Update: 2013 Porsche Boxster

By Tom Martin

February 04, 2013

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In our initial review of the Porsche Boxster, the press car we tested had the base 2.7-liter engine, and yet was loaded with both performance and comfort options. Porsche offers one of the richest arrays of options among all manufacturers, so Porsche PR had plenty to choose from in decking out our $49,500 base Boxster with $28,625 in options. Fans of this system, among which you can count your humble servants, point out that Porsche allows you to get your car configured pretty much exactly the way you want. And if you’ve ever said something like, “Gee, I wish you could get the Mark Levinson sound system and heated rear seats with the diesel engine,” you’ll understand the benefits of the Porsche system. It is impressively flexible. It isn’t perfect, in part because it can be costly, and also because it can be confusing.
The most impressive but potentially confusing part of the Porsche option system, circa 2013, is the variety of performance options on offer. With the sports cars, generally there are choices of:
.  Two engines
.  Base, adjustable (PASM) and sport suspensions
.  Sport Chrono, which offers drivetrain mass damping and launch control (on PDK)
.  Torque vectoring
.  Two transmissions: traditional manual and PDK dual-clutch paddle-shift
.  Two exhaust systems
.  Two steering assist levels
.  Two steering wheels with different shift mechanisms for PDK
.  Two or three wheel diameters, sometimes with different tire widths
.  On some 911s you can also get active roll control and either AWD or RWD
You can’t exactly choose each item separately, but the arrangement is pretty close to a la carte. Realistically there are double-digit numbers of configurations here, at least.
That wouldn’t matter to prospective buyers if a) Porsche buyers didn’t care about driving subtleties, and b) if all these choices were gimmickery. But Porsche buyers do care and Porsche is a real engineering company, so the technology does things that are readily perceivable. Because of all the permutations, it is also unlikely that your dealer has the various permutations available so that you can do the testing.
We aren’t going to solve this problem, because Porsche PR doesn’t have all the permutations either. But we did opine, while testing the Boxster with PDK, PASM, Torque Vectoring and Sport Chrono on 20-inch wheels, that the base car might be preferable. Not just “better for the money,” but outright more fun to drive.
So, we set out to check our speculation by comparing Max, as it were, to Min. Ever the fans of exploration with Porsches, we drove a Boxster (2.7-liter) with but a single performance option: 19-inch wheels replaced the standard 18-inch offering. Otherwise, our car had a six-speed manual and base suspension.
We offer the following observations. First, the six-speed in the Boxster is a honey. Although in principle it is a carryover from the 987, Porsche seems to have tightened up the mechanical aspects of the mechanism. It isn’t quite in Honda territory, but it compensates by feeling beefier. And we think the new sloped-console design adds to this excellence by raising the shift knob a welcome amount.
The switch from PDK to a self-shifted manual is accompanied by the normal increase in involvement. We should remind you that Porche’s PDK is superb. But there are several involvement advantages to a regular manual. There is just plain more to do (throttle off, clutch in, lever moved, clutch out, throttle on vs. pull paddle) and what you are doing has a more direct mechanical effect. In addition, with a regular manual you have quite a bit more control over the exact application of power during shifts and this leads to a pleasing (for fans of the art) sense of non-linear power delivery that you pretty much can’t get with PDK’s devotion to smoothness.
Now, to be sure, every one of those manual “advantages” can be turned around and seen as a disadvantage and a point in favor of PDK. And, PDK of course has advantages in stop and go traffic and for significant others who do not feel comfortable with a clutch pedal.
But if it is involvement you want, the manual is a better choice. This is amplified a bit with the smaller 2.7-liter engine. As we reported before, this engine is on the edge of “not enough” with PDK. PDK is very smooth and the engine itself doesn’t have the punch needed to substitute throttle shenanigans for shifting fun. With the manual, things are more fun, but we think a lot of buyers will find themselves below 4000 rpm on the street much of the time, and there the engine still registers as insufficient. We are fans of smaller engines that require the driver to do some work, but we think a lot of you will simply want for more (torque). If you are coming from an MX-5 or S2000 or Elise, you might be happy with the base mill.
On the suspension side, we think many of you could save the money that all the fancy bits cost. On the street, the base suspension is slightly less tightly controlled and as a result somewhat more entertaining. Please read that sentence again, because it runs against conventional but inaccurate wisdom. At well less than full tilt, a car with ultra-firm body control will tend to be inert and boring. And since, on the street, you are rarely at ten-tenths, the result is that the most firmly controlled cars are often a bit dull. The base suspension on the Boxster therefore helps a bit with the fun quotient.
It also saves some serious coin. The PDK, PASM, Sport Chrono, PTV options add about $8160 to the price. If you skip those, you could almost substitute the 3.4-liter engine ($11,400). And since going from Boxster to Boxster S gets you some other goodies, it is pretty close to a wash. We almost never think the bigger motor is really a good deal for the street, but in this case we’d seriously consider it. Fortunately, you can try the 2.7-liter and decide if it is enough for you.
Now, if you regularly track your car, things might be different. First off, the increase in wheel control and reduction in mass shifting from the fancy gear seems to pay off. We felt the fully optioned car was impressively balanced on the track, whereas we had the base car sideways at the second turn. We would also mention that, if you are a track day person, you aren’t racing and you’re usually above 4000 rpm, so the base engine is probably sufficient. Or at least we can say that the extra $10k for the engine is largely a matter of taste. With the throttle pinned and the engine spinning at 5500 revs or more we don’t think you’ll care about the difference. If you’re on a budget, we’d put the money into the suspension. And entry fees.
To summarize, we think the base Boxster is great. If you understand why you’re choosing it and don’t get in a bother about what you might be missing, it is impressive. At the same time, we couldn’t shake the feeling that it shaves off a small bit of charm that the earlier 987 and 986 cars had. We mentioned this with the heavily option test car and we’d say the base car still has this limitation. Some people will want to blame the electric steering and that is a part of it, though basically the gearing and weighting are quite good (at least it isn’t the muck BMW now usually serves up as steering). But we think the drive toward tightly controlled suspensions has a hand in the street-driving fun reduction too.
We’ll close by saying that the Boxster is so much better as a driver’s car than its nominal competitors the Z4 and the SLK that our quibbles might be misconstrued. The Boxster is a really good car. At the same time, if you’re looking at the it, you really should also drive a TTRS and an MX-5 just to get clear on what you want. Each offers some superb engineering and each has limitations. We think drivers will know in about three minutes which car they prefer. Ah, choices.