BOXSTER SPYDER FIRST DRIVE #2016 #Porsche-Boxster-Spyder-981
We get behind the wheel of the hottest ever Boxster. Can this ‘non-GT’ car rival the Cayman GT4? With the same ingredients as the Cayman GT4, the Spyder is the hottest ever Boxster. We get behind the wheel to see if this ‘non GT’ Porsche offers a genuine GT4 alternative… Story: Andrew Frankel Photography: Porsche
At around 4750rpm, the engine in the all new Boxster Spyder gives a little snarl. I remember it because it occurred to me that G-series 911 Carreras from the 1980s make a similar noise at almost exactly the same revs. But they mean different things: in the Carrera it was the engine steeling itself for the short sprint to the redline, in the Spyder it’s merely signalling a departure point from where performance that might be recognisable to owners of other Boxsters starts to peter out, and performance no two seat open Porsche has this side of that other Spyder – the 918 – starts to become available.
The new Boxster Spyder is so fast that on first acquaintance you start to wonder why Porsche has not called it the Boxster GT4 and positioned it as an open companion to the Cayman GT4 whose 911-sourced 3.8-litre motor it shares. It’s an odd choice and I wonder if it had anticipated the rapturous reception the GT4 Cayman received, whether Porsche would have chosen to do it differently. Because here we have two Porsches, open and closed versions of the same cars essentially, with the same engine, same gearbox, same focus of reducing weight and increasing driving pleasure and just £4000 between them in the market place – yet one is accorded full GT status, the other not.
Some might say this is merely precedent, that the Boxster Spyder of 2009 was not a GT car so neither should this one be. Perhaps Porsche regards ‘Spyder’ as a separate subbrand to ‘GT’ in the same way as BMW refuses to make an ‘M’ version of its new i8, so Porsche wishes not to create brand confusion by mixing the two. But I doubt it: I think Porsche decided that people think of GT cars as hardcore machines for wheel-gripping, wide-eyed diehards and so the Spyder would put off more who secretly just want to be seen in the ultimate convertible Porsche than it would attract road warriors who’d probably buy the structurally stiffer coupé anyway.
So at its essence, the Spyder is a Boxster with GT4 running gear but in place of the GT4’s sophisticated suspension comes a standard setup with a 20mm lower ride height and sports springing. Despite the additional weight of the engine and that cool double bubble rear cowl, the lighter roof system, carbon bucket seats and the relegation of air-con and infotainment system to the (no cost) options list means total weight saved is 15kg. The 2009 Spyder saved 80kg and, get this, is a massive 115kg lighter than this new version. So while the new car is also 50hp more powerful, if you look at their respective power-toweight ratios you’ll discover the old Spyder offered 251hp per tonne and the new car has 266hp per tonne. Not much progress there.
One reason Porsche might cite for the Spyder losing rather less weight this time than last is not just the bigger engine – which I’m told is actually hardly any bigger or heavier than the 3.4-litre unit used by Boxsters S and GTS, but because it has a more user friendly roof. Some of you may remember the hood of the original Boxster Spyder was for occasional use only because you’d spend all the intervening time trying to figure out how to raise and lower the thing. More tent than roof, it was a long-winded process even when you’d figured out what to do, and once installed limited your top speed to 124mph because it would blow off if you went faster. In fact, Porsche didn’t programme the car this way, it just told you to keep your speed down, an instruction that at least one British journalist ignored while in Europe in one, with ruinous consequences for the roof and an interesting moment for those following him on the motorway. The new roof is still manual in operation but is sufficiently robust to stay in place even at the car’s 180mph top speed and though quite straight forward to erect or remove it still takes a few minutes.
The Spyder does, however, look incredible with the hood down. You can see in its design elements of both the 918 and that other quite effective Porsche roadster, the Carrera GT. Those carbon buckets do more than look good and support your body: their thin shells also provide a few extra centimetres of legroom all drivers much over six foot will be grateful to receive. The driving position is perfect, the 918-derived wheel is of ideal size and rim thickness. Press some pedals and move the gear lever before you set off and you will be reminded that no-one thinks harder about matching control weights than Porsche.
Turn the key and the bark that responds is sharper than you’ll hear in the Cayman GT4, I guess because of the absent roof. For the record I think its 10hp deficit to the Cayman unit even if real is entirely political and is there to ensure the hierarchy that says all Caymans have more power than their feebler Boxster sisters.
For reasons I’ll not bore you with now, I was a passenger in the car while it was driven on the public road, only taking the wheel myself when we reached Porsche’s test track at Silverstone. And it’s actually not a bad place from which to do at least some of the assessment because as a passenger you are far more sensitive to unwanted body movements than the driver, who at least knows what inputs and therefore likely reactions are about to occur. And the odd thing is that despite being deeply disappointed by the ride of the last Boxster GTS I drove on sport suspension, I thought the Spyder was more than adequately comfortable, especially given the kind of car it is and the fact it is far more likely to be used in a mainly recreational role than a normal Boxster.
I was interested too to see how much less the driver felt the need to change gear than you might even in a Boxster GTS. Peak power may have risen from 325hp to 370hp over the GTS but there’s far more torque everywhere, the maximum rising from 265lb ft to an altogether more meaningful 324lb ft. This would be very noticeable in any car, but in the Boxster, which has always had far longer gearing than it needs, the difference is transformative in exactly the same way as it is in the Cayman GT4. The gearbox is a pure delight and you might often choose to change down a couple of times just to feel its action and hear the flat-six howl, but you no longer need to; and on give and take roads where sometimes an opportunity to overtake appears but with no time to waste, in the Spyder you can just stretch your leg and feel the car surge forward like no other Boxster before.
But I really wanted to know what, if anything, it lost to the Cayman GT4 on the track. On paper it seems like nothing: the Cayman has allegedly another 10hp, but also 25 extra kilos to carry. Porsche claimed it will reach 62mph in 4.4sec, the Boxster Spyder in 4.5sec and if that’s a difference you can detect, it is you who should be doing this job and not me.
Porsche’s test track is quite short but also when you’re absolutely on or over the limit with all the electronics turned off, quite challenging too. It’s a track designed to make Porsches look and feel good, and it does. So wide is the powerband of the Spyder’s new engine that you could probably lap reasonably competitively using just third gear but where would be the fun in that? Without the roof in place you can really hear the engine sing, so naturally you want to give it all the revs in as many gears as you can.
Soon you’ll find that an optimised Boxster chassis toting a 911 Carrera S powertrain is a pretty potent and memorable combination. One of very few downsides to driving any lesser Boxster is the certain knowledge that it’s capable of handling so much more power than Porsche has put at your disposal, and even now with 370hp the car feels properly exercised, but in no way stretched further than it cares to go. Could it handle over 400hp? Without a doubt. Even as it is, you find the engine capable of exploiting the car’s phenomenal inherent traction like no other Boxster. As ever it will dart into a turn on a trailing throttle but now you can load up the rear tyres with torque at the apex, push through the initial understeer caused by the limited-slip differential and get the car drifting towards the exit. It is simple and highly rewarding.
All I think it lacks relative to a Cayman GT4 is sheer grip, a little steering feel and ultimate body control, symptomatic of both the Cayman’s stiffer structure and its more highly specified dampers. I’d say the Cayman probably rides better too, but I’d need them together and on the same road to say for sure.
There are two ways of looking at the Boxster Spyder. The cynic would call it a pulled punch, a car Porsche knows is going to sell and can do so without expensive and highly specialised componentry because Porsche customers really serious about driving will want a closed GT series car. I prefer to look at it as a pragmatic car. It is less extreme than the old Spyder but more accessible as a result. Is it worth the extra over the Cayman GTS? Yes, because of its looks and the engine, but only if you want it as a plaything. As a regular steer, the cheaper, better equipped, more civilised GTS remains the one to have.
But what it still leaves is space for a proper, no compromise Boxster, a truly stripped out, lightweight, hardcore, road racing driving machine. Only then will we have what Porsche fans have waited a lifetime for: a true successor to the original 550 Spyder. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of it winning the Targa Florio, Porsche’s first outright win in a globally important motor race. What better way to celebrate than that?
An optimised Boxster chassis toting a 911 Carrera S powertrain is a potent and memorable combination. In the Spyder you can just stretch your leg and feel the car surge forward like no other Boxster before.
A new robust user-friendly roof features in this Spyder. With it stowed the car’s styling is rather reminiscent of the 918…