When Porsche announced that the 982-generation 2017 718 Boxsters and 718 Caymans would be downsized in both engine capacity and cylinder count, there was the usual furor from the purists. It is all about managing expectations. Had it been the other way round, with the Boxster powered by a flat-four engine at launch in 1996 and the flat-six powerplant added later, there would have been cheering from the rooftops.
However, before the addition of forced aspiration, the argument is as much about engine capacity as it is about cylinder count. Personally, I have always felt that while even the 330-hp 981 Boxster GTS has enough top-end power, its 3.4-liter flat-six’s lack of low and mid-range torque compared to the 400-hp 3.8-liter six in the 2012-2016 911 (991.1) Carrera S is very apparent.
Of course, Porsche handily fixed that problem by dropping a slightly less powerful 375-hp version of the Carrera S’s engine into the Boxster Spyder, turning it into not only the quintessential Boxster but one of the best cars it has ever made. So, does the Spyder represent the Boxster’s swan song, or does the new 718 Boxster S stand half a chance of also becoming a revered classic 20 years down the line?
One of the most appealing features of the 981 Boxster Spyder to the old school purist is the fact that, like its Cayman GT4 cousin, its 3.8-liter flat six only comes with a six-speed manual gearbox. So while the stopwatch pronounces it slightly slower through the gears compared to Porsche’s blindingly fast PDK transmission, it is more demanding of driver skills, and all the more engaging for it.
This is why we decided to ask Porsche for some seat time in the six-speed manual version of the new 718 Boxster S in Germany. We wanted to see how well the traditional transmission gels with the brand-new turbocharged 9A2 family flat-four engine.
On the Road
First impressions of the new flat four are encouraging. It starts with a gruff, business-like Porsche noise, and immediately settles down to a steady idle. Like the old flat six, the flat four has good inherent balance, sans the secondary vibrations that make an inline four a comparatively plebeian device in terms of refinement and soundtrack.
Blip the throttle and the acoustic waves reaching your ears are akin to a combination of the Subaru WRX’s turbocharged flat four, and the Porsche 356 Carrera’s four-cam mill, which was shared with the 718 RSK race car of 1957. So far, so good.
Balanced and consistent control weights are a vital ingredient of any driver’s car, and—as keen drivers themselves—Porsche’s engineers are masters of this aspect of engineering artistry. It is no surprise then that the 718 Boxster’s progressive, medium-weighted clutch perfectly matches the action of its progressive medium-weighted throttle, which in turn is perfectly in tune with the well-calibrated electric power steering.
Importantly, the clutch and brake pedals are perfectly positioned for heel and toe operation, so I did not need the assistance of the self-blipping rev match feature that Porsche has built into their 991-on manual transmissions for the benefit of drivers who have not yet learned this advanced driving technique.
Thanks to forced aspiration, the new single turbocharged, dry-sump, water-cooled flat-four engine makes even more power and torque than the naturally aspirated six it replaces, while showing a 13-percent gain in fuel consumption.
The big numbers for the 2.5-liter (140 hp/liter) 718 Boxster S, with its variable turbine geometry (VTG) technology are 350 hp at 7,500 rpm and 309 lb-ft of torque between 1,900 and 4,500 rpm. This comprehensively outguns the 315 hp at 6,700 rpm and 266 lb-ft of torque from 4,500 to 5,800 rpm produced by the outgoing 3.4-liter (91.8 hp/liter) naturally aspirated Boxster S’s flat six.
A true Porsche engine thrives on revs, and the 7,500-rpm redline painted onto the 718 Boxster S’s rev counter is not just there for show. In reality, a turbocharged engine does not have to rev as high as a naturally aspirated one, but as part of their authentic character building mission, the Porsche engineers designed their new flat four to rev high and hard, as well as to provide stump-pulling torque in the first half of its working range.
While the new turbocharged flat four is 35 hp more powerful out of the box than its six-cylinder predecessor, it is the gain in torque that is most significant to both raw performance and everyday drivability. You feel the punch the first time you go into the throttle when the traffic clears. The engineers have done a great job of minimizing turbo lag, which 99 percent of the time is simply not there. The push in the back is strong, progressive and rewarding, and makes the 718 Boxster S an easy and eager partner.
More than that, the beefier torque curve allows the engine to build up speed with real strength and conviction from lower revs. While you don’t have to row it along on the gears if you are not in the mood, the counterpoint is that this free revving motor can also rev with the best of them, pulling to its 7,500 rpm red line with real panache.
Would I want for more? As good as the manual gearbox is, I could not help but feel that the short-shift mechanism fitted to the 981 Boxster Spyder and Cayman GT4 would make it even better. While the 718 Boxster S is actually quick enough for most people, it is clear that the nicely tweaked chassis can easily handle more. There is plenty room for a 718 Boxster GTS with 385 hp and the short shift kit!
Downsides? One thing I did notice was the fact that the manual version of the 718 Boxster S does not cruise as quietly as the outgoing Boxster S. While the turbocharged four is punchier, its gruffer voice can still be heard on a light throttle cruise. At 90 mph in sixth gear on the autobahn, it was turning 3,000 rpm, and I could hear the engine humming away behind my head. The old flat six was more refined in this respect, as is the new car when equipped with the seven-speed PDK transmission.
That said, on a twisty road, the combination of a slick gearshift, perfectly placed pedals, exquisitely honed chassis, and that punchy engine makes for plenty of smiles. The manual 718 Boxster is an engaging car with a strong individual character of its own to properly distance it from the Carrera range.