Car enthusiasts may have been disheartened to learn that Porsche had jerked two cylinders out of the 2017 Boxster’s engine compartment — and slapped a new “718” badge on its decklid — yet historians (and those of us who have driven it) will mark this new model as a significant step forward for the German automaker’s mid-engine sports car.
But, why a four-cylinder, for the first time in the Boxster’s lifespan? As was recently the case with the rear-engine 911, Porsche’s performance hand was forced by ever more stringent emissions and fuel economy regulations. In response, Porsche’s deft response was to reduce the Boxster engine’s cylinder count and displacement, offsetting those losses by adopting forced induction across the range.
For a first drive of the new 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster and Boxster S, I strapped inside yet another pressurized aluminum tube and flew to Lisbon, Portugal. As a former Boxster owner, I wondered if the new four-cylinder turbo engine changed the endearing character of the diminutive drop-top.
Launched in late 1996 as a 1997 model, Porsche’s mid-engine two-place convertible had seemed destined forever to play the role of little brother to the flagship 911. Still, the Boxster was a hit out of the box, and that first-generation Type 986 was followed by a refreshed second-generation Type 987 in 2004, and then by an all-new third-generation, the Type 981, in 2012. All Boxster models throughout those eight years of production were fitted with naturally aspirated flat six-cylinder engines.
The new Type 718 designation not only pays homage to the automaker’s famed Porsche 718 sports car (built from 1957-62 and also appropriately fitted with four cylinders), the numeric seems to indicate a rise in Porsche’s own estimation of this fully mature, finely polished member of the family.
The new powertrain is clothed in a completely redesigned body, though the average onlooker would not be able to identify the 718’s subtle differences from the outgoing Type 981. (Maybe this explains the prominence of the 718 badging on the Boxster’s re-sculpted rear end?) Nearly every body panel is new, and the new, sharpened creases in the front hood add a bit of character to the front view. In addition to the styling updates, the 718 also received a redesigned instrument panel fitted with latest generation of Porsche Communication Management (PCM), complete with a touchscreen.
The two all-new engines are notable for being Porsche’s first-ever turbocharged flat-4 powerplant, and the company’s first horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine in more than 40 years (in 1976, Porsche offered its 912E and 914 with naturally aspirated 2.0-liter flat-4 engines).
The standard Boxster is fitted with a 2.0-liter flat-4 that utilizes a single turbocharger and is rated at 300 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The Boxster S is fitted with a larger, 2.5-liter version of the all-aluminum engine, and it too is force-fed by a single turbocharger. However, the 2.5 vaunts a high-speed turbo with variable turbine geometry (VTG, shared with the marque’s flagship 911 Turbo) that adapts to the exhaust flow and helps bump the S engine’s output to 350 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.
The exhaust-driven turbocharger required a complete redesign of the 718’s exhaust system. After I studied a naked engine mounted on a stand, I asked an engineer about the two separate exhaust pipes running down each side of the engine bay. Each cylinder bank’s exit pipe was brought together before feeding the single turbocharger, and they were split again with a Y-pipe immediately thereafter, an arrangement that appeared to add complexity and unnecessary weight. The engineer explained that, because the engine bay in the Boxster is tight, two exhaust routes were required to fulfill the exhaust’s flow requirements over the driveshafts. Nearly all of that trick plumbing is hidden from view, but acute observers will note that the base Boxster features a single oval tailpipe while the Boxster S is distinguished by centrally located dual round tailpipes (the optional Sport Exhaust mimics this design).
As is customary, Porsche offers two different gearboxes with each engine. The standard transmission is a near-perfect, traditional 6-speed manual, its short throws rewarding the operator with a wondrous mechanical “click” as each gear is engaged. It also offers, in certain modes, automatic rev-matching during downshifts. Optional is Porsche’s race-proven Doppelkupplung (PDK), the 7-speed automated dual-clutch gearbox that delivers astonishingly rapid gear changes — no human can come close — and intelligent shift logic whose directives never need be questioned.
It was an important part of the 718’s project brief, of course, to make both new engines more fuel efficient than their predecessors, and they are said to be capable of delivering upwards of 13-percent better fuel economy. Consistent highway cruising would have been the best way to gauge the increase in mileage, but I planned some excessively spirited driving with the engine under boost and did not expect to notice the claimed improvements.
Initial rumors of the future flat-4 began to swirl around some five years ago and had many enthusiasts anticipating a new, featherweight version of the Boxster — a smaller engine would be the first step in reducing mass. In most cases, this would be true, but turbochargers and their associated plumbing are heavy, so, although the new models don’t lower the bar, the lightest 718, with a manual gearbox, still tips the scales at only 2,943 pounds. The heaviest, a Boxster S with PDK, weighs in at 3,053 pounds. Even if the 718 didn’t go on a diet, all of its variants are significantly lighter than a Jaguar F-Type Convertible (about 500 pounds heavier) or Audi TT Roadster (about 300 pounds heavier).
If you can’t reduce weight, then add power, and the new turbocharged powerplant does just that, taking the standard 718 Boxster with a manual gearbox from 0-60 mph in 4.9 seconds (top speed 171 mph), while the Boxster S with PDK and the optional Sport Chrono Package accomplishes the same task in 4.0 seconds flat (top speed 177 mph). This makes the new 718 Boxster S quicker than the 2016 Boxster Spyder, which ran the 0-60 in 4.3 seconds.
Porsche brought all four engine/gearbox combinations to Lisbon, and first I scored keys to a 718 Boxster S with a 6-speed manual gearbox. This most powerful and engaging 718 is the obvious enthusiast’s choice, and I anticipated that it would quickly win me over as my favorite in the lineup.
Twisting the key mounted to the left of the steering wheel in the age-old Porsche tradition immediately fired up the new flat-4. Its bark to life will not be familiar to owners of Boxsters with the flat-6, which presents a smoother, deeper, and silkier demeanor at rest than the insistent idle and higher pitch of the flat-4.
While revving the engine at a standstill, it was more brash and boisterous (and sounds louder from within the cabin that last year’s standard Boxster and Boxster S models), and that audio track was accompanied by a physical vibration that worked its way up my backside in concert with the analog tachometer’s spinning needle.
Moving out, I immediately noted the powerplant’s almost instant climb to its peak torque, which hits as low as 1900 rpm and makes the turbocharged engine playful and engaging at the low end of the tachometer, a clear distinction from the power delivery of the naturally aspirated six, which required several thousand rpm before supplying the punch. Oh, and that torque permits the Boxster S to kick its tail out — easily — under full throttle in first gear, a feat its predecessors never could achieve.
Of course the new flat-4 isn’t as smooth as the outgoing flat-6. But, it’s as zealously free-spinning as its forebears and will effortlessly spin the tach needle to the 7500-rpm redline, a mark of pride to Porsche engineering. Which also wasn’t shy about pointing out that the engine suffers only a five-percent power decline from nominal to maximum engine speed. Porsche says no other turbo engine in the 718’s market segment can match this figure, and there was no reason to argue from the driver’s seat. The 718 feels energetic, peppy, full of life. If it were possible for a new engine to make a vehicle feel younger, well, the turbo has done just that for the Boxster.
The morning romp ended at Centro de Formação Militar e Técnica da Força Aérea (or CFMTFA), north of Lisbon, where Porsche had taken over the training center’s taxiway and main runway for three different drills — a long slalom, a high-speed lane-change maneuver, and a high-speed run — each meant to demonstrate elements of the 718’s performance.
The slalom and lane-change exercises revealed the 718 Boxster’s mid-engine balance and agility — exceptional, of course — as the vehicle effortlessly shot through the obstacles. Pushing hard revealed a bit of tail wagging, but if things threatened to get out of hand, the car was politely reigned in by the Porsche Stability Management system (PSM). The exercises also helped shed light on the advantages of 2017’s upgraded footwear. All models ride on slightly wider wheels: Stock fitment in the base Boxster is 18-inch diameter alloys (wrapped in 235/35-18 and 265/40-18 tires); 19-inch diameter is standard on the Boxster S (wrapped in 235/40-19 and 265/40-19 tires), but many buyers will want to upgrade to the optional 20-inch wheels, which look and perform better than the lesser offerings.
The high-speed lane change was a bit more exciting and challenging as I entered each run at a continuously higher speed. The first, at 50 mph, was a walk in the park. However, once I tried it above 70 mph (that’s a 40-percent bump in velocity!), things got seriously sketchy. My initial left-hand turn was easy, but the laws of physics did not allow the 718 to follow the direction of the front tires back into its initial lane. I held the wheel firmly with a few degrees of steering lock as the nose plowed over the cones — PSM ensured that I didn’t spin, but it did not help to moderate my embarrassment.
The high-speed run was most invigorating: Who doesn’t enjoy flat-out runs over wide-open surfaces with nothing to hit? From a launch-control start, the 718 Boxster S hit 157 mph at the end of the pre-marked 2.0-kilometer zone, while the 718 Boxster reached just over 150 mph. That’s quick, especially when you consider that I ran a late-model 911 Carrera S on the same course and hit 160 mph — just a few mph faster than the Boxster S (of course, the 911 would have walked away from the 718 had the course been longer).
For the drive back to the hotel, I grabbed the keys to a standard 718 Boxster with PDK — and what I assumed would be my least favorite variant. The afternoon return involved 100-plus miles of driving over rural roads, mountain passes, and highways. The high-speed expressways were exceptional (Portugal must have an enormous highway budget; the asphalt is glass-smooth), but the real pleasure came in the countryside where I could run the 718 really hard.
While I doubt any Porsche salesman will acknowledge it, there is a subtle difference in the sound between the standard Boxster and the Boxster S (the different turbochargers affect the exhaust flow in distinctive manners). Both have a similar song at lower engine speeds, oddly similar to a Subaru WRX, but at higher speeds they wail their own individual tunes — my ears say the standard Boxster sounds freer breathing, despite its lower horsepower rating.
Although I much prefer a manual gearbox, the PDK proved unflappable and perfectly suited to the new turbocharged engine. With the 718 in Sport+ mode (and with the dampers configured on their softer setting as the secondary road’s pavement wasn’t as smooth as the highway’s), the PDK accurately rocketed through the gears, up and down, with spellbinding accuracy. The analog needle moved with an impossible speed across the face of the round tachometer — nearly unreal — and the smaller engine’s torque felt ideally matched to the seven gears.
With dry skies and temperatures in the mid 60s, I raised and lowered the power-operated top about a half-dozen times during the drive, noting that I prefer the convertible Boxster over its coupe sibling, the Cayman. The drop-top’s fabric and alloy roof is fully lined and drum-tight when closed — effectively masking any hint of its open-air capabilities — and the roof operation takes but mere seconds, even while the vehicle is moving at city speeds.
Truth is, top-down driving in the Boxster is the preferred way to travel: wind buffeting is minimal, and the stowed roof means its thick rear pillars, which add annoying blind spots over each shoulder, are gone. With the top down (or with the side windows open) it is also possible to hear the whoosh of the turbocharger from the passenger compartment — upon heavy throttle application, the sound emanates from the air intakes, which are just aft of each door, and then reflects off the side mirrors.
Mile after mile, the 718 Boxster tackled the unfamiliar windy roads with zeal, zooming between the small rural towns at exaggerated velocities. It was incredibly satisfying — I had a permanent grin plastered on my face and decided I would gladly outfit my personal 718 with the PDK (well, maybe not).
And I was not alone.
At one point, at the entrance to a small town, I zoomed in on a group of Portuguese elementary school children walking down the road in a single-file line with their teachers. The kids heard the booming exhaust of the 718 as I approached, quickly spun around, and gleefully began to cheer. Others joined in. Moments later, there were dozens of screaming kids waving and jumping at the sight of a bright-red Porsche convertible brightening up their morning — I waved back, still beaming.
Enthusiasts cry foul each time an automaker downsizes an engine, especially when a reduced cylinder count is involved — yet the truth of the matter is that the lower displacement powerplant typically surpasses its predecessor in efficiency, reduced emissions, reliability, and power output. As was the case with Porsche’s 911 Carrera models, which received extraordinary new turbocharged engines earlier this year, the 718 and its two new turbocharged flat-4s is superior to previous Boxster models.
How good? I’ve nearly forgotten its predecessors had six cylinders.
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Image credit ©Porsche Cars AG