Familiar shape, mandatory ragtop lacks the versatility of a retractable hardtop.
Porsche likes to remind the driving public that "there is no substitute" for its iconic sports cars. Likewise, many die-hard enthusiasts stubbornly maintain that nothing less than a conventional manual transmission will do for spirited driving. Porsche knows this as well as anyone: Despite the long-standing American love affair with the automatic, roughly 75 percent of Porsche sports cars sold in the United States are equipped with old-fashioned stick shifts, according to company sources. It was thus with some skepticism that we flew to Italy to sample the 2009 Porsche Boxster S and its new seven-speed Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK) dual-clutch automated manual, which Porsche expects to be chosen by at least 50 percent of its sports-car buyers going forward.
After thoroughly exercising our PDK-equipped Boxster S test car on Sicily's perfectly maintained rotini-shaped back roads, we had to admit that PDK is indeed a superior substitute — for an automatic, at least. With its twin clutches engaging and disengaging in seamless harmony, PDK shifts more smoothly in "Drive" than a regular automatic, and its brilliant manual-shift mode provides instantaneous yet refined responses to driver inputs. It's so good that it makes the seven-speed slushbox in the rival Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG feel like a quaint relic from a bygone era. As for whether PDK is a stick-shift substitute, we'll go with the economist's stock reply: It depends — on personal preference, driving patterns and so on.
What's not up for debate is the overall excellence of the 2009 Porsche Boxster S. It lacks the intestine-displacing torque and versatile folding hardtop of the abovementioned Benz, but there's no doubt that it's the driver's choice in this segment. With the top down on a twisty road, the Boxster S will have you devising wild financial schemes that might enable you to afford one. The handling is beautifully balanced, the steering is telepathic and the numerous mechanical improvements for '09 — including the availability of PDK and the addition of power-enhancing direct injection to the midmounted 3.4-liter flat-6 — keep the Boxster S's aging platform feeling fresh.
At this Porsche's lofty price point, there are always substitutes. Still, even in its jaw-dropping 10th year of production, the Boxster S remains one of the purest and most satisfying sports cars on the planet, and PDK's impeccable performance may well seal the deal for those who aren't sold on shifting for themselves.
The rear-wheel-drive 2009 Porsche Boxster S is powered by a midmounted, direct-injected 3.4-liter flat-6 that churns out 310 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque, which amount to increases of 15 hp and 15 lb-ft of torque over last year's model. With PDK, Porsche estimates that the Boxster S will sprint from zero to 60 mph in less than 5.2 seconds. We didn't bring our testing gear to Italy, but the Boxster S does feel invigoratingly quick, and we couldn't get enough of the flat-6's sonorous midrange wail.
As automated-clutch manual transmissions go, the seven-speed PDK's performance is a revelation, awkward wheel-mounted shift paddles notwithstanding (most high-performance cars employ column-mounted paddles and for 2010, PDK-equipped Boxsters could thankfully be equipped with them as an option). Left in fully automatic Drive mode, shifts are imperceptible — if you couldn't hear the engine speed changing between gears, you'd swear it was a gearless CVT (continuously variable transmission). There's a fully automatic Sport mode as well, but we found that it holds onto lower gears too tenaciously, even for aggressive driving. Our favorite mode was Sport Manual, which supplies lightning-quick yet buttery-smooth shifts on demand. Sport Plus — a special competition mode that came courtesy of our test car's optional Sport Chrono Package — is even quicker, but the shift quality is harsh, and Sport is already plenty responsive.
As you'd expect of a perfectly balanced midengine roadster from Porsche, the Boxster S is one of the best in the business at carving corners. The steering effort has supposedly been lightened a bit for '09; whatever was done, the result is sublime. We even like the stability control system — in Sport Plus, it allows up to 30 degrees of rear-end rotation before tightening the reins, and it intervenes so unobtrusively that a blinking light in the gauge cluster was often our only clue. If world-class handling is a priority, the Boxster S will not disappoint.
Gas mileage is rarely a consideration for premium roadster buyers, but should you care, the 2009 Porsche Boxster S with PDK returns a rather incredible 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway, which is on par with some family sedans.
The Boxster S's soft top provides adequate insulation under most circumstances, but wind noise is elevated at highway speeds, particularly in the tentlike cavity behind the headrests. Predictably, the large expanses of fabric produce enormous blind spots. Porsche insists that the soft top is a necessary weight-saving measure, but Mazda's retractable-hardtop Miata is only 70 pounds heavier than the ragtop version, so it's clearly possible to have the best of both worlds. With the top down, the Boxster S exhibits virtually no cowl shake — highly impressive given that the car's basic platform debuted way back in '97 — and wind buffeting at highway speeds is kept in check by an optional transparent partition that spans the gap between the seats and the roll hoops.
Our Boxster S had the optional Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) system, which lowers the car by about half an inch and provides two selectable suspension settings. Normal is compliant by default but switches to a firmer calibration for more aggressive driving, while Sport noticeably tightens up the dampers for a uniformly, well, sporty feel. In either mode, impact harshness is rarely noticeable despite the Boxster S's performance-biased nature.
Our test car's optional power seats provided great long-distance comfort as well as excellent lateral support through the turns. They're good enough that we question the need for the available sport bucket seats, which are more expensive and less adjustable. Cockpit space is plentiful for drivers of all sizes. Aside from the inherent shortcomings of the Boxster S's ragtop, this is a remarkably comfortable roadster overall.
The Boxster S's primary gauges are faultlessly designed, with the large center-mounted tachometer clearly signaling the car's sporting character. The optional automatic climate control system works well enough, but the rocker switches for temperature and fan adjustment are a bit fussy. Sound quality from the upgraded Bose stereo is quite good for this class — it's front-biased by default, but sliding the fader a few notches toward the rear creates a satisfactory sound stage, and the sound is full and rich. The optional touchscreen navigation system did a fine job of keeping us on course in the Sicilian countryside.
Our standard usability props didn't make the flight to Palermo, but we asked a Porsche representative about fitting golf clubs into either of the Boxster's two trunks. He laughed, which probably means that your clubs will be riding shotgun. The news is better for luggage — the front trunk is deep enough to swallow a weekend getaway's worth of cargo, and the shallower rear trunk can still hold a couple briefcases.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Porsche Boxster S is endowed with a handful of tasteful styling upgrades for 2009, such as LED running lights up front and new LED taillights, but it still bears an uncomfortable resemblance to its forebears from the late '90s. Inside, the dashboard layout isn't memorably styled, but materials quality is superb — a notable improvement over earlier Boxsters. Fit and finish was uniformly excellent in our test car.
Who should consider this vehicle
Premium roadster shoppers who want the best dual-clutch automated manual transmission on the market.