Big-Six Boxster

On the road in the new 718 Spyder.

Photo: Big-Six Boxster 1
January 21, 2021

On the open road, it isn’t about how fast you can go but how involving the car is to its driver. The right car communicates with its driver and forces them to focus, creating a brief form of escape. People have varying definitions for the right conditions for escapism when driving. A wind-in-the-hair motoring experience creates that escape for me.

Tap dancing on the pedals at speeds less than 60 miles per hour on a warm evening down a mountain road is an escape. The engine is powerful and crisp all the way to redline. Transitions from left to right are immediate but not nervous. The brakes are firm and powerful. The suspension provides support but isn’t harsh. The gearbox is communicative and easy-to-use. Exiting the tightest, slowest corners, a stab of the throttle creates instant power oversteer.

The right car gives you confidence that creates a power dynamic where you control the car rather than the car being in control of you. This is my benchmark for a sports car, and it was formed after hundreds of miles in a powerful and sorted 914-6; a mid-engined open-top sports car. Does the current 982-generation Porsche 718 Spyder create the same driving experience?

Photo: Big-Six Boxster 2

Weight, Balance & Speed

Behind the wheel of the 718 Spyder, driving down the very same roads that I used to visit in the 914-6, I found myself thinking about physics. Despite fighting it for 22 years in professional motorsports, physics is not my field of expertise. Physics was top-of-mind as I had just finished watching “Challenger” on Netflix.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a four-part documentary on the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986. After the shuttle exploded, a Presidential commission, The Rogers Commission Report, was set up to figure out what happened. One of the members on that distinguished panel was a world-renowned physicist named Richard Feynman. Near the conclusion of the report, Dr. Feynman stated, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” It’s the “…nature cannot be fooled” part of his statement that resonated with me driving the new mid-engined 718 Spyder down the twisty road.

Learning to drive when there was a 914-6 in the garage left me with a particular fondness for mid-engined cars, and Porsches in particular. A well-sorted mid-engine car has a nimbleness, especially in change of direction, that a front-engine or rear-engine car lacks. But what’s so special about a mid-engined car?

Photo: Big-Six Boxster 3

You’ve probably heard the term before, but it is referred to as a low polar moment of inertia. Simply put, it refers to an object’s ability to rotate around its axis. The farther away mass is from its center, the harder it is to turn. For an example of a high polar moment of inertia, think dragster. Conversely, an object with a low polar moment of inertia would be a top. The right mid-engine car has the agility of a top but the stability of a train.

Having raced several mid-engine cars, including two different Ferrari models and various prototypes, a mid-engine car is best when you have a sense of security in the tail. Security in the sense that you know what is going to happen before it happens. Without that security, you will always be wondering when the back will come around because, when it does, it’ll happen very quickly, leading to poor lap times or a wrecked car.

A few things that make the 3,130-lb 718 Spyder unique. First off, it is the baby of Porsche’s GT model line. Unlike the last Boxster Spyder, the current 718 Spyder is a GT4 Cayman without a roof. It shares nearly the same curb weight, suspension, drivetrain, and most of the bodywork with its coupe brethren. Most of the suspension is from the 991.2-gen 911 GT3, but, sadly, its engine is not. Not to be confused with the 4.0-liter in the GT3, the 414-hp 4.0-liter, normally aspirated flat-six, is unique to the Spyder and GT4 Cayman. The engine started life as the 911 Carrera’s 3.0-liter turbocharged unit and was reworked for this normally aspirated application. According to Fabian Zink, the 911/718 powertrain product manager, the new 4.0 has a unique intake, valvetrain, and ignition.

Photo: Big-Six Boxster 4

The styling of this car also makes it unique, in my opinion. I think it’s beautiful. Perhaps the best-looking modern convertible Porsche has made. The car definitely looks best with the top down. I find the proportions and angles very appealing to the eye. The 718 looks right from almost every angle. The only aspect of the styling that looks unfinished are the exhaust pipes. The black diffuser in the rear looks the business, but chrome oval exhaust pipes protruding from it look out of place. Why not have the exhaust tip follow the contour of the diffuser opening, making it square and flush with it?

On the Road

With physics on my mind, I exercised the 718 Spyder on the very same roads I know so well from 30 years ago in the 914-6. The clutch uptake is light and easy to modulate. The shifting is precise, positive, and has this wonderful sense of feeling mechanical in an otherwise high-tech car. There’s a distinctive effort required between each gear. However, not much shifting was being done on my backroad. I found myself cruising in third gear most of the time. The engine has plenty of torque when rolling at a decent pace, so it wasn’t much of an issue other than wanting to engage with the shifter more often. Some journalists have griped about the long gearing in the 718 and GT4. The same was true for the last model of GT4. For the intended use of this car, I don’t mind the tall gearing.

Pushing the car harder on a twisty bit of road that I know all too well, it felt like it took an awfully long time to get to the 8,000-rpm redline. Not surprisingly, the engine feels like the GT4 Clubsport that I have many track miles in, including a class win in the NASA 25 Hour. The track-specific Clubsport variant of this car shares the same mechanical architecture as the GT4, except the Clubsport has a PDK gearbox.

Photo: Big-Six Boxster 5

Having just come off a drive in a 996 GT3, this new 4.0 powerplant doesn’t have that last leap in the remaining 2,000 rpm that the GT3’s do so well. The 718 will go to 8,000 rpm, but it doesn’t feel happy about it. I miss that surge of power in the Spyder, that last gasp of life-giving everything it has before the redline. The audible cues that the engine provides seem to back up the lack of thrust in the last 2,000 revs. The 718 engine doesn’t have the same sound of authority and bass that a GT3 delivers and feels strained at redline. The 4.0 in the 718 seems most happy between idle and 6,000.

Downshifting into a curvy stretch of road, the auto-blip function works beautifully. It makes every driver sound like they are masters at “heel and toe.” It’s cheating—like using a calculator for long division. It’s OK provided you know how to solve the problem free hand. The same is true for the auto blip—it’s OK to use if you know how to heel and toe.

The chassis is magnificent! The 718 turns in crisply and feels very settled, especially in the rear. In a tight, second gear, right-hand corner, I could easily power oversteer out of the turn. When it did step out, it was very easy to catch and control. The dampening was excellent with minor bumps and imperfections in the road. On this particular run, I left the dampers in Normal mode as the Sport mode was far too stiff for this application.

Photo: Big-Six Boxster 6

With bigger undulations, however, the Spyder would leap over the bumps as if there wasn’t enough droop in the dampers. It was controllable and never crashed down, but I was surprised at the dampening control when there were big heaves in the tarmac. I’ll chalk the heaves in the road up to bad California roads.

No other road in the 724 miles I traveled in the Spyder flustered it. To highlight how good the chassis is, a 2020 spec GT4 lapped the Nürburgring Nordschleife four seconds faster than the notorious Carrera GT supercar. Some, if not all, of that could be attributed to the new Michelin Cup 2 tires with 245/20s in the front and 295/20s in the rear of the Spyder. However, the CGT has a nearly 200 horsepower advantage over the GT4, and there are lots of opportunities to exercise the additional power at the Nürburgring.

So, how fast is the 718 Spyder? Well, apparently faster than a CGT around the race track. Like most modern cars, it’s hard to tell on public roads. The short answer is very fast. But in situations where you can’t get out of third gear, it makes the risk associated with going “fast” skyrocket when you attempt to push the car to its limit. Cyclist, animals, stopped cars and downed trees around blind corners are scenarios I have encountered over the years. They all are recipes for disaster by getting too ‘sporty’ on the road. As with most things, moderation is key, especially in a forgiving and confidence-inspiring car like the new Spyder.

Photo: Big-Six Boxster 7

Even though the 718 Spyder has the performance envelope of a Carrera GT, it’s been said that it’s user-friendly day to day. To find out first hand, I took the Spyder on a drive up to Lake Tahoe with a sense of superiority knowing that this car was faster than a Carrera GT around a race track. Between the front and rear trunk, there was plenty of room for luggage. In fact, I was able to put a 29-inch bike wheel along with a duffle bag in the front and close the hood without any extra work.

Motoring with the top up is very pleasant and quiet on smooth roads up to 70 mph. At speeds over 70, the wind and road noise begin to dominate the cabin with the top up. Pulling into a rest stop 10 miles from our exit, I dropped the top and found the same audible characteristics with the top up, only amplified.

Speaking of the Spyder’s top, most modern convertibles are operated with a push of a button. Like the 914-6, the Spyder requires exiting the vehicle and opening the trunk. The Spyder requires manually detaching the rear of the top and folding it into its resting place, followed by closing the trunk. The top operation didn’t bother me. In fact, I enjoyed stowing the top, as it became a competition to see how quickly I could do it. The whole process could be done in less than a minute, and, with rehearsing, could probably be done in 30 seconds.

The only odd byproduct of the top is the lack of access to the rear trunk with the top up. Partial top disassembly of the top is required to access the trunk. Luckily, the front trunk is so large that the use of the rear trunk isn’t required for everyday use. In the end, the Spyder looks so stunning with the top down that it’s worth a bit of extra work. The extra work was always worthwhile to get that view.

In an effort to meet the ever-tightening emission restrictions, the 718/GT4 is the first GT Porsche with cylinder deactivation. When demand is light, the 4.0 six turns into a 2.0 three-cylinder. At steady-state cruising across the hot and smoky Sacramento Valley, the engine note, at part throttle, would change from a high smooth hum to a rougher low pitched growl. If you’ve ever watched auto racing on TV, the sound is very similar to the pit lane speed limiters that racing cars use to precisely adhere to the speed limit and not lose time by going too slowly.

The transition from 2.0 to 4.0, at part throttle, was abrupt and akin to a carburetor that isn’t happy. I tried it several times, and each time there was a distinctive hesitation when the three idle cylinders were brought back into the fight. At one point I was going 66 mph and, for a mile, the car surged between 2.0 and 4.0, creating hesitation in the transition between the two as if we were running out of fuel. However, when in 2.0 mode and going to full throttle, the transition was seamless. Why not use technology to maximize efficiency? I’m one of the few that actually likes auto start/stop in new cars. If you find the surging between 2.0 and 4.0 is bothersome, you can simply deactivate it by turning off the auto stop/start function.

The standard “Sport Seats Plus,” not to be confused with the “race buckets’’ are very comfortable for my body shape. On the three-hour drive to Lake Tahoe there was never a moment where I felt I needed to shift positions for more comfort. Apple CarPlay was used to get caught up on podcasts and check in with Waze to ensure no course corrections were needed due to traffic.

The air conditioning in the Spyder worked perfectly in the hot afternoon through Sacramento. Changing lanes requires using the mirrors exclusively in the Spyder. If you like to look over your shoulder to change lanes, the Spyder’s top will be in your field of view. Not a problem for me, but it would be for the over-the-shoulder lookers.

The Verdict

The 718 Spyder is a mid-engine masterpiece that checks all the boxes. It’s an open-air motoring experience that is fast and fun to drive yet still civilized enough for everyday use, which can’t be said of a 914-6. Driving the Spyder quickly down a stretch of road has a way of selectively letting you forget reality—except the fact about it being faster than the mighty Carrera GT around the Nürburgring. While nature cannot be fooled, Porsche is doing an excellent job of providing its drivers the sense that they are. That’s the kind of escapism I’m looking for!

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