From the very first glimpse of Porsche's third-generation Boxster parked up against a wall in a dimly lit garage somewhere in downtown San Francisco, we find ourselves wondering. Not so much about how it will look when the camouflage is removed and the new car is finally revealed at next year's Geneva auto show. No, the primary thought occupying our mind centers around whether the new roadster, which is planned to go on sale in North America next May, can possibly match the lofty on-road qualities established by its 8-year-old predecessor. As anyone with a current-model Boxster will attest, this new one has a lot to live up to.
It's early morning, and as the city by the bay awakens under a layer of autumnal fog we're anxiously waiting to join the Porsche test and development team for what is being billed as the final shakedown of the new Boxster, which carries the internal code name 981, before it is given a definitive green light for production. Our destination is Los Angeles — a distance of about 600 miles on the route we're set to follow for the next day or so.
Still a Boxster
Even wearing the taped disguise and body cladding, the 2013 Porsche Boxster Prototype seems very close to the old model, the 987, in the looks department. But don't let first appearances fool you. The evolutionary theme evident in the first two generations of the midengine two-seater has apparently given way to a more progressive approach aimed at providing the new model with truly fresh appeal. In other words, it looks tough, not svelte.
As Hans-Jurgen Wohler, the project leader of the new car confirms before we get under way, almost everything has changed. "We have really taken a big step this time around. The changes go deeper than we've ever made to the Boxster over the years — and that also applies to the way it looks."
We will get to know the new roadster a lot better in early 2012 when Porsche divulges official photographs and some more specific details. But for now we can reveal it has grown, if only marginally, in both length and width, while a new automatic roof structure no longer requires manual attachment. It's also slightly shorter than its immediate predecessor.
Following the 911
One change that is clearly obvious when you see it up close is the adoption of larger wheel houses. They're designed to accommodate standard 18-inch wheels, with 19-inch alloys among a long list of options, giving the new Boxster an even more voluptuous silhouette.
With a body made predominantly of aluminum, it is now lighter than before. "If we had continued with steel, it would have ended up being much heavier. And clearly that's not something we wanted. From very early in the development phase we decided the new model would get a high percentage of aluminum," Wohler says.
In keeping with the changes made to the latest 911, with which the 2013 Porsche Boxster Prototype continues to share much of its front end structure, it also rides on a longer wheelbase and runs a considerably wider front track.
Sliding into the passenger seat of the Boxster brings further surprises. The biggest change is a lower seating position. The beltline, so we're told, is much the same height as before, but the lower seat gives the impression that it sits higher in relation to your shoulder. The additional length and width within the body also provides for greater interior space. There's added seat travel, setting up greater legroom, and clearly more shoulder room, too. Still, it remains a strict two-seater.
Once we have tucked away the fabric covers used to hide the interior when the prototypes are parked overnight, the new dashboard design is revealed. Its gauges, switches and angled center console — which eliminates the mechanical parking brake in favor of a new electronic device — are all Panamera-inspired. The revised layout also places the gear lever higher than before, shortening the distance to the steering wheel. In terms of quality, ergonomics and visual appeal it's a big step forward, providing a much classier feel.
Despite all the changes that help provide the Boxster with a more upmarket feel, two traditional touches remain: the mounting of the ignition to the left of the steering wheel and the five-dial instrument binnacle. Stowage space within the interior is rather scarce, but there are still 9.9 cubic feet of luggage capacity, which is more than most rivals can claim.
The First Miles in Boxster No. 3...
From the first crank of the key, we're satisfied that despite the changes it still sounds like a Boxster. There's a typical clap of exhaust as the ignition catches, followed by a high-frequency whine from the various flywheels turning over behind our backs. Then it is down to business with a short run through rush-hour traffic to Telegraph Hill.
It is here, within sight of the old Alcatraz jail complex on some of the steepest navigable streets anywhere in the world, where Porsche traditionally performs driveline tests with stop-and-go runs at inclines of up to 37 degrees. It must be murder on the clutch, but the new Boxster S we're in takes it in stride, gliding off from a standstill without any hint of wind-up. Other features come into play, too, including a new hill-holder function, which gets a workout as we come to a standstill and accelerate, time and time again.
Through city streets and across the imposing Golden Gate Bridge we're aware of the new Boxster's less busy ride. There's less bobbing of the nose on broken surfaces and a calmer feel to the way it copes with transverse expansion joints. Wohler points out that the suspension in the new model offers firmer springs and softer damping, along with softer bushings and a marginal increase in wheel travel.
In keeping with the claims it hoisted on the 911, Porsche says the longer wheelbase and wider front track improve stability. It's not immediately obvious from the passenger seat. But when I query Wohler, he's full of praise for the new setup. "It's more stable at speed and less susceptible to changes in road camber," he says.
Engine Downsizing and Other Drivetrain Changes
We're not at liberty to reveal too much about the new Boxster's engine lineup. What we can say is that it will follow the downsizing trend evident in the new 911. The base engine in the Boxster is reduced from 2.9 liters to 2.7 liters, while the Boxster S swaps its existing 3.4-liter unit for a smaller 3.2-liter mill. Power figures are a closely guarded secret, but if we were to guess we'd settle on something in the vicinity of 265 and 325 horsepower, with torque extending slightly to 220 and 235 pound-feet, respectively.
While the base Boxster retains the same six-speed manual gearbox as the outgoing model, the more powerful Boxster S adopts the same seven-speed manual unit brought to the new 911. It uses the same gearset as the optional seven-speed double-clutch PDK unit and receives a lockout device that only allows you to dial up 7th from either 5th or 6th.
Porsche's test team wasn't giving away much about the straight-line performance either, but after some prodding they did indicate the new Boxster and Boxster S possess 0-62-mph times that have been improved by around 0.2 second over the old models. This translates to a time of 5.7 seconds for the former, with the latter set to get down to 5.1 seconds in production trim.
With new fuel-saving technologies, including stop/start and a new thermo management system that allows the gearbox to go without external cooling for the first time, they're also much more fuel-efficient than the models they replace. When running the optional seven-speed double-clutch PDK gearbox, which offers Porsche's new coasting function that disconnects the gearbox from the engine under low-load conditions, average consumption is reduced a massive 18 percent, according to Wohler. The Boxster is now said to achieve up to 27.7 mpg.
Destination: Los Angeles
Halfway through our run we're beginning to get a pretty good picture of the new Boxster. The improved ride comfort and added quietness within the cabin on constant throttle loads have clearly enhanced its cruising ability. The added accommodation and new interior appointments also make the most affordable of Porsche models a nicer place to be for extended journeys. The only niggle evident on the well-worn prototype so far is an incessant squeak from the seal surrounding the passenger-side window. "It's already on the list of things to fix," says Wohler when we point it out.
At a stop for lunch it is decided to run both prototypes roof-down for the next phase of the test. The multilayered cloth structure is slightly larger than before, owing to the increased length of the cabin. However, a new design has seen it shed weight. It also does without the manual attachment of the previous Boxster, greatly enhancing its ease of usability. One prolonged poke of a switch on the center console is all it takes to see the fully automatic roof fold back in a semi-exposed position behind the seats in less than 10 seconds — the fastest in its class, according to Porsche's test team.
For the final part of the journey we're joined by Alex Ernst, the engineer responsible for development quality and testing. He points the 2013 Porsche Boxster Prototype down a road he says Porsche uses as part of its California test program. We've been sworn to secrecy, so we can't reveal where it is. What we can say, though, is that it is among the most brilliantly designed pieces of bitumen you'll find anywhere.
With the roof down and the optional Sport mode activated — at which two butterfly throttles in the exhaust open to intensify the engine note — the news is immediately good. The downsized flat-6 may sound familiar. But it is still among the most memorable road car engines when working hard, producing a cacophony of sounds that are as delightful as they are menacing.
So What Is It Really Like?
The longer wheelbase and widening of the front track are not the only major changes to the chassis. Porsche has also altered what could be described as the Boxster's most defining feature — its steering. Following the move taken with the 911, the new model forgoes traditional hydraulic assistance for new electromechanical actuation. Ernst admits it is among the most important aspects of the new car. "It is much calmer and doesn't transmit as much impact back to the steering wheel on challenging surfaces," he says.
We can't be too certain about its steering just yet, although if the new 911 is any guide, it is likely to be good rather than brilliant. But as we watch from the passenger seat, there are no sudden corrections, even as we romp through bends at speeds that would have rival roadsters searching for answers. And therein lies the fundamental achievement with the new Boxster. There's a complete lack of drama in the way it goes about its business. The reworked chassis has not only brought greater levels of pliancy but also added security — so much so that it is evident from the passenger seat.
After running up and down that secret Porsche test road, we can only surmise the limits of the new car's handling are higher even than those of its highly rated predecessor. Proof of this is in its ability to carry significant speed through corners without any need for the driver to hesitate in his commitment. Also, there's no intervention from the stability control. We looked for it, expected it even, but the warning light in the instrument binnacle remained off.
So, What Do We Think?
It's always dangerous making impressions of a car from the passenger seat. But after two days of riding shotgun next to a team of crack Porsche development engineers we're nothing but genuinely excited about the new Boxster.
We can confidently say that it is imbued with greater levels of comfort and refinement — factors that make it a better proposition over long distances than the 8-year-old model. Its new interior, with its classier dashboard and added accommodation, also promise to make the new Boxster easier to live with on an everyday basis. And based on what we felt as we rode shotgun up one of Porsche's favorite roads, it comfortably operates at a higher dynamic level than the outgoing model.
But until we can feel the responses of the reworked chassis through the steering wheel, meter out the performance of its reworked engine and guide that new seven-speed manual gearbox through its gates for ourself, it is hard to say just how much the 2012 Porsche Boxster has progressed as a driving machine. No doubt it will be better. The question is: By how much and in what areas?