Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster

Twenty years ago, the big news from Porsche was the arrival of a new “entry level” car: the Boxster. Its mid-mounted flat six-cylinder engine made a modest 201 horsepower, but that was more than enough to quickly propel this roadster to rapid global success. With the Boxster it wasn't so much about brawn; it was about finesse.

The Boxster is now the 718 Boxster. Why? It's got to do with the new engine.

Initially a few naysayers blathered on about whether it was a “real” Porsche, but come on... the overwhelming response to the new car was unbridled excitement and approval. It's largely been that way ever since.

Did I say 20 years? Yes, it's been that long, and over those years we've seen an incremental evolution of the Boxster, but no need at all to mess with the fundamentals. Don't worry, these remain intact for 2017, but there are some very significant changes for the upcoming model, especially (gulp...) the loss of two cylinders. There's also a “completely refined” chassis, changes to the exterior design, and something of a name change, too.

First of all, about the name change... The Boxster is now the 718 Boxster. Why? It's got to do with the new engine. Porsche dug into its past and found the flat four-cylinder powered 718 race car from the 1950s as a kind of historical antecedent. Maybe it softens the blow of losing the Boxster's sweet flat-six; maybe it reminds people that Porsche had huge success with the original 718 and that this is expected to carry on undiminished; maybe it emphasizes the depth of the brand's flat-four engineering competence over the decades, thus preemptively legitimizing the new model (not that it needs it).

Whatever the reason, there hasn't been a four-cylinder Porsche since the 944, or a flat-four offered by Porsche since the 912 E 40 years ago, according to Porsche (the 914 doesn't seem to be one of the family). So Porsche effectively leapfrogged from the historic 718 to the new 718 Boxster, tied a bow and has presented them as a pair. The result is the $63,900 Porsche 718 Boxster with a new 2.0 litre, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine behind the driver that develops 300 hp at 6,500 rpm, and the $78,000 Porsche 718 Boxster S whose 2.5L flat-four makes a formidable 350 hp at 6,500 rpm.

That's a substantial 35 hp gain for both models, but the increase in torque is even more impressive. Typical of small displacement, direct-injected and turbocharged engines, they supply gobs of torque in the low and midrange of the rev-band. The 2.0L engine makes 280 pound-feet of torque (up from 206 lb.ft) at 1,950-4,500 rpm and the 2.5L engine makes 309 lb.ft torque (up from 266 lb.ft) at 1,900-4,500 rpm. Top speeds are 275 and 285 km/h respectively. This is really quite transformative.

Tech Spotlight: 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster

And despite the prodigious output, and an unexpected (by me) increase in weight (five kg for the 718 Boxster, 15 kg for the 718 Boxster S) the PDK-equipped Boxster delivers 9.0/5.7 L/100km city/highway and the “S” returns 9.5/6.0 L/100km city/highway on the European cycle using (of course) premium fuel. Yes, you read that right. Five-point-seven L/100km. Some hybrids barely achieve that.

So, not your father's '97 Boxster.

Visually, the 2017 718 Boxster models are not a big departure from the outgoing version, but there are several differences that will be spotted by the keen-eyed. The standard wheel increases to 18-inch for the 718 Boxster and 19-inch for the 718 Boxster S (20-inch wheels are available for both) and the cars' contours are more sharply defined. It's lower in the front and appears wider, too; the fender contours are sharper, and the side air inlets have increased in size.

The  headlights are redesigned, narrower now, with standard bi-xenon illumination complemented by integrated LED running lights. LED headlights are a new option, with distinctive four-point daytime running lights. The front air inlets are larger, and there are two horizontal blades in the middle of the front to emphasize width. The hood, decklid and convertible top carry over, but Porsche says every other panel is new. Dimensionally, despite the blades, creases and massaging, the car is the same as the outgoing model except for a 5.0 mm increase in length.

At the rear, change is also evident, and perhaps more so. The spoiler is wider and seems more prominent, the fully redesigned rear lights feature interior black glass, three-dimensional LED technology and four-point brake lights.  Below the spoiler is a wide accent strip and below it you'll see a 3D Porsche script that's easily visible at a distance. The single centre exhaust outlet for the 718 Boxster and double exhaust for the 718 Boxster S remain. What you might not notice is that the wheels for both models have increased in width by a half-inch.

Both of our cars were fitted with the $3,660 PDK double-clutch transmission (as are the majority of Porsches, these days, although a six-speed manual is standard for the 718 Boxster models) and both also were equipped with the optional sport exhaust. Thus specified, the 718 Boxster with the Sport Chrono Package will zip from 0-100 km/h in 4.7 seconds, while the similarly equipped 718 Boxster S requires 4.2 seconds for the same task (the numbers from Porsche are typically conservative, so quicker times could be possible).

Something I haven't yet mentioned is the interior, which is largely unchanged. This interior (ours had power Sport Seats) is a beautifully tailored, finely crafted effort. It's the epitome of sport-luxury, in my view. The power adjustable 375 mm steering wheel (available heated for those snowy winter days...) is a derivative of the 918 Spyder's. It looks great and feels perfectly sized and weighted (a 360 mm Sport Wheel is available). What you won't find in the cabin is room for anything beyond two occupants. What storage areas exist barely have room for a cell phone, the drink holders are misnamed, and the hard-to-reach map pockets in the doors are good for a pack of tissues and a thumb drive. Okay, I exaggerate. Two thumb drives.

But there is plenty of room for two people, with seemingly infinite adjustability from seats that offer superb support and comfort. There's good hip room, good thigh room, good shoulder room. It is an exquisite cabin, but it's designed for driving, not so much for touring. That said, the front and rear trunks do hold a useful amount of luggage when asked.

We drove both the 718 Boxster and 718 Boxster S on a combination of high-speed highways and absurdly twisty roads in Portugal's Coastal Lisbon region for several hours, supplemented by some high performance manoeuvres at a military airforce base. It was a good day, all around.

No, the engine doesn't sound like a “six.” A turbine whine is indeed not a feature of four-cylinders, but a tuned snarl can be, as can a willing wail (the car uses a new exhaust system, front to back, and will rev to 7,500, according to Porsche engineers at the press launch). From inside the car, I liked the sound just fine.

The Sport Exhaust (it'll add a few dollars...) is, I think, too much fun to ignore on your order sheet. It muffles nothing, is the opposite of docile, and definitely represents the emergence of your darker side (and if you don't have a darker side, you will if you order this exhaust). But I would argue that more than that, it permits this car to fully express itself, highlighting the fact that the 718 Boxster actually has a different character than the Boxster it replaces. This one is a bit wilder, a bit more raucous, more eagerly responsive to throttle, steering and brakes. But it's arguably even more sophisticated and poised.

Clearly this is why we were in rural Portugal. The speed limit on these narrow, sometimes single-lane twisting roads is 90 km/h (which is likely two or three-times what it would be in most of Canada). There's very little traffic and you couldn't design a better long-distance slalom if you tried. Here the car and its excellent drivetrain shine as you navigate all manner of corners and elevations, paddle-shifting with precision, thrilling to the 718 Boxster's adhesion to the road. Buyers can order the Porsche Active Suspension Management system ($2,050) that will lower the car an additional 10 or 20 millimetres, but those 9.5 or 10.0-inch rear wheels and the 718 Boxster's mid-engine balance already contribute to impressively stabilizing the car's rear end right out of the box.

Our visit to the Ota Military Base enabled us to further explore the car's balance and adhesion via lane-change and slalom exercises that I think confirmed what we already knew. But flat out acceleration down the runway was something completely different. One doesn't often get the chance to simply keep the accelerator flat on the floor for two kilometers, so this was unusual.

I hit 232 km/h in the 718 Boxster before arriving at the brake point; my colleague made 241 km/h in the Boxster S (the digital speedometer is still too small, Porsche). There were some bumps, politely shrugged off; the Boxster felt glued to the runway, and superb braking was effected without drama; straight and true. Man, that's quick, although exciting enough that I didn't even think of wind turbulence in the cabin. If it existed, it went unnoticed.

With acceleration times down and top speeds up, the 718 Boxster now uses the brake system previously found on the Boxster S (330-mm discs front, 299-mm discs rear). The 718 Boxster S uses the four-piston calipers of the 911 Carrera with thicker front brake discs (34-mm vs 28-mm). These are some of the best brakes on a sports car that I've experienced.

The difference between driving the 718 Boxster and 718 Boxster S is notable, especially if you find yourself on roads of the type we drove, or presumably if you plan to track your car. Not that the the 718 Boxster is deficient by any means, but in the “S” all of the vehicle dynamics are just that much more immediate. It's just more satisfying.

But it's a no-brainer, really. Both models represent an excellent opportunity to enjoy a genuine sports car experience, coupled with excellent build quality, sophisticated engineering and a brand history of winning. I can't imagine any buyer being dissatisfied with this car.

You can order yours now.

Pricing: 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster
Base Price (Boxster): $63,900
Base Price (Boxster S): $78,000
Freight: $1,085