1997 Porsche Boxster
KOLN, Germany — From the moment the Porsche Boxster concept
car was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in 1993, the question
was: will the production car be a "real" Porsche?
After all, every Porsche since the 1963 911 has been
considered less than pur sang by Porschephiles. The 914 was a
Volkswagen. The 924 was an Audi, its successors, the 944 and
968, less than genuine for a variety of reasons. The brilliant
928 was perceived as too much of a luxocruiser to be a true
No question. It's a Porsche. Even if it isn't air-cooled.
The Boxster looks like a Porsche. It goes like a Porsche. It
sounds like a Porsche. Most important, it handles like a
Well, scratch the last one. It handles better than a Porsche.
Fightin' words? Wait till you drive it.
Looks like a Porsche? You bet. There are deliberate throwbacks
to famous Porsches of the past, from the very first 356
prototype, through the Spyder 550 race car. Yet there are some
subtle touches that chief stylist Harm Lagaay insisted upon that
play with Porsche tradition.
The S-shaped shut lines of the hood (as opposed to straight on
the 911) deliberately cut across the valley formed by the front
fender-to-hood curve. A minor detail, perhaps, but still a brave
thing for a Porsche designer to do. No problem. It works.
The front end, with its complex headlight shape, recalls the
current 911. But the rear threequarter view, especially when
seen in motion (i.e. when it's flying past you) is the car's
best angle. It even looks good with the clever, powered canvas
top in place. The optional aluminum hardtop does look a bit
Grant Larson, the American-born designer who was 100 per cent
responsible for the concept car and about 80 per cent for the
finished product, has good reason to be proud.
The interior, done by a pair of Germans, isn't quite as
successful in my view, for two reasons. First, it couldn't quite
capture the funkiness of the concept car, not that we ever
thought it would. Things like exposed blades on ventilation fans
are the sort of thing that set litigation lawyers to doing
handsprings. Productionizing it inevitably brought compromise.
Second, the minor switches and trunk release levers are shiny
black plastic, which to us boomers has come to represent
Lagaay counters that research shows younger people view matte
black as cheap, and shiny black as expensive check out a Game
Boy or Nintendo. The generation gap rears its ugly head; the
Chev Beretta was ahead of its time.
The curved interior shapes, free-standing door trims and the
way the rear view mirror mimics the reflected space between the
head restraints are interesting, as is the gap between the
instrument pod and the rest of the dash. Instrument graphics are
italic in shape, another departure from the strict Teutonic
flavor of typical Porsches.
The preponderance of push buttons for radio and ventilation
controls the latter seemingly lifted intact from an Audi A4
is depressing. If Porsche and BMW have abandonded proper round
knobs, is there any hope for the rest of the world?
And the ignition switch to the left of the steering column is
another Porsche trademark I could do without. (Was Dr. Porsche
The seats are a bit lacking in lateral support for the back,
surprising considering the cornering power the car generates.
They are adjustable manually for reach, electrically for rake;
the driver also gets manual height adjustment. With a
telescoping (but not tilting) steering column, most drivers will
find a comfortable driving position.
The engine is mid-mounted, behind the passenger compartment
but ahead of the rear axle, putting the mass of the motor within
the wheelbase for reduced polar moment of inertia, hence nimble
handling, about which more anon.
An optional aluminum roof rack can be fitted, top up or down.
It's designed to carry up to 75 kg of snowboards, surfboards, or
mountain bikes (Porsche Design, naturally).
The 2.5 litre engine shares nothing with previous Porsche
motors but its flatsix boxer configuration and spacing between
Heinz Dorsch, Porsche's head of engine development testing,
told me that maximum displacement is 3.2 litres, which doesn't
seem sufficient for a new 911 (it's currently 3.6), although
with four valves and four cams, power levels will be higher for
the new 3.2 than for the old 3.6.
The Boxster engine is Porsche's first production four-valve
design, and the first four-cammer apart from some lowvolume
racing specials. These features and the water cooling were
necessary to extract the required horsepower from the required
displacement, and to keep fuel consumption and noise levels low.
It produces 204 horsepower at 6000 r.p.m. and a peak of 181
poundfeet of torque at 4500 r.p.m. Porsche's VarioCam variable
camshaft timing system, introduced on the Carrera 2, helps
flatten the torque curve, providing at least 85 per cent of that
peak value from 2000 to 6500 r.p.m.
And it goes like hell. Keep the revs over 4500, and be
prepared to move. It's decently flexible at lower engine speeds
too, but it does like to spin.
On my first turn behind the wheel, pulling out of an autobahn
parkplatz and just taking it easy for the first few minutes, I
was up to 185 km/h before I knew it. What an engine. What a
Sounds terrific too, the engine I mean, with a metallic blat
that gets particularly nasty between 5000 and 5500 r.p.m., where
the VarioCam does its business.
It's considerably quieter with the canvas roof down, not just
because there's wind noise to drown it out, but because the
folded top provides added sound insulation.
The car is never unduly noisy, but you are constantly reminded
that this is, after all, a sports car.
The exhaust note is also the only clue that there is an engine
in there; apart from oil and coolant fillers in the rear trunk,
you can't see any part of the engine without putting the car on
a hoist. Hydraulic valve lifters and longlife spark plugs mean
neither you nor your mechanic will have much need to look at it.
A new five-speed manual gearbox is the base transmission.
Shift feel is never a Porsche strength because of the long and
torturous passage the linkage must follow to reach the
rearmounted tranny. The Boxster's box is a little closer to the
shifter; the shift feel is predictably better than usual.
The clutch is a little on the heavy side, but takeup is
strong and smooth. Shift speed and quality are therefore up to
the skill of the driver, not handicapped in any way by the
A five-speed Tiptronic manual-automatic is the transmission
option. It's an all-new gearbox, whose shape precludes fitting
it to the current 911 (bet the farm it'll be in the 996). Shifts
are both quicker and smoother than before.
Unlike previous Tiptronics, this one provides for manual
operation only by rocker switches on the steering wheel spokes.
The old Tiptronic allowed toggling the shift lever forward or
back; now, you either put it in "D", in which case it does all
the work for you, or slide it over to "M", wherein your
fingertips (or, in my case, the fleshy part of the hand at the
base of the thumb) nudges the switch up to upshift, or down to
Tiptronic is almost smarter in drive mode. It can, for
example, sense lateral acceleration, and will hold a gear if you
lift off in a sharp corner, rather than upshift as a
conventional automatic would, which might upset the car just
when it might need the torque the lower gear provides.
It has taken me several sessions with Tiptronic Porsches to
begin to appreciate it a half-hour downtown Stuttgart traffic
jam in a manual Boxster made me pine for it. I'm not sure I
would buy one, but neither would I reject it out of hand, like
too many sports car purists do. It's technically interesting,
fun to play with, and most drivers are quicker with it. Remind
me again: exactly why do you buy a sports car?
Porsche turns a cost disadvantage unlike its competitors,
Boxster is not based on a mass-produced sedan into an
advantage: exclusivity and fitness for purpose. This is
particularly evident in the suspension, designed expressly for a
You might wonder why they stick with a semi-MacPherson strut
design, rather than the theoretically superior double wishbone
But drive the car and there can be no doubt: this is one of
the fine handlers in the world.
Mid-engined cars tend to be twitchy, with turnin that can be
too abrupt. But Porsche has taken their Weissach rear axle
concept, which toes the outside rear wheel inward in a corner to
counteract oversteer, and extended it to the front suspension,
where slight toeout of the outer front wheel increases
stabilizing understeer. It also means hard braking in a corner
won't upset the car.
The result is positively brilliant. Both ends of the car work
strongly in hard cornering. Yet unlike a 911, you don't have to
be a Jacques Villeneuve to extract maximum lateral acceleration.
This handling doesn't compromise ride quality. Yes, it's firm,
but the car handles bumps large and small with cushy ease.
Did I mention braking? Always a Porsche hallmark, the Boxster
doesn't disappoint. Racing-derived one-piece cast aluminum
calipers (think about machining the piston bores in these
things) are completely flex-free; you get retardation
immediately on initial pedal touch, and it stays there forever.
The Boxster will carry a $58,000 sticker when the first of
about 300 cars start wending their way into Canadian Porsche
dealerships early next year.
Options will be available in packages cruise, CD player, a
host of other goodies but package content and prices haven't
been finalized yet.
The Boxster is the third of three brilliant German machines
that are redefining the sports car market. All three
Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3 and the Boxster are roughly the same size,
and are aiming at roughly the same market. When the Z3 is
available with the 2.8 litre six cylinder engine, they'll all be
roughly similar in power and price too.
And yet, all three are distinctly different, and accurately
reflect their originating companies' philosophies.
The SLK is solid, beautifully built, and its disappearing
hardtop is an engineering tour de force . But you do have to dig
deep to find its excellent handling; limited luggage space
aside, it's more of a touring machine.
The Z3 in current guise is a bare-bones fun car, and certainly
the value leader. But it will need the six before it competes on
The Boxster is a pure sports car, with spectacular
performance, outstanding handling and brakes, and modern, cheeky
And this cannot be understated it's a genuine Porsche.