381 MILES DOWN CALIFORNIA’S PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY, our first drive in the 991 awaits us. Sure, catching a flight from San Francisco to Santa Barbara is an option, but would you take a plane if a new Boxster with six manually shifted speeds was sitting in the lot? Neither would we.
The drive also presents a chance to try the first example of the 991/981 platform back-to-back with the last, simplest version of the 997/987 chassis it replaces. This Plain Jane Boxster is a car I’ve been waiting to try for three years. When Porsche introduced its facelifted 2009 Boxster/Cayman, every car at the launch was a 3.4-liter S. No 2.9-liter base models were placed in the U.S. press fleet, and subsequent requests to test one in Germany were met with 997 Carrera 4S and Turbo loans. One had to wonder: Was Porsche hiding something?
After pinning this Boxster’s throttle up an onramp in second and third, I’d have to say no. The 2.9 may be the only 9A1 flat six without direct fuel injection and the only one making less than 300 horses, but it’s a peach. It is smooth, pulls to 7500 rpm keenly, and feels like it’s making more than its rated 255 hp. This is a lovely engine, one hard to fault but for this: Like other 9A1 engines, it’s almost too refined. Too much of its unique flat-six song has been filtered out. The optional sport exhaust would help, but it’s the intake noise that’s too muffled.
Fortunately, the revvy, eager 2.9 is well-matched to the six-speed manual transmission. The standard shift linkage is positive and pleasingly light, matching the rest of the control inputs nicely. It may not be Honda S2000 precise (what is?), but the gearbox still makes a good case for stick shifts in a world that’s going manumatic.
So what about the chassis? It offers feelsome steering, sharp responses, and predictable, confidence-inspiring grip. In town, ride characteristics on the optional 18s are surprisingly similar to those of the 20-mm lower, sport-tuned Boxster Spyder on 19s. While the chassis never fails to take the edge off imperfections, it is firm. The payoff is more than vaguely Spyder-like handling (a very good thing), but we can see why some opt for the softer PASM adjustable dampers.
Sadly, the standard seats are among Porsche’s worst. They offer just enough lateral support on back roads, but left us trying to dial back the lumbar support — only to find no lumbar adjustment! Worse, their flat seat bottoms focused our weight on a thin strip of our posteriors, and no angle adjustment meant no relief. Our advice? Get the more adjustable full-power seats.
Our test car was optioned with active headlights that followed steering inputs flawlessly, Porsche’s superb PCM system with navigation and Bluetooth, and convertible-friendly heated and ventilated seats. But these and a few options we could go without (yellow gauges, yellow seatbelts, and embossed headrests) helped bump its price from $49,050 to $58,745.
It’s a lot of money, but the Boxster has come a long way: Ever-conservative Porsche says the 2012 base car makes 255 hp, revs to 7500 rpm, hits 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, and goes 163 mph. 1997’s 2.5-liter original cost $40,745 and claimed 201 hp, 6700 rpm, 6.7 seconds, and 149 mph. In fact, today’s 2.9-liter Boxster beats the 250 hp, 7200 rpm, 5.7 seconds, and 161 mph of the 3.2-liter 2000 Boxster S, which cost $50,695 new (roughly $66,500 in 2011 dollars).
The Boxster’s considerable advances in comfort, safety, materials, and build quality over the last 15 years are harder to quantify. Hints of 1997 remain, however: The A-pillar trim, sun visors, upper interior storage box, trunk latches, and more are pure 986. That’s because the basic tub didn’t change all that much in the transition from 986 to 987, which only highlights the basic goodness of the ur-Boxster.
Perhaps that’s why I have always had a thing for base Boxsters and Caymans without a lot of extras. This one continues the affair with a near-perfect balance of power, handling, and braking. Driven hard, it’s got all the right moves and enough over-the-road pace to humble far more formidable machinery. Driven leisurely, it’s eminently pleasurable. Driven daily, it’s useful with two roomy trunks and a fully lined power top.
Good as it is, though, the Boxster finally feels dated. As is Porsche’s way, consistent improvements have been applied to a solid foundation. In this case, the foundation is one of the truly great sports-car chassis, and the result is a car that’s still the best in its class. Even so, that chassis feels old in 2012, a reminder of why Porsche must begin anew from time to time. Fortunately it has, and the next chapter begins on page 56.