Porsche Boxster comes of age
There is a serpentine, rock-lined stage on the Monte Carlo rally that gives you just a hand- span of working room as you squeeze a car down its length.
This may scare you, but with a rock wall on one side and a castellated, stone-edged and seemingly bottomless precipice on the other, there is no better way to savour the screaming yowl of a hard-driven flat-six power unit.
Amplified on one side and then echoed into the valley below on the other, the racket will raise the hairs on your neck and arms.
It's easier for me than the rally people. It's spring, and the snow and ice have gone, and I'm in the latest Porsche Boxster, which may have grown a little compared with its predecessor, with a 60-millimetre longer wheelbase, but it's between 20 and 32 kilograms lighter than the old car, thanks to the greater use of light alloys and high-tensile steel.
This all makes it more incisive in its handling than before, especially with tracks 40mm wider up front and 18mm wider at the rear. While you can still get the tail to flick a tad closer to bridge parapets and sheer drops than is ideal, the subtly manageable level of control the car gives you is remarkable.
The very raison d'etre of the Boxster is its handling and cornering. Fluent, communicative and delightfully balanced, the car's mid-engined configuration is unmatched in its segment, which is full of front-engined, rear-driven cars offering none of the sheer accuracy and precision displayed by either Boxster model.
The nice thing is that despite being managed minutely when things get out of shape by electronic chassis aids, intervention is rare and doesn't ruin the tight connection between the driver and the road.
The rally road is so full of pock- marks, frost damage and surface breaks that you tend wince at first in the Boxster. That's because it still feels firm and taut as all Boxsters are. But without a hint of soft cossetting, the car's damping control takes you over such holes and rills with ridiculous ease.
With the base car on 18-inch rims and the S model on 19s, you can have your visual appeal without ride compromise, and the car does look better with bigger standard wheels.
The car's steering engineers must have been confident about its full electric steering to send me up into such a rough, narrow, drive route in France's Maritime Alps, but although some similar systems can seem numb and uncommunicative, you can't say that about the new Boxster.
It's as crisp, accurate and incisive as the 991 Carrera with which it shares most of its front end, and instead of chattering over bumps, the steering wheelrim feedback is pleasingly lucid.
All the more to enjoy the rally stage. The Boxster turns in very neatly and then allows its driver to guide its nose precisely through corners, with the engine's linear and predictable power delivery never likely to take over.
You sit deeper in the Boxster now in a wider, roomier cabin, and even though my driving day starts with a dawn that's not much over zero degrees Celsius, my fingers and face were toasted nicely by the car's four square- sculpted vents on the dashtop, and I was tucked neatly away from the slipstream.
Should rain interrupt play, the new Boxster's hood will rise (and fall) in just nine seconds, so even in places where summers are measured in minutes, the Porsche will allow you to make the most of those moments.
More time is saved by the way Porsche uses the automatic clamping roof's hard panel to double-up as a tonneau cover. It's neat, quick, and easier on the finger nails. For all that, I do wonder why the Boxster doesn't yet have a folding alloy roof like some competitors.
Porsche says this is to preserve the rear stowage area's 130-litre load volume when the roof's down, but with a front compartment of 150 litres, something no competitor car has, it's not much of an argument. Perhaps that will come at facelift time.
Porsche won't want to make too many changes to this completely redesigned Boxster any time soon. The squared-up stance the new, larger car has gained, tempered with soft curves over the wheel arches, and pulled together by stacked front lamps under deeper front lenses than before and above a classic three- slot undergrille, is a triumph.
From the side, a more emphatic side scoop and a longer tapered channel give increased horizontal visual tension, which is reinforced by a more severely raked-back screen, lowering the car overall by 18mm.
But the rear of the car is the best part. A pert crease runs from each rear-light cluster and connects via the rear edge of the car's automatic spoiler.
Previously, the Boxster seemed a boyish try-hard that didn't visually know which way it was going. Now, it has gained the muscular edges of puberty, appropriate in its 16th year, and we already know from the car's amazing engine note that its voice has broken.
Critics of the original Boxster lamented its relative lack of go from the 2.5-litre flat-six engine, which was maxed out at 154 kilowatts. For its coming of age, the engine in the base model now produces 195kW from 200cc more - the new 2.7-litre power unit is a direct-injected unit created from the top-echelon S model's 3.4-litre block, itself producing 235kW.
The big advantage the new Boxster retains over the larger, quicker 911 is that the engine is mid rather rear-mounted and therefore closer to achieving perfect balance within the car's wheelbase. Also, for the sake of that goosebump-inducing engine note, it is closer to one's ears!
Direct injection, variable valve timing, revamped pistons and a slicker intake setup not only increase power output and torque, but enable both Boxster engines to delivered their outputs over a broader revolution range.
Having your cake and eating it too is that fact that the 2.7-litre unit is 15.4 per cent cheaper to run at 7.7 litres per 100 kilometres against the previous model's 9.1litres per 100km, while the 3.4-litre S model goes down 14.9 per cent from 9.4 litres per 100km to 8.0 litres per 100km.
In addition to providing fuel savings, the new Boxster S ducks under the magic five-second bracket in the zero to 100kmh sprint. Despite giving away a total of 700cc and 37kW and 80 newton metres, the base Boxster manages 5.5sec, which not so long ago was in 911 territory.
Both cars feel flexible, particularly in the mid range, but there's no doubt that the S is the more explosive in terms of flat-out acceleration.
For all that, the 2.7-litre car would appear to have as much as a fairly serious day-to-day driver would ever need, and one of the hardest decisions will be whether the 37kW that separates the two models is worth the projected $20,000 price difference.
Either way, Porsche has rewarded the Boxster's sales performance in the past 16 years by moving it up a step in the company's lineup, now that a four- cylinder entry-point sports car has been confirmed for the not-too- distant future.
The expected one per cent price hike over the previous model, which puts the Boxster in the $120,000 to $140,000 range, maintains the model's place as the least expensive Porsche for a while at least, while in terms of performance and driveability ,it makes it harder than ever to justify spending $100,000 more on a Carrera.
Drivetrain: Mid-mounted rear- drive, direct-injected 24-valve quad-cam flat sixes with six- speed manual or seven-speed PDK.
Performance: Boxster - 2706cc producing 195kW at 6700rpm, 280Nm at 4500-6500rpm, max 264kmh, 0-100kmh 5.5sec, 7.7L/100km, 180g/km CO2, Euro5 rated.
Performance: Boxster S - 3436cc producing 235kW at 6700rpm, 360Nm at 4500-5800rpm, max 277kmh, 0-100kmh 4.8sec, 8.0L/100km, 188g/km CO2, Euro5 rated.
Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear transverse control arms with MacPherson struts, electric power assisted steering, vented front and rear disc brakes, 18-inch alloy rims on Boxster, 19-inch on S.
Safety: Front side and curtain airbags, stability and traction control and ABS all standard.
Dimensions: L 4374mm, W 1801mm H 1282mm, W/base 2475mm, F/track 1526mm, R/track 1536mm (S 1540mm), weight 1320-1350kg, fuel 64L.
Pricing: Boxster expected to be about $120,000, S just over $141,000 (about 1 per cent up).
HOT: Proposed pricing, improved performance, ride quality, cabin comfort and muscular styling.
NOT: It really should have a tin-top by now. Base model can't be had with exhausts enhancer.
VERDICT: The brilliant new Boxster will remain Porsche's most balanced, best-value model for some time.