexibility, but also a fundamental shift from the previous engines that put peak torque much further up the rev range. Still, at least both new motors will rev out to 7500rpm.
The seven-speed dual-clutch PDK gearbox is optional, as is the Sport Chrono Package. Equipped with PDK and Sport Chrono, the 718 Boxster S can sprint from 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds. Specifying Sport Chrono also gives you the mode selector on the steering wheel, allowing you to tune engine, gearbox and chassis parameters via a Ferrari-style control on the steering wheel.
It’s telling that – like the new 911 – there’s now an intermediate setting for the stability control, but only if you spec Sport Chrono. Previously you didn’t need a third setting, because there wasn’t enough torque to trouble the rear tyres during normal fast road driving, and the ESP warning light rarely flashed on the dash. Really, this mid-way setting should be standard.
Come on, what’s this engine like then?
Firing the Boxster S’s engine into life results in disappointment, unfortunately. The metallic bark of the old flat-six on start-up is gone, replaced by a much gruffer, thudding, monotone burble.
At low speeds you notice the massive hit of extra torque, even when you’re just stroking this engine through town. It makes it a much more flexible engine, and better conveys the scale of the performance on offer, even if you make little attempt to tap it.
But it also sounds like a Subaru Impreza, which is no surprise given that both are flat-four turbos. Personally, I find the Impreza four one of the most charismatic, distinctive engines ever. It’s just that I don’t want that uneven burble in a Boxster, especially when you remember how good the old motor sounded. It’s a much bigger culture shock than the switch from natural aspiration to turbo power for the 911 Carrera, and simply isn’t exotic enough.
It’s not all bad news, however. Throttle response is very prompt, and the small amount of lag you notice in the Carrera just isn’t detectable in the Boxster. Switch to Sport Plus mode and the throttle is super-snappy. That’s because the Boxster S has adopted variable geometry turbo technology from the 911 Turbo. The 911 Carrera doesn’t have it, strangely, explaining why it’s not quite as responsive.
This engine also revs well, pulling nicely to 7500rpm and delivering a noticeably bigger hit of speed along the way than the old 3.4-litre. But again the sound effects let it down, and as the revs climb so it begins to sound more like a turbocharged Toyota GT86, another flat-four motor; it’s all a bit gravelly. A Jaguar F-Type V6 absolutely creams this engine when it comes to theatre and the way it conveys fine breeding.
I asked a powertrain engineer if they’d considered using a 2.5-litre flat-six turbo instead of a four to retain the old car’s special character. They had, but apparently a six with all the added turbo bits just wouldn’t fit in the slim-hipped Boxster, unlike the fat-bottomed, rear-engined 911. He also said that in normal driving, the fuel efficiency of the old 3.4 and new 2.5-litre flat-four is ‘about the same, but the new engine has much more power’. More power and torque is nice, but I’d trade it for the old engine’s character, especially if I’m not actually saving any fuel.
There isn’t even a weight saving, because the new engine is only 5kg lighter despite losing two cylinders (blame the turbo, intercooler, etc.), and that’s negated by the new Boxster having more of the old car’s optional equipment as standard.
What about the 2.0-litre engine?
Best avoided. The extra lag caused by not having the variable turbine geometry set-up is noticeable, and it just doesn’t feel particularly urgent. I’m pretty sure it also sounds even more like an Impreza, and you need to rev it harder to get the best from it. And this car just doesn’t sound good when revved.
Even though our S model was on the firmest suspension with largest wheels, the entry-level Boxster I tried felt firmer, even in the soft PASM setting. Strange.
How does the rest of the Boxster stack up dynamically?
It’s brilliant, of course. You notice the extra keenness of the faster steering when turning in, and the strong front grip. Push the front tyres and you quickly feel the rear slipping a little to help you make the corner. It’s incredibly agile, and proof that Porsche doesn’t need to add the 911’s rear-wheel-steering system to its entry-level roadster.
Traction also continues to be very good; this is still a car you provoke, rather than get caught out by with a huge spike of torque.
Our S was fitted with the -20mm PASM suspension and 20-inch alloys, and it rode well on decent roads. The standard brakes are strong, the pedal response nicely progressive, and the six-speed manual continues to slot with tactility.
For all the criticisms, this car will still be a riot on a twisty road or a trackday.
What about the hood?
Another excellent feature. Strangely there’s no information on it in the press kit – Porsche seems to have forgotten about it because it’s a carryover feature – and we’re still waiting confirmation. But it raises and lowers at the press of a button in less than ten seconds, and does so at speeds of up to around 40mph.
Easy to say, but it’s testament to this car’s engineering that you can basically deploy at parachute at 40mph and it doesn’t just rip the whole mechanism off. It feels insanely fast when you drop the roof at that speed.
There’s some noise at motorway speeds, but mostly you forget about it, in stark contrast to, say, the Nissan 370Z Roadster’s cabin, which is almost deafeningly loud. Drop the Boxster’s roof and you sit in a sea of calm, connected to but unaffected by the rushing air all around. It’s a nice experience, albeit one let down by hearing more of that dismal sound.
Let’s put this in perspective: when the 911 switched to water cooling, enthusiasts threw up their hands in dismay, but really the car’s fundamental character remained. The switch to four-cylinder turbo power is much more damaging to the Boxster, but people care less because it’s not such an icon.
If you are going to buy a 718, it has to be a 718 Boxster S, mostly because of the far superior turbo response, the extra performance and the greater sense of satisfaction you get from winding it out towards 7500rpm. And there is a lot to like: the design, the interior, the roof, the handling and the performance. But impressive as the flat-four turbo is in engineering terms, it can’t compensate for the gratifying sound of a flat-six at full chat; it was one of the best engines at any price-point, never mind at £40k or so.
Once, the Boxster used to give you so much of the 911 Carrera Cabriolet experience at around half the price. Even with the Carrera’s switch to turbocharging, that’s no longer the case. Let’s just hope they retain natural aspiration for GT4/Spyder-style Boxsters and Cayman in the future.