2011 Porsche Boxster Driving Impressions

The heart of a Boxster, by location and soul, is the engine placed low in between the rear wheels and the seats. Keeping mass low and in the middle of the car, rather than over one end or the other, is the best way to build in two key sports car traits: balance and a low center of gravity.

Equipped with direct injection, all three Boxster engines are smooth, rev-happy, flat-sixes. The base Boxster uses a 2.9-liter version with 255 horsepower, the S model's 3.4-liter makes 310 horsepower, and the Spyder's 3.4-liter produces 320 horses. In the S model that equates to less than 10 pounds per horsepower, and in the Boxster Spyder it equals 8.8 pounds per horsepower.

Twist the key and the high-compression, direct-injection engines bristle to life with an eager note unlike any other engine configuration. Throttle response is immediate, the mechanical whirring so fine and light it sounds like something you could hold in your hand. Like every Porsche flat-6 these engines do their best work at higher revs and deliver a haunting sound. We found all of the engines to be amazingly tractable, perfectly willing to toddle along at city speeds or provide willing power all the way up the rev range.

Porsche quotes the 0-60 mph sprint in 5.6 seconds for the Boxster manual and 5.0 seconds for the Boxster S, with top speeds of 163 and 170 respectively; PDK transmissions are quicker by one-to-three-tenths depending on shift mode and give up 1 mph top speed. The company says the Boxster Spyder can reach 60 in as little as 4.6 seconds with the optional launch control feature (available with the PDK), and it tops out at 124 mph with the top up and 166 mph with the top down. While that may seem backward, speed is limited with the top up because the top doesn't seal well.

The same efficiency that makes the PDK quicker also makes it more economical at 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway for the S, making it one of very few cars that will reach 60 in less than five seconds, run almost 170 mph and push 30 mpg on the highway.

All Boxsters use a 6-speed manual transmission as standard. As you'd expect, it delivers quick, crisp, error-free gear changes without heavy effort in the clutch or shifter. The marriage between throttle, clutch, and shifter in a Porsche is among the best, if not the best, in production cars.

While the manual is an excellent choice, many enthusiasts might prefer the optional PDK. True, the PDK has no clutch pedal and can be driven like a conventional automatic, but it isn't. The 7-speed gearbox is a double-clutch design; one clutch holds the current gear and the other readies the next, allowing for lightning fast shifts and none of the power loss or shift lag of early automated manual transmissions.

The PDK's shifts are so well orchestrated that there's no harshness or roughness to them, and only what seems the slightest hiccup from the tailpipe. It offers a standard mode and two sport modes, and engaging either sport mode automatically changes the adjustable suspension (if equipped) to sport as well, but that can be switched off for conditions where you'd like the quicker powertrain reaction and shifting without the firmer ride. The only PDK negatives are price ($3,420), an extra 64 pounds of mass, and adapting to its behavior at maneuvering speeds. That is, assuming you don't prefer the manual.

Stopping will never be an issue. Porsche's brake systems are among the best. Relatively speaking, they are moderate in size because the cars aren't heavy, and they are more than capable of retarding everything the engine can motivate. There's no artificial bite when you apply the pedal and just a quick brush will smoothly erase some speed, but push hard and the car will stop flat, stable and quickly.

Porsche's composite ceramic brakes (PCCB) may be ordered on the Boxster S and Boxster Spyder. This upgrade, set off by its yellow calipers, delivers superb, fade-free braking and gives the added benefit of reducing unsprung mass by nearly 35 pounds and thereby bettering ride and handling. PCCB lists for a hefty $8,150, though over the long run will likely require less frequent brake service.

Steering action is precise and fluid; it telegraphs information about how the front tires are reacting with the road without kickback and vibration. Effort is just right, not the artificially heavy feel of many performance cars but rather a lighter feel delicate enough to keep the car poised and going where you want. The Boxster will reward a smooth driver, yet not punish a bad one to the extent that an early 911 would.

The suspension is designed to stick the car to the road while maintaining ride comfort for journeys longer than pit stop to pit stop. Relatively light parts translate to more precise control of those parts, and the Boxster gets through the bumps well, only becoming less than comfortable on repeating expansion joints.

When equipped with the adjustable Porsche Active Suspension Management you can improve both extremes. Ride comfort is very compliant, even on 19-inch wheels and rubber-band tires, but the press of a button tightens up the rates such that a smooth road gets as tight as a miser's wallet and bad roads get miserable. Unless you live in a driver's haven, the standard PASM setting will often produce the best results simply because most roads aren't as good as most racetracks.

The Boxster Spyder has shorter, stiffer springs, a lower ride height, and stiffer shocks and anti-roll bars. We found these changes make the car react quicker to fast changes of direction but they also make the ride busier. The Spyder's suspension rebounds more quickly, resulting in some bouncing motions that drivers may find annoying. Surprisingly, however, the Spyder doesn't have a tendency to bottom out and create sharp jolts. Instead, it reacts to potholes with that same type of bouncing motion.

A Boxster is nearly perfectly balanced and the stability control programmed so you can enjoy that balance without intervention; it will mitigate potential problems if you mistakenly believe you belong to a racing dynasty. You can fling it about with relative abandon and it won't bite back too hard, or you can waltz it around the bends gracefully, showing that classics never go out of style, they just go faster.

There are a few cars that might go faster than a Boxster (perhaps a BMW Z4), and fewer still that will stop and go through corner after corner as well (perhaps a Lotus Exige). But it's the synergy of all those elements put together, combined with the marvelous soundtrack and everyday comfort, that make the Boxster one of the most rewarding cars to drive today.

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