It’s drizzling, so the driver feathers the throttle slightly before plunging into the bend. The Boxster S turns in precisely, its chassis planted firmly on the streaming road, the low-profile Pirelli P Zeros leaving rail-like dry strips in their wake as the car accelerates through in a blare of flat-six sound.
It’s all so accomplished that it calls for another go. Faster and faster, and still the little mid-engined roadster tracks true. Finally, when the Pirellis can no longer hang on and the back starts to let go, the PSM stability control takes over, helping to return the car to the straight-and-narrow. The limit has been reached: any faster, and car and occupants will be at the mercy of the laws of physics. But the speeds achieved so far have been a revelation…
Porsche Number One was also mid-engined. In fact, long before the creation of the first prototype bearing the family name, Prof Ferdinand Porsche and the team of engineers at his famous design office had realised that the ideal engine location was between driver and rear axle line, creating a low centre of gravity at the heart of the car.
Trouble was, as in many such designs, the little 356/1 prototype, built in 1947 at the family sawmill in Gmünd, Austria, lacked the space for creature comforts. So when it was decided to build versions of the 356 for sale to the public, the boxer motor was returned to the “Beetle position” behind the rear axle. The rear-engine layout was retained for the 911, and is still used in the latest versions of the world’s most successful supercar.
But mid-mounted rear engines remained part of Porsche culture. Starting with the 500 Spyder of 1953, the company’s purpose-designed race machines all used the layout, and there was even a mid-engined production model, the 914 “Volks-Porsche” (with its Porsche-engined spin-off, the 914-6), sold in the early ‘70s. When the Boxster prototype was shown at the Detroit Show in 1993, it was a sensation. Instantly identifiable as a Porsche, it evoked both the 356/1 and the 550 Spyder. And it was mid-engined, promising the kind of agility and responsiveness that result from the layout. But, in contrast to the 911, there appeared to be little luggage space.
By the time the Boxster reached production three years later, that had all changed. Briefed to turn the Detroit concept into “a genuine sports car, and perfect for everyday use, too,” the design and development team had come up with a two-seater with plenty of luggage space, an attribute we were to appreciate during a longer than usual (4 000 km) test of the latest Boxster S. The reason for the two-month test period was simple: Porsche Centre South Africa had asked us to put some kilometres on the Ocean Jade Metallic unit before putting it through our performance-testing. Delivered with just 953 km on the odo, the little roadster had covered just under 5 000 km when the time came to hand it back.
Initially launched with a 2,5-litre flat-six, the Boxster was upgraded in 1999 with the appearance of the 3,2-litre-engined S, and the adoption of a 2,7-litre motor for the standard version. In S form, the power-unit has outputs of 185 kW at 6 250 r/min and 305 N.m at 4 500. Engine management is by Bosch’s Motronic ME 7.2, a system also used in the Porsche Carrera 4.
On collecting the 2001 model year test car, we noticed some new features. It had an on-board computer similar to the one on the new 911 Turbo we tested for January CAR, and Porsche’s PSM stability control system was fitted. A tan leather interior contrasted elegantly with the dark green metallic exterior paintwork and black soft top. The matching facia features an “S” instrument binnacle (with white faces to the familiar overlapping dials and a supplementary digital speed read-out).
A black plastic-faced central panel accommodates the audio system (with front-loading CD player and spring-loaded flip-out CD-holders) and climate controls. There’s no glovebox on the facia (the passenger-side airbag takes up this slot), but useful hidey-holes abound. A lockable flip-up lid on the centre console between the seats provides the main “cubby”, there are bins in the doors (edged in elegant alloy), and a “secret” compartment between the roll bars, just beneath the hood housing, is an ideal place to hide one’s wallet when driving with the top down.
The pair of buckets are snugly supportive, just the thing for brisk sports-car motoring, and all testers apart from our resident beanpole were able to get perfectly comfortable at the wheel, using the combination of electric seat adjustment and adjustable steering column. True to Porsche tradition, all the controls are perfectly positioned to maximise the satisfaction to be gained from expert use of a precision instrument. The six-speed gearshift, quite heavy when cold, loosens up to “knife-through-butter” status once warmed up, the clutch feels solid but precise, the steering is perfectly weighted, yet quick with a razor-sharp feel, and the engine makes the familiar boxer sounds, both at idle and when revved.
We took delivery on a sunny mid-winter day, so the powered top was lowered before we set off. On pressing a large button above the rear-view mirror, the front locking mechanism is released and the two side-windows drop a couple of centimetres. Then it’s simply a matter of pressing a button on the facia to retract the roof. The cloth folds neatly under an overlapping panel, and there’s no need of a clip-on cover to protect the folded hood. The system works smoothly and quickly, but we soon found that one has to exercise care to protect the soft plastic rear window: on occasion ours would kink during folding, and it is advisable to insert a felt cloth to prevent scratching if the top is to remain lowered for some time. A special polish for eliminating scratches is provided with the toolkit.
Driving top-down is what the Boxster S is all about, and there’s suprisingly little hair-ruffling at speed, thanks to the window design and a (removable) perspex panel fitted between the pair of beefy roll bars behind the cockpit. Sadly, an exceptionally wet Cape winter meant that a large proportion of the mileage was covered with the top up. But, even in driving rain, not a droplet of water was able to penetrate, the padded material keeping the interior as snug as any hardtop.
Limiting revs, but always making sure not to labour the engine, we carefully clocked up the kilometres until the 3 000 mark, at which point Porsche Centre’s Cape Town branch were to give the car a thorough going-over before handing it back for performance testing. We were told to watch the oil level closely (an electronic indicator provides a readout every time the car is started), and to use the highest octane rating available, which, in the Western Cape, is 97 leaded.
Porsches being the special cars they are, many South African owners will treat them as prized possessions, bringing them out occasionally on fine days at weekends for some fun. We were in the privileged position of using the Boxster S as daily transport, commuting to and from work in the rush hour, come rain or shine, employing it for trips to the supermarket, and taking it on top-down drives on fine weekends. Using the car this way served to highlight the extent to which Porsche has managed to make the Boxster a practical everyday car despite the mid-engine layout.
The two locking load compartments – one in the front and one at the rear over the (sealed) engine bay – provide plenty of luggage space for a couple on an extended trip, and easily accommodate the week’s grocery shopping. In fact, when we measured the volume using our ISO blocks, we found that the Boxster S provided a lot more luggage space than either the Audi TT Roadster or BMW Z3.
At the same time, as we illustrated in the opening paragraph, the little Porsche roadster is a true performance machine. The 3,2-litre engine has countered early criticism that the chassis could handle more power (in fact it could still handle a lot more), but it is in its overall comportment, on fast trips over real driving roads, that the Boxster S demonstrates its superiority over virtually anything else but another, bigger-engined, Porsche.
With 3 000 km on the clock, the Boxster was duly delivered to the service centre for its checkover. No oil had been used. On the car’s return, we began to regularly use the full 7 200 r/min rev-range in daily driving, waiting for a perfect day to head out to the test strip. When the time came, the Boxster S did not disappoint. Fuelled to the brim with our imperfect local petrol brew, and carrying CAR’s standard test load of a crew of two as well as our test equipment, the test car powered its way to 100 km/h in 6,06 seconds, covered the kilometre in 26,22 seconds (breaking the mark at 204,1 km/h) and topped out at 261 km/h. Porsche claims a zero to 100 time of 5,9 seconds, and we found we could match that with a single person in the car.
Acceleration testing called for some real man-handling of clutch and gearshift with the PSM switched out, the rear wheels tramping dramatically as they spun-and-bit, spun-and-bit, to slingshot the car off the mark. But the Boxster S soaked up the abuse without a sign of distress, testifying to the standards of engineering applied to any vehicle bearing the Porsche name.
Braking performance was sensational, the S averaging 2,6 seconds in our standard 10-stop 100-to-zero emergency braking test. In normal use, the cross-drilled four-wheel discs provided progressive, easily adjustable retardation. The inaccessible engine meant we were unable to fit our Pierburg flowmeter for constant speed fuel consumption tests, but tank-to-tank figures over 4 000 km provided a reliable indication of the kind of fuel thirst owners can expect.
Our best figure, recorded on a typical twisty road trip, was 10,83 litres per 100 km. The worst in on-road driving, recorded during a series of runs commuting in heavy traffic, was 14,8 litres per 100 km. Overall, we achieved a fuel index of 12,42 litres per 100 km, a figure that should be easily achievable by an owner who uses the car’s sporting potential whenever possible. On the test strip, going for the quickest possible zero to 100 km/h times and recording a number of top speed runs, consumption soared to 18,43 litres/100 km.