Back in the February issue (#234) we discussed our first drive of the 2016 981 Boxster Spyder (“Basic Instinct”). European Editor Ian Kuah concluded that the Spyder was “the best and most reasonably priced sports car I have driven in a long time.” Fresh off of running the Cayman GT4 at Road Atlanta, we wanted more seat time in the Spyder to experience just how similar and dissimilar the two Carrera S-powered mid-engined offerings feel. We also wanted to have one last go in the Spyder before the flat-four-powered 982 Boxsters arrive in the coming months.
Today, our drive of the Boxster Spyder will take us from Puako, Hawaii, located on the northwestern coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, to Hilo, which is located approximately 70 miles away on the eastern coast of the island. While this drive would normally take about an hour and a half of highway cruising, today we’re taking the scenic route.
Top of the Line
Since the 981-generation Boxster debuted in 2012, it has proven itself to be a fine balance of daily-driving comfort and track-capable performance. Both the Boxster S and Boxster GTS impressed us on previous drives at the race track, feeling more eager and capable than even some newer 911s. Packing a 375-hp 3.8-liter flat six and a mandatory six-speed manual transmission, the Boxster Spyder was designed to be the fastest and most unfiltered mid-engined convertible sports car that Porsche makes.
The Spyder gets its speed and performance edge over its S and GTS siblings from its 2016 911 (991.1) Carrera S-sourced engine and a lower overall curb weight. The 2,899-lb Spyder has a 60-hp and 11-lb weight advantage over the 315-hp/2,910-lb Boxster S, and a 45-hp and 66-lb advantage over the 330-hp/2,965-lb Boxster GTS. While this may not sound like a big difference, you’d be surprised by how an additional 45 horsepower and a 66-lb decrease in weight can change the character of a car.
Although the 385-hp Cayman GT4 is generally perceived to be a better performer than the Spyder, it only has a 10-hp advantage over its convertible sibling. And the Spyder is actually 56-lbs lighter than the 2,955-lb GT4. While the Spyder shares its engine with the GT4, it doesn’t get the GT4’s 911 GT3 front and unique rear suspension. Instead, the Spyder gets its suspension from the Boxster GTS.
Visually, the Boxster Spyder is most obviously set apart from the other Boxster models by its model-specific soft top and aluminum deck lid, and the front and rear bumpers that are the same ones seen on the Cayman GT4. It’s certainly the most extroverted-looking Boxster we’ve ever seen from the factory, and that includes the previous generation 2011-2012 987 Boxster Spyder.
Ready for a seat inside, we pop open the Spyder’s driver-side door and find an interior that looks a lot like the Boxster GTS’s Alcantara-laden cockpit. Sliding behind the wheel, the Spyder feels a lot like the GTS inside, too. That’s not really a bad thing, though, as we previously found the GTS’s interior to be a fine place to be when either cruising along or doing hot laps at the race track.
Let’s Hit the Road
Our morning route will take us from Puako to the Mauna Kea State Park that’s located 39.6 miles to the northeast. This will involve a stretch of highway driving as well as a run down a more challenging backroad and will allow us to feel out both the Spyder’s ride and handling. First things first, though, my driving partner for the day and I drop the Spyder’s top.
If you lowered the convertible hood on the previous generation Boxster Spyder, you knew what a relatively complex task it could be. Porsche engineers recognized that and made the process far simpler for the new model. You simply press a button on the key fob that releases the top from the windshield frame, unlatches the rear trunk lid and lowers the windows. You then unclip the rear convertible top fins, snap them into slots attached to the main part of the top, lift the rear trunk open, fold the top back, shut the trunk and close the flaps just forward of the “Spyder” nameplate. While it may sound like a busy process, in action it’s pretty straightforward.
With the sun shining down on our now open-topped Porsche, we fire up the Spyder and are greeted by a healthy 911-esque sound. Although the note is a little different from the one that emanates from the 911’s tailpipes due to a different exhaust setup (which was also the case with the GT4), it still sounds pleasing. We slide the short and precise six-speed shifter into first and head out onto the Kona Highway.
As we cruise along at 50-60 mph on our way to Route 190, we find the Spyder’s ride in Normal mode to not just be compliant but downright pleasant. This is comes as a small surprise, as we thought the Spyder’s GTS-derived suspension (which rides 10 mm lower than it did in GTS form) would be bumpier. But with each passing mile, even over some uneven surfaces, the ride feels solid yet comfortable, like it did in the GTS.
The Spyder’s engine—like most modern Porsche powerplants—is docile at cruising speeds. In Normal mode the exhaust note is unobtrusive on the highway. But when we try the Sport and Sport Plus modes, we find the exhaust drone to become mildly annoying after a while. In the larger scheme of thing this isn’t really an issue, though, as most drivers will likely keep the Spyder in Normal mode when cruising on the highway.
We make a left turn onto 190 North on our way to Route 200, which is also known as Saddle Road. Popularized by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s driving exploits on it, Saddle Road is considered to be the best driving road in all of Hawaii. And my driving partner and I…drive right past it. Relying on a spiral-bound logbook instead of the car’s perfectly functional navigation system, we accidentally end up going some 15 miles past the small black and white Route 200 road sign.
Realizing our error, we backtrack and finally make it to Saddle Road. We quickly find that this stretch of tarmac is like an asphalt roller coaster track that’s set up in the middle of an expansive lava field. The road is a mix of tall and medium height hills that sometimes undulate, and a number of blind sweeping corners that practically dare you to push the car harder. Portions of it remind us of a narrower and somehow more wicked little Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
Any concerns about the exhaust sound on the highway are now forgotten. In Sport Plus mode, the Spyder produces a satisfying wail through the rev range as we shift up at the 7,800 rpm redline. Running up a taller hill that starts right after a sweeping right-hander, the Spyder pulls impressively hard to the top. While the acceleration the S and GTS were capable of impressed us in the past, there is no doubt that the Spyder would leave both of them in its lava dust. The Spyder’s acceleration is, without question, as good that of its GT4 sibling.
Still feeling the mild rush from the drive in, we stop, turn around and blast back up Saddle Road, this time heading west-northwest. The grippy 235/35/20 front and 265/35/20 rear Z-rated Pirelli P Zero tires quickly heat up again thanks to the warm Hawaiian sun hitting the pavement. The Spyder’s overall balance inspires confidence when driving down taller hills that immediately sweep into blind corners.
Toggling through the different drive modes, Sport Plus may be a bit too bumpy for some drivers on rougher stretches of road, but Normal mode again produces a compliant ride over uneven sections. As the miles begin to accumulate, we become most impressed with the Spyder’s ride and handling, its strong powerplant and its overall top-down driving experience.
Once we get back to Route 190, we follow it north to Kohala Mountain Road, which will take us over a portion of the Kohala volcanic mountain range. After a short distance of driving on the highway, buildings and other cars become less frequent while the curves of the road start to get tighter and more thrilling. Even as the elevation climbs and our ears begin to pop a bit, the naturally aspirated flat six continues to pull hard.
Although Saddle Road provided the opportunity to feel out the suspension and overall chassis balance, it didn’t—due to that fact that there weren’t many sharp corners—give us a big chance to really feel out the brakes. We accelerate hard through the deserted uphill straightaways and then brake hard as we reach corners that sweep us even higher up the mountain. This is where the Spyder’s Carrera S brake calipers and rotors shine.
The braking setup in the 3,042-lb Carrera S was excellent to begin with. When fitted to a mid-engined car that’s 143 lbs lighter, it’s even more impressive. Although the Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes (PCCB) on the GT4 we tested at Road Atlanta would likely allow for a greater number of consecutive fade-free stops, the Spyder’s steel rotors feel just as strong. And if you are inclined toward ceramic brakes, they are available as an option on the Spyder.
Despite our hard driving in Sport Plus mode with the top down, the driving experience is not being hampered by wind or exhaust noise. Earlier in the day there was some mild concern that the wind noise, air hitting the driver and passenger, and the exhaust drone could take away some of this car’s appeal. But now, blasting down these empty backroads, the things that seemed like they could get annoying earlier in the day are proving themselves to be positive aspects of the car’s character. The wind and unleashed engine noise intensify the experience for the better.
Ready for lunch, we take some slower-speed backroads to a food trailer near the northwestern shore of the island. While the Spyder was an absolute beast when given the shoe on the drive here, when it’s put back into Normal mode via a button on the center console, it goes back to being calm and relaxed.
How Does it Compare?
Hitting the road after lunch, we set the Spyder’s GPS for Akaka Falls, which is located approximately 76 miles away in Honomu on the eastern coast of the Big Island. The route there is a mix of some tighter backroads and normal state highways. As we start the journey east, we travel down the roads we climbed up on our journey to Kohala.
While we were impressed by the Spyder’s ride on the highway in the morning, its engine, exhaust note and chassis balance on Saddle Road, its brakes through the Kohala mountains, and its top-down experience overall, it’s now that we’re determining how the Spyder feels when compared to the S and GTS Boxsters, the Cayman GT4 and even the 911 Carrera S.
Compared to the Boxster S and GTS, the Spyder’s styling and more powerful engine are the biggest differences overall. Although the Spyder’s unique bodywork may not necessarily be to everyone’s taste, we encountered only positive reactions to it from locals. All the 981 Boxsters are quite pretty, but the Spyder is the one that turns the most heads. And while the S and GTS’s 3.4-liter flat-six engines felt great on a race track, they are greatly outshined by the Spyder’s 3.8.
While some cynics may criticize the Spyder as being a “softened GT4,” we found it to be a fast and well balanced machine that didn’t feel soft at all. The Spyder’s “softer” GTS-spec suspension that some complain about ultimately makes for a better road-going experience than the GT4’s more track-focused setup.
In the end, the Cayman GT4 is a brilliant track-day car that you can drive on the street without drama, while the Boxster Spyder is a well-done street car that will run very respectable lap times at the race track. How respectable? The Boxster Spyder can do a lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes and 47 seconds. That is the same exact lap time put down by the 2004 911 (996) GT3 RS and the 2011 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano. In comparison, the GT4 (thanks in part to stickier tires) can do a lap there in 7 minutes 40 seconds. In reality, though, the Spyder and GT4 feel much more similar than different. And that’s not a bad thing.
The $115,700 2017 911 (991.2) Carrera S Cabriolet makes 420 hp and has a power-to-weight ratio of 7.9 lbs/hp. The Boxster Spyder makes 375 hp has a power-to-weight ratio of 7.7 lbs/hp. The Spyder feels like what Porsche would have come up with if its engineers were tasked with creating a modern mid-engined Porsche Speedster.
After a stop off at the waterfall, and with the sun starting to get low in the sky, we wrap up our day and head for the Hilo airport with the Spyder screaming its sweet Carrera S engine note to its redline along the way. While some cynics may stigmatize the Boxster as an “entry-level” Porsche, the Spyder definitely proves that to not be the case. In many ways the Spyder punches in the same category as the 911. And thanks to its outstanding mid-engine balance, it feels even better than the 911 in some regards.