Driven: 2013 Porsche Boxster

By Tom Martin

November 01, 2012

—Austin, Texas
 
In our heart of hearts, when we look back on the last decade or so of sporting automobiles, only a few kinds of cars stand out. Naturally, there are the really good supercars; for us, the Ferrari 458, the Porsche 997 GT3s, the Pagani Zonda. There are also the good all-rounders; for us the E46 BMW M3, the Porsche Panamera, the Audi S4. But perhaps the warmest spot in our hearts is reserved for the driver’s cars that seem truly special and yet offer reasonable value. There could be quite a few cars on this list, including the Honda S2000, the Lotus Elise, the Mitsubishi Evos, the Mustang GT, and the Mazda MX-5. But really, one car, in our minds, has lived at the top of this list for a long time: the Porsche Boxster.
 
To be clear, different people will have different views of the Boxster, and we don’t imagine that we’ll get you to change political parties at this point, given that the car has been around for far more than a decade and the brand is beyond well-established. What we do want to point out is that, in the realm of facts, the Boxster has been and continues to be a sweet-handling car with an entertaining drivetrain. It is, pretty consistently, the lowest-priced mid-engine car in the US market.  And it is, not insignificantly for many buyers, a Porsche.
 
[Click here to read our review of the 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe]
 
Porsche has recently launched a new version of the Boxster, whose platform is designated 981. This third generation Boxster is related to the new 991 version of the 911, which was also recently introduced (prior generation Boxsters have been technically related to 911 of their periods as well).
 
Because the prior two Boxster generations—986 and 987—were so good, we think the arrival of a new Boxster constitutes a moment of significance. Of course, interested parties will want to know if the new Boxster is really an improvement, just as Porsche detractors will want to comment about this or that issue they have with the car or the people who they imagine drive them.
 
We’ll get to those topics, but we think a more useful framework for evaluating this new car, for potential buyers at least, is to consider a key question. That question is whether the new Boxster finally realizes the car’s potential to be the best driver’s car in the world?
 
We have often thought that the Boxster was painfully close to deserving such a designation. We had imagined that the designation included the issue of price, because, well, a car you can’t afford really isn’t the best car, is it? And, yeah, we know that the Boxster isn’t exactly budget-friendly, but it is a heck of a lot closer to being affordable for most people than, say, a new Ferrari of any stripe. We also know that any “Best In The World” moniker is fraught with problems of subjectivity, but still we believe this makes for a useful way to think about the car.
 
With that in mind, consider what Porsche has built in the 981 Boxster. Like the new 911, the Boxster is now bigger, with a 2.4-inch longer wheelbase and wider front and rear tracks. But the car is also lighter than the prior generation by a bit less than 100 pounds. And the classical two-engine lineup is boosted slightly in power, the 2.7-liter Boxster gaining 10 horsepower to 265, and the 3.4-liter Boxster S gaining 5 horsepower to 315. For this test, we drove the 2.7-liter Boxster, though our tester wasn’t exactly a base car, since it had a PDK automated manual transmission, Sport Chrono, Porsche Active Suspension Management, and Torque Vectoring.
 
To understand whether this new Boxster pushes the car into the realm of “Best Car In The World,” you have to consider what was lacking in the old one. We’d say that the answer is “not much,” but really it comes down to three issues: exterior design, everyday comfort, and power.
 
When it comes to exterior design, previous Boxsters have been, well, not bad. The 986 Boxster was okay, but a little homely. It wasn’t exactly cute, nor was it really seductive, though it was a Porsche. The 987 improved on this by removing some of the imbalanced aspects of the original, especially the odd hockey-stick headlights. Still, the 987 simply looked a little too much like an entry-level sports car.
 
We think the 981 transcends those problems. The 981 shape is more complete and the details more interesting. It also doesn’t hurt that the car is slightly bigger, with a more significant stance than before. The 981, however, is still a classic sports car—not a supercar or supercoupe, so there’s that statement choice to contend with, but if you bought one, we’d bet you’d walk out to the parking lot after work and say, “Damn, that looks good,” on occasion.
 
The comfort issues with previous Boxsters start with cabin noise. Of course, convertibles tend to be noisier than metal-roof cars. Porsche sports cars also tend to be noisier than their competition, with a special ability to ingest road noise. The new Boxster reduces this problem significantly, so that, while we wouldn’t compare the quiet of the car to a sedan, it is perfectly usable for conversations or Bluetooth phone calls while highway cruising.
 
At the same time, the new Boxster sounds pretty good. When you mash the throttle and get the revs up, a pleasing metallic edge rises from the engine bay. And yet, while cruising, the engine is only just audible. Put the top down, and things get better because the exhaust note is a bigger part of the proceedings. Still, at times we could ask for more total volume all around, something that may be on tap if you spring for the switchable sport exhaust.
 
There is more to comfort than sound, and here critics have noted that Boxsters interiors have traditionally been on the small side of ideal. The new car probably only expands the interior space by an inch or two, and yet this difference really helps. It is by no means a big car, nor a wide car, but it doesn’t feel squeezed any more for normal people. This subtle change is enhanced by slightly softer seats and a generally more upscale interior ambience, along with the option to have almost all the electronic wizardry that automakers have to offer these days (at a price, however).
 
The other important comfort issue with previous Boxsters has been a bit of secondary-ride (small-bump) harshness. Realistically, Boxsters have been better than many 911s at this, but for a car positioned to be a daily driver, some might have wanted want more compliance from a 986 or 987. Porsche has attended to this issue as well, and we were impressed with how nicely the new Boxster smoothes out broken pavement, even with the dampers on their sport setting. The difference is subtle, and may involve the longer wheelbase more than suspension tuning, but somehow the ride quality crosses a threshold. The ride remains firm, to be sure, but thanks to a stiff chassis and good dampers, you can enjoy this feature rather than bracing for the next jolt. Of course, it must be said that we did our testing in Texas, and it might be that the harsher roads in the north would reveal more unpleasantness than shown by the more moderate infrastructure decay of the Lone Star State.
 
So, now, we come to the issue of power. This issue is quite a bit more complex than addressing concerns about either cabin or ride comfort. For those of you who like the punchline without the setup, we’ll simply say, the Boxster—and we do mean the base 2.7-liter—has just about the ideal power-to-weight ratio for the street. Finally.
 
To explain, let’s start with this controversial view, which we’ve consistently articulated: on the street, the ideal power level isn’t the maximum possible. And, as we’ve articulated at length, that’s because high power-to-weight ratios limit driver involvement. You don’t need or can’t work the car as much if you have a lot of power. We understand that some people just want a lot of power. And we understand that some parts of the country don’t offer much in the way of twisty roads. So, certainly, high power-to-weight cars like the Z06 and GT-R have their place. We’re just saying that moderate power-to-weight cars can be as enjoyable and are generally even more enjoyable on the roads where most people actually drive.
 
The Boxster clearly falls in this latter, moderate power-to-weight group. At about 11 pounds per horsepower, the Boxster has more punch than a Honda S2000 (12 pounds per horsepower) , about the same as a 370Z convertible (10.5 pounds per horsepower) but less than the outgoing BMW M3 (8.9 pounds per horsepower). Still, in a world where faster isn’t always more enjoyable, and where pace is affected by torque curves, gearing, and throttle response as much as numerical horsepower-to-weight, the real question is how the Boxster feels. Or, since we know some of you are concerned about defending the spec of your car, we’ll amend that to say if your concern is about driving the car enjoyably, not debating it online, then the real question is how the Boxster feels.
 
And on that subject we want to say that, for the first time, the base car gets into the territory of feeling genuinely quick. The older cars were actually brilliant at being fun to run through the gears around town at moderate pace. The problem was that beyond that, with the base engine, the cars didn’t feel like they had that much more to give. Now the Boxster moves when you mash the right pedal. No, it isn’t scary fast. But use the gears correctly and the car jumps, and yet it also extends the pleasure long enough that you enjoy the pull.
 
We do think that the car will be just on the edge of “enough” for some buyers, though that is partially because this isn’t a high-torque setup. That is, the car is plenty fast, but if you just want to be able to punch it at an arbitrary rpm level (say 1800) without shifting, this is not your car. For that kind of experience, you probably want a V-8, and not just any V-8. On the other hand, shift the Boxster so that you’re running above 3000 rpm or higher, and the it probably will surprise you. It strikes a very rewarding balance between needing some shifting and some planning to go fast, and having enough thrust and the right power curve to reward you when you get it right.
 
With all this talk about comfort and power, we’ve taken it as a given, thus far, that the Boxster has a great chassis. And it does. One part of this is the mid-engine arrangement. Another part of this is low weight (2888 pounds in base form). And then there is some measure of Porsche engineering thrown in. We don’t know how much each of those factors plays in the handling equation. What we do know is that the Boxster loves to turn. The car wants to rotate, and yet it doesn’t feel nervous or edgy. It feels balanced, although you sense that the weight balance is tilted to the rear (a joy for some but unnerving for others). The car makes transitions in a very controlled way, without feeling sloppy or hard to direct. The steering is precise, and the ratio about ideal, though we wouldn’t rate it as full of communication.  Add it up and the Boxster’s handling makes you realize how flabby and imprecise the handling of most street cars really is.
 
So, to summarize the story so far, the new Boxster retains the superb handling of prior editions while improving the looks, the ride, the quietness and the power of the car. Each of these latter improvements, while evolutionary, manages in our view to cross a threshold so that it is hard to find fault with the car. That isn’t a phrase we’ve used with other cars priced in or even above this range. So we could say, value included, the Boxster is the best driver’s car in the world.
 
That said, the Boxster isn’t flawless. If the new Boxster does have a fault it is in the area of character. Which is to say, Porsche seems to have taken the consumer complaint list and addressed every issue in a carefully considered way that makes the car impressively good when you analyze it. And yet something is missing. Like many modern cars, the Boxster is so well engineered that at times the driver feels a bit left out. This will be a subjective thing, so you should check it for yourself. And you should compare the Boxster directly to other cars you’d actually buy because, despite our carefully considered critique, in reality many obvious competitors aren’t on the same planet in terms of driving dynamics.
 
Subjective or not, we think part of the problem is with the PDK transmission. Now we do need to point out that, like the car, the transmission is a technological marvel. If you simply must have an automated transmission, this one is equal to the best there is. Shifts are fast, and we don’t just mean kinda fast, they are about as instantaneous as we can imagine right now. And, shifts happen pretty much right when you ask for them. Delay might not be zero, but it is close enough. Also, with Sport Chrono ticked on the option list, the shift programs in full automatic mode are pretty interesting, from normal cruise to track-ready. This transmission, for a driver, is so much better than a traditional automatic, thanks to eliminating the torque converter, that we’re sorry there is any confusion between the two technologies.
 
So, what’s the problem with PDK? Well, in summary, the most technologically adept automated manuals are simply too smooth. With a traditional manual, you modulate the throttle and clutch to create a fun, non-linear power curve. PDK smoothes that over. It also reduces the interaction pleasure with the mechanical bits (gear lever and clutch). Some people are happy to rid themselves of this stuff, but getting rid of it gets rid of an element of character that doesn’t have an obvious replacement. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
 
The other element of missing character comes via the fancy suspension bits. Porsche has worked overtime to make sure the Boxster has all the control a car in this price range can muster. Optioned the way our car was, you have shocks that adjust to road conditions, stability control, torque vectoring (e.g., using the brakes to enable turn-in), and active engine dampers that reduce the movement of the biggest mass within the chassis during cornering.
 
We took the Boxster out to a track that is very twisty and full of bumps, and we were seriously impressed with how well the suspension coped with bumpy turns. The Boxster just doesn’t seem to get upset in these conditions. You turn, it tracks. As a track day car, we can see the merits of this, because frankly most owners don’t want to see their precious Porsche spinning into the weeds. And, frankly, track days are much more about control and much less about interesting interactions with the chassis at seven-tenths. But on the street, where we think most owners will be driving the vast majority of the time, the Boxster’s level of iron-fisted control might be one step too much to be perfect.
 
We also think there may be an answer to this. In simple terms: buy the base car. That gets you a traditional six-speed manual transmission. It also gets you a simpler suspension, minus active shocks and motor mounts, and sans torque vectoring. We haven’t driven a Boxster so configured, and therefore we’re speculating, but if you want a little more character, this could be the ticket. We have tested a base suspension 991-generation 911 vs. a maximum supreme 911 and found the base car more entertaining on the street.
 
Getting the base car also saves you some serious coin. In all honesty, for a lot of you, getting the value equation we outlined at the opening of this review to work requires going light on the options. As an example, our heavily optioned test car had an MSRP of $78,125. Now test cars are typically optioned so that the manufacturers can show off all their latest gizmos. Fine. But to see if the value proposition of the original car had been lost, we built a car online that we think we’d enjoy at least as much as the test car, at a price of $52,930 including destination charges. That’s not cheap, but it is more manageable for many.
 
The Boxster impresses as the rare great car at a price accessible by many. In saying this, we aren’t saying the Boxster is the best car in or around this price range for everyone. Some people will reasonably want another kind of automotive thrill or a different mix of function and fun. We are saying that what Porsches do is pretty darn desirable and the Boxster now does what Porsches do really well. It finally feels like Porsche didn’t hold back its engineering or design geniuses to protect the big brother 911. The Boxster now comes with 100-percent Porsche-ness as standard equipment.
 
2013 Porsche Boxster 7AT
Engine: Flat-6, 2.7 liters, 24v
Output: 265 hp/206 lb-ft
Weight:  2954 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 22/32 mpg
0-60 MPH: 5.2 sec
Base Price: $52,700