Heroic or Hubristic?
We don't know if anyone's ever called the Porsche Boxster the Beverly Hills Miata, but we're going to. It's maddening. The landscape of Los Angeles' richest suburb is littered with Boxsters. They're driven by soccer moms while their kids are with the nanny; by USC co-eds living off their parents' Amex Black card; and by movie agents yet to make the scene and jump to a 911 Cabriolet. It's enough to make you ignore the history of Porsche engineering and motorsports that this car's retro-style round face and plump bodywork are meant to evoke.
And so it is with a wash of enthusiasm and a tinge of skepticism that we greet the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder. It's lighter, lower, more powerful, more expensive, less functional and less comfortable than a standard Boxster and that gives us hope that this is more than just a car in which to be seen in Beverly Hills. We want more outlaw, less fashion statement. More Porsche 550 Spyder. More reminders of the most famous car crash in America.
They started at the service center for Competition Motors in Hollywood, California. There, on the morning of September 30th, 1955, the silver Porsche 550 Spyder was prepped and inspected for a race over the weekend in Salinas, California. At the last second, the car's owner and driver decided to strap in and drive the Spyder the 300 miles rather than tow it behind his Ford station wagon. All adrenaline and excitement, he sped north in the very, very small car with his Porsche mechanic beside him and his friends in the station wagon in hot pursuit.
Communication Is Key
After a decade of women walking out on us and all saying the same thing, it took the arrival of the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder for us to really understand what they meant when they said, "We talk, but we don't communicate." We don't need to watch any more Dr. Phil. We don't need the couples therapy. We finally get it. This Boxster doesn't just talk, it communicates.
For example, the Lotus Elise is all talk, a nagging fishwife berating and belittling you with every useless bit of information about the road surface in a torrent of abuse and irritation. The Boxster Spyder filters out the nonsense, distills the information into bits and bites that men can understand and skips directly to the core issues without being a bother. Make no mistake, though, because the Boxster Spyder isn't a luxury car — it'll pitch and judder on broken highways — but it's rarely offensive. It's the same nagging wife, but this time she's yelling through a kitchen door, so only the really significant stuff comes through.
It's this unprecedented communication that provides the backbone for the Boxster Spyder's stellar track results, including 72.3 mph through the slalom, 0.99g of cornering grip around the skid pad and 102 feet under braking from 60 to zero mph.
Let's do a comparison, shall we? The last time we were able to test a Porsche 911 GT3, it weighed in at a relatively porky 3,209 pounds compared with the Boxster Spyder's trim 2,908 pounds. Of course the GT3 came with sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, while this "hard-core" Boxster comes with Bridgestone Potenza RE050As (the same tires you'll find on a BMW 135i), so it's no wonder the GT3 ripped up the pavement of our test track with a 75.3-mph run through the slalom and a 1.01g lap around the skid pad. Porsche tells us that the Boxster's RE050A tires meet forthcoming 2012 environmental regulations, but we suspect that if you gave it some R-compound tires, you would have this lightweight, perfectly balanced driver's dream easily driving circles around that fat, ass-engined, froggie-color car for which Porsche charged you $123,000.
That's not to say the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder is all ballerina and no brawler. Keep the wheel straight and apply a few dozen years of track-testing skill and the Spyder rips to 60 mph from a standstill in 4.6 seconds (4.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and deafens the ears as it goes through the quarter-mile timers in 12.8 seconds at 109.4 mph. You have to row a six-speed manual transmission with the Spyder's standard short-throw shift kit to get there (the dual-clutch PDK automated manual is optional), and there are some of us who feel the short-throw, bolt-action lever is the perfect match to the quick-revving 320-horsepower 3.4-liter flat-6. And then there's the other half who think that the milliseconds saved aren't worth the compromise in the feel of positive gear engagement that the normal shift linkage provides. Nevertheless, everybody loves the click-clack that the shift lever makes as it snick-snick-snaps its way through the H-pattern.
There's some debate as to what the last stop was all about. Did he stop for an apple and a pack of cigarettes, or was it an apple and a Coke? Whether the apple was washed down with the acidic tang of a Coke or the burn of fresh nicotine, Blackwell's Corner was the final stop. Driving west, California Highway 46 — the old Paso Robles Highway — winds into the Cholame Hills.
A Racecar Should Have Navigation and Leather, Right?
While the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder's road manners are as informative yet benign as a call-in help desk, the seats are as strict and disciplined as Catholic school. Each is spectacular in detail, an ergonomically shaped carbon-fiber shell, matched here with optional leather and suede upholstery ($3,895).
There's no adjustment for backrest inclination; you get the angle determined by the engineers at Porsche. Maybe when you win 28,000 races like Porsche, you can pick your own seat angle, so until then, sit down and shut your mouth. After a couple thousand miles, we feel safe in saying that we'd be happy to sit in these seats all the time, as in the office, the rec room or the bathroom — you get the picture. When the road gets twisty, the weak link will be your neck, since the rest of your body is bear-hugged with confidence-inspiring support you rarely feel without a full-on five-point seatbelt harness.
While "spyder" might conjure images of tube-frame, aluminum-skinned racecars of the 1950s, this Boxster Spyder is a modern Porsche and comes with all of the bells and whistles. Once you sign up for the optional seat upholstery you also get a swath of red leather throughout the interior. This car also has a Sport Chrono Plus package ($960), bi-xenon adaptive headlights ($1,560) and, like any good racecar, a $3,110 navigation/tech package that includes satellite navigation, an iPod interface and a handy performance display that ties into the Sport Chrono Plus to deliver lap times and assorted driving metrics.
Fortunately the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder makes up for all of this leathery techno-wizardry with the most obvious departure from the standard Boxster: the manual bikini top. While there's no denying that there's a bit of work to put it in place, there's a sort of romantic anachronistic charm to running from one side of the car to another, fastening tethers and snugging down cables while trying to manipulate the lightweight top into position before the rain soaks through the interior carpet. It's not hard (the rear hatch snugs down the rearmost attachment points of the top), although it's not as easy as the one-handed flick you use to operate the top of a Mazda Miata — which is perhaps exactly the point, of course.
As you crest Highway 46 and look out over the valley to Cholame, it's easy to miss the Y-intersection with Highway 41. Even as the road sits today, wider and better marked, it's easy to be drawn into the rolling hills and horizon, missing the intersection completely. With the setting sun in front of him, the Porsche's driver never had a chance in his 1,213-pound tin can when the big 1950 Ford business coupe turned left in front of him.
"A young man with a fast Porsche can get into big trouble out here," he tells us. It's an older guy at Blackwell's Corner, recently remodeled into a combination Texaco station and outlet for locally grown pistachios and almonds.
He circles around the Boxster and fingers the "Spyder" decal set in the black paint. "This isn't a Spyder," he says. "I used to watch the Spyders race as a young man. Would drive all the way to RIR just to see those little buggers run." He looks up, checking to see if we can process this as the Riverside International Raceway, built in 1958 and now paved over into a shopping mall.
"Those guys," he says, shaking his head. "You know, I'll let you get back to the road. Careful, young man."
When we finished our First Drive of the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder, we walked away impressed with what Porsche had accomplished with well-executed minor changes. Now we're walking away from this car nearly convinced that the Boxster Spyder is the most approachable and rewarding car available from Porsche today, the purest Porsche you can buy.
Of course, we're also completely convinced that most examples of the Porsche Boxster Spyder will still be selling to those more interested in the nameplate than the driving experience. They'll never think of actually putting up the top and instead just drive the Range Rover when it's chilly. And that's OK. We'll see them cruising as they commute to work. And when there's another It car and the profilers move on, we'll scoop up a used 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder at a friendly pre-owned price.
As we fire up the engine at Blackwell's Corner, setting the navigation system for Cholame and tempting fate, the old guy takes one more pass around the Boxster, leans over the windshield and reminds us, "Don't James Dean yourself. That is, unless you're famous enough for them to remember you forever because of it."
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Executive Editor Michael Jordan says:
You can't help but be prejudiced in the Boxster's favor. Like a real sports car should, this Porsche feels light, balanced and direct. It is not some kind of 200-mph monstrosity that looks like a study hall design exercise and can't be driven on the open road except in certain sections of Nevada. It's the young guy's Porsche, so much more like the original vision of Ferry Porsche than the increasingly overwrought Porsche 911.
The Porsche Boxster Spyder is more of what a sports car is meant to be about. Like a true roadster, the weatherproofing is kind of an afterthought (if only there were plastic side curtains as well as a plastic rear window), the pull-type interior door latch is cool (better than a lever, really), the seats are built for speed not the grocery store, and the short-shift kit for the transmission feels racy (though it's not what you want for going really fast or even slow, actually). The Boxster Spyder is not exactly a Porsche 550 Spyder, yet it's kind of about the same things.
Of course, it always seems a little dumb to pay more for less. It's easy to put down money for 10 percent more horsepower or bigger wheels and tires, but spending more money to get 176 pounds less seems pretty abstract, like fitting your bicycle with titanium bolts. Yet the Boxster Spyder is one of the few cars that makes you feel the lightness; it rolls with a little less friction and corners with a little more eagerness. The Boxster Spyder reminds you why racers are such fanatics about reducing weight.
Of course, this is a sales scam, an effort to get the Boxster assembly line moving (its location is also literally moving from Finland to Austria as well). And the speedster-style rear deck and retro 1970s-style decal don't do the car's appearance any favors, I think. But this car reminds me that there's much more to the Boxster idea than just Porsche's need for an entry-level product. I think the Boxster is a great car on its own merits, not just a place to start so you can one day work up to a Porsche 911.