At a glance, the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder is simply a special model that sheds 176 pounds of non-essentials in the name of purist performance. Nothing new in this plan, since Porsche has been building lightweight models for decades. It's an easy recipe — cut weight and sell the car at a premium to Porschephiles who can't resist the idea that less is really more.
Among the non-essentials stripped from this Boxster are the air-conditioning and radio — items which, let's face it, most owners will option back into the car. Check the boxes for these bits and the overall weight saving for the Spyder is diminished to about 134 pounds. Optioned accordingly, we're talking about a roadster that still weighs 2,852 pounds — a weight reduction that's useful, but one worth celebrating? We weren't so sure. Then we drove it.
And everything changed.
This 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder is at once sharp and supple, responsive yet calm, smooth yet immensely powerful. It is, most certainly, a product of much, much more than simple weight reduction. And it's worthy of more than just a glance.
Our research (all this being in the cause of science, of course) began on Carmel Valley Road, one of the most demanding driving roads in the country and our favorite destination when we travel to Monterey, California. County Road G16, as it's known to locals, provides a host of chassis-torturing features: high-speed off-camber corners, cattle guards, frost heaves, patched sections, falling rocks and the occasional wet spot.
Porsche, however, was utterly unfazed by the challenge G16 represents. So we did what we had to do and caned the Spyder through the worst G16 has to offer. And yet we found little to criticize, whether chassis stiffness, damping control or ride quality. Sure, this Boxster roadster isn't as composed as a closed car, but we rarely found the bumpstops and were continually impressed with the Spyder's ability to put power down confidently and remain superbly composed.
And driving to this car's limits means going very, very quickly. There's a comfortable rhythm to be found at 9/10ths that leaves ample room for the unknown, yet yields a speed unmatched by any roadster we've ever driven.
After pulverizing Carmel Valley Road, we sat down with Maurice van de Weerd, the Boxster's senior chassis engineer, to talk shop about this most special Porsche.
Compared to a conventional Boxster, the biggest change to the Spyder's suspension is a 0.8-inch reduction in ride height. In combination with the deletion of the regular Boxster's electrically operated convertible top, the overall result is a 1-inch reduction in the Boxster's already low center of gravity. At the same time, the lower ride height requires the spring rates to be increased by 10 percent up front and 30 percent in the rear to keep the car from bottoming. The real secret, according to van de Weerd, is almost neurotic attention to the polyurethane "spring aid," a bump rubber that's used to fine-tune the overall spring rate in the last 2 inches of suspension travel.
"Because of the reduced travel, the key is to achieve a progressive spring rate, which lacks a harsh bottoming at the end of the stroke," van de Weerd says. "Dampers were retuned for more compression and less rebound damping to keep the wheels on the road." Meanwhile, the stiffness of the antiroll bars was also increased.
The bottom line here is that Porsche used both its technical resources and the skill of its chassis engineers to recalibrate the Boxster Spyder's suspension in a way that complements its lighter weight in every detail. Even the tire pressures are lower.
"I wanted a light feel with lots of grip to pronounce the lightness of the car," van de Weerd says. "It needed to produce more pleasure, confidence and be more fun to drive."
He has succeeded.
More and Less
The Spyder's 3.4-liter flat-6 engine pumps out 10 horsepower more than a Boxster S thanks to the same engine calibration tweaks already seen in the Cayman S. Output is 320 hp at 7,200 rpm and 273 pound-feet of torque at 4,750 rpm.
One clue to the Spyder's purposefulness is that it comes standard with a mechanical limited-slip differential, a relatively rare device in a Porsche. A six-speed manual transmission is standard for the Boxster Spyder, while the impressive dual-clutch seven-speed PDK transmission is optional (and 55 pounds heavier). We drove only cars with the manual transmission, but Porsche tells us it has eliminated the PDK's Tiptronic-style shift buttons on the spokes of the steering wheel in favor of shift paddles behind the steering wheel.
Power goes to the ground through larger Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires, which now measure 235/35ZR19 in front and 265/35ZR19 in the rear.
Remarkably, the chassis required no special stiffening to accommodate the needs of this lightweight special. When asked about the additional loads demanded by a lower, stiffer and more powerful car, Boxster Line Director Hans Jurgen Wohler offered this confident and stoically German response: "The body has enough potential."
Porsche claims PDK-equipped Spyders will accelerate to 60 mph from a standstill in 4.6 seconds using launch control. Manual-transmission cars, it claims, require 4.9 seconds. Our experience with the PDK transmission in other Porsche models suggests this is true, and gives credibility to Porsche's relentless pursuit of ever more elaborate technologies in the service of performance.
One technology that gives us pause, however, is its Automatic Brake Differential, which has appeared on several recent models including the Boxster Spyder. We noticed its presence when driving the car aggressively with stability control switched off. The telltale wasn't what you might think, however, as power was never diminished and control never felt interrupted. Rather, we simply noticed the stability control light (already illuminated) flashing as we exited corners while using wide-open throttle.
Porsche seems to be using the electronic brake differential as a tuning aid to complement the action of the mechanical limited-slip differential. The mechanical unit is tuned to send only 22 percent of available torque to the outside wheel under acceleration — a relatively mild amount that is probably meant to minimize understeer as you turn into a corner. The resulting wheelspin is then managed by the brakes instead of the differential.
As much as we don't like the idea of applying the brakes to go faster, we have to admit that the system works without interrupting the experience. Van de Weerd points out that it only works when one tire is spinning. Provoke a powerslide involving both rear wheels — something we did only once in miles of hard driving — and the brake differential is uninvolved.
In addition to the elimination of the radio and air-conditioning, Porsche cut 46 pounds from the top of the car by removing its electrically operated top. Aluminum doors knock another 33 pounds from the equation. A smaller fuel tank, lighter seats, GT3-style door panels and fabric door pulls shaved another 44 pounds. Lighter, cast-aluminum 19-inch wheels that are unique to the Spyder save a further 11 pounds over the 18-inch wheels on the Boxster S.
And if you're willing to spend, there's more weight to be lost. Carbon-ceramic brakes will eliminate another 6.6 pounds, which perhaps is not as much as you might expect given their $8,150 price tag. According to Wohler, this is because they are the same ceramic brakes used on the 911, so they're probably overkill for the Boxster.
The optional $1,700 lithium-ion battery will cut 22 pounds from the total, but won't start the car when the temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit — probably not a deal-breaker for the Spyder, which isn't exactly what we would call a winter car.
The 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder is clearly a machine designed for open-air motoring. For example, the top resembles something from the Porsche 356 Speedster of the 1950s and it isn't watertight enough for a car wash. Nevertheless, Wohler insists that the Spyder's soft top will stop every manner of rain and even told us that he wished it would rain so he could prove to us just how well protected the occupants are from the elements. (Never mind; we're glad it didn't rain.)
The Spyder's top certainly can't be erected with the speed and convenience of the Mazda MX-5 Miata's manually operated soft top, but we timed a Porsche product specialist who managed to remove and stow the top in 1 minute and 30 seconds. After a quick lesson, we deployed and removed the top ourselves with little effort and no confusion. It's fairly easy and the top stows neatly under the Spyder-specific aluminum deck lid without intruding into the Boxster's modest trunk space.
The Value Equation
The 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder will be available in February 2010 and will cost you $62,150 including delivery, which is exactly $4,500 more than a 2009 Porsche Boxster S. That's no small premium.
At the same time, this is a car that already carries its mass lower and more centralized than any other production car thanks to a flat-6 engine that sits within the span between the two axles. Factor in the detail work and hardware required to further focus and purify this potent formula and it's hard to say there's a true downside to the result. There's a proprietary top, different bodywork, a unique interior, more power and a suspension that's among the most capable sold today.
Whether driven in anger or simply driven daily, the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder proves itself a worthy addition to Porsche's already comprehensive quiver of performance machinery. It's at once fast and refined. It's finished and it's supremely impressive — even if it isn't as light as we'd like.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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