Payne: Porsche Boxster is chip off the ol' GTS

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Porsche's mid-engine, 2015 Cayman/Boxster GTS twins (Boxster is the convertible one) are the best pure sports cars under $100K. Razor-sharp handling. Howling 6-cylinder power. Quick tranny.

How to test a car that has no peer?

I jumped into a time machine and went back 50 years to grab Stuttgart's original mid-engine GTS: The 1964 Porsche 904. Despite being separated by a half-century, the two GTS models share an uncanny family resemblance.

I grew up in the right hand seat of my father's 904 GTS.

The 904 was conceived as Stuttgart's entry into world racing's GT category, which required that manufacturers produce a production model — thus the term Gran Turismo Sport — for public sale. A street-legal race car in other words.

While the 904 dominated GT racing from LeMans to Watkins Glen, my father used his GTS just as Porsche intended. He drove it to work during the week and tracked it on weekends. Boy, did he track it. We were constantly on the road from our domicile in Charleston, West Virginia to SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) events in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio ... I especially remember Ohio.

Imagine driving a mid-engine, lightweight race car through the notorious police state. Ohio is synonymous with radar trap. Cops in the trees waiting to pounce on you. Half of Ohio's state budget must be funded by speeding tickets.

My childhood was one long "Smokey and the Bandit" movie.

After a Sunday afternoon autocross in Columbus or Bellefontaine or Dayton, we would have to haul the mail to get home for school and work on Monday morning. My father and his racing buddies had a system. He would drive point with a radar detector in the 904 while his pals would follow at a distance keeping an eye on the backdoor.

I vividly remember one night in Eastern Ohio in the early '70s. I was maybe 9 years old. After a successful day of racing, it was late and we were trying to get home. Flying low. Suddenly an officer's siren exploded behind us. Our backdoor buddy had been napping. We had been nabbed. For doing 80 in a 50 zone. Eighty is loafing in a 904, but all the cop saw was that we were 30 over. He was furious and hauled us to the nearest station in Middle-of-Nowhere, Ohio.

My father eventually emerged from the station and came around to my door. "Unless we have exact change to pay the ticket, they're keeping us in jail overnight," Dad the Bandit said. "I have enough large bills to pay the fine, but I need $1.73 to make it exact. Do you have it?"

I dug in my pockets. I had just enough. Whew.

As the years went by I graduated to the left seat of the 904. We made a lot of memories. So when the new, 330-horsepower, flat-6 Boxster GTS arrived in my driveway this month I took it across Ohio for a weekend. Just like the old days (without the trip to the sheriff's station, of course).

The reborn GTS — the first mid-engine Porsche to boast the badge since the 904— is a weapon that pays admirable homage to the original. While Porsche did not design the Boxster/Cayman as all-out GT racers, it does make ferocious, track-ready GT versions (the Cayman GT4 and forthcoming Boxster Spyder) equipped with 385-horsepower, 3.8-liter engines and spring rates that will shake loose your dental filings. The GTS versions, then, are a bridge between the street S model and the GT.

The 904 is one of Porsche's legendary designs. Like its elder, the Boxster is simple, purposeful, timeless (though the convertible lines aren't as crisp as the Cayman coupe). Its bullet shape is interrupted only by scalloped air scoops aft of the driver door to feed the beast within. The 904 bears two intakes — nicknamed "elephant ears" for their placement on the B-pillar — for the 317-horsepower IROC flat-6 my father had stuffed aboard (the original, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder was universally panned as a dog). Both cars sport minimal rear storage (the 904 fits a briefcase and the bigger Boxster doesn't offer much better) and a roomier "frunk" in front. A massive, 30-gallon fuel tank occupies the entire space in the endurance race-spec'd 904, but the Boxster's frunk is surprisingly roomy, easily fitting my small suitcase, computer bag, and camera case.

Inside, the cars are dramatically different. The 904 is analog, the Boxster digital.

On cold spring nights, I would often cuddle under a blanket in the 904 which lacks heating or cooling — much less a radio. The 21st century Boxster is a limo by comparison with everything from plush leather and Alcantara seats (exclusive to the GTS) to Bluetooth connectivity. Heck, it even has cup holders — though of the flimsy, fold-from-the-dash variety. Still, the Boxster manages to echo its racing heritage. Like the 904 its steering wheel is devoid of buttons. The seat is manually adjustable. It starts with a turn key.

The new car's refinement comes with a price. My Boxster tester stickers for $79,855 (though still cheaper than a base 911). The '64 904 in today's dollars? $54,856.

The Boxsters' comfy quarters were welcome on my Ohio adventure because the entire state is under construction. I saw more orange barrels than homes. The slow slog gave me little opportunity to provoke the plentiful police despite my ticket-me-red livery. Ohio hasn't changed a bit. But neither has West Virginia.

Once across the border, the horizon opened — free of barrels and police. On long, lonely stretches I was easily able to hit 100-plus mph just like dad's quick bursts years ago.

On a private test track, the two machines clinically carved up turns. Rejoice, 50-year-olds. The pair turned remarkably similar times. Porsche's first fiberglass-bodied car, the 904 weighs a mere 1,600 pounds, making it a rocket ship out of corners. The aluminum-skinned, 2,965-pound Boxster is significantly heavier. Throw it into the twisties, however, and its modern suspension, giant brakes and wider rubber make it more nimble than the 904.

As a kid I loved the roar 904 engine behind my head. The Boxster GTS is no different.

Despite the cabin's significant sound-padding over the thin 904, Porsche has equipped the Boxster with a SPORT exhaust option activating baffles in the system. Toggle SPORT PLUS Mode and the feature is augmented by rev match.

Stomp the Boxster and all flat-6 hell breaks loose with a wail over 6000 RPM that will wake the dead. And every Ohio cop in the county. Just like the old days.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Porsche Boxster GTS

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $74,495 base ($79,855 as tested)

Power plant: 3.4-liter, water-cooled, flat 6-cylinder

Power: 330 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual (7-speed auto PDK optional)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,964 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/26 highway/22 combined (PDK)

Report card

Highs: Razor-sharp handling; Tight gearbox

Lows: No easy access to engine; Don't pull Gs with these cupholders

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★

1964 Porsche 904 GTS

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $7,245 in 1964 ($54,856 in current dollars)

Power plant: 3.0-liter, air-cooled 6-cylinder Carrera IROC (replaced original flat 4-cyl)

Power: 317 horsepower (190 hp in original 4-cyl)

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; 155 mph top speed

Weight: 1,600 pounds

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Lightweight; Classic shape

Lows: Spartan interior;

You thought a Miata was cramped inside?

Overall: ★★★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★