Payne: Porsche Boxster — can 4 cylinders beat 6?
Why do prudes always take the fun out of life? Determined to save polar bears from (global warming, global freezing, climate change or whatever they’re calling it this week) bureaucrats have tightened auto emissions screws so tightly that even mighty Porsche has cried uncle and silenced the world’s most glorious musical pipes this side of Adele at full croon.
The Porsche Boxster-Cayman flat-6 engine is no more.
In its place is a turbocharged 4-cylinder that produces less CO2. Before testing the four in Austin, Texas, I worried. It brought back memories of another cursed era, the 1970s and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy nannies. Then, the bogeyman was oil. Federal fuel economy laws forced manufacturers to downsize engines. The second-generation Mustang was the era’s poster child as Ford castrated its stallion with a neutered 4-banger. Muscle cars waned. Motorheads mourned.
Today we are in the midst of CAFE, Part 2, and automakers are being pinched again. Would the 2017 Boxster-Cayman be the Mustang II of its era? Would it signal the dawn of another dark age of muscle atrophy?
No, but ...
The good news is the Porsche Boxster-Cayman is more capable than ever. Readers of these columns know I think the Boxster-Cayman the best pure sports car on the planet. But the four’s a snore, which ain’t good for an elite sports car.
I say that as an admirer of Porsche fours. My 1987 Porsche 944 is stuffed with a 236-horsepower 4-cylinder from its sister 995 Porsche 968, the best inline-4 of its era. But those were entry-level sports cars, not $75,000 athletes competing against Corvettes and Alfa Romeo 4Cs.
Four-bangers are for $40,000 hot hatches (see Subaru’s 305-horse, flat-4 STI), not for Corvette-carving Caymans. Indeed, despite its sensational go-kart handling, the Alfa’s turbo-4 is its biggest knock.
No human ear will listen to Porsche’s “boxer” flat-4 and tingle with joy. The normally aspirated six was operatic: The glorious, rising aria of its 7,500-rpm crescendo — WAUUUUUGGGGGHH! — kept your foot buried for more. Fellow gearheads on our test drive outside Austin pined for the six-shooter. Trundle along at 50 mph in the new Boxster and the ghost of an old VW Beetle flat-4 is there: BUDDA-BUDDA-BUDDA.
Nail the four and Porsche’s engineers coax magic from the crankcase, the four pistons revving as freely as the six, topping out similar, 7,500-rpm redline. But the sound is purposeful, not epic — it’s more free-revving machine than howling siren.
Porsche has invested hugely in turbo-4s and coordinated our Boxster-Cayman test with the Porsche 919 prototype race car’s appearance at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas World Endurance Car race. Its battery-assisted turbo V-4 engine is a technical marvel, pumping out an astonishing 900-plus horsepower which propels it to lap times just north of Formula One cars.
But the WEC series played to half-empty stands in Austin. Like struggling Formula One, it has been forced by the nannies to nix ear-splitting rockets for battery-powered drones.
Racing is as much about the visceral experience as it is about speed. So, too, elite sports cars.
Big-brother 911 has also gone turbo, but it’s still a six-pot. The boxer-4 is tarted up with a growly sport exhaust and rev-matching downshifts, but purists will be reluctant to give up their sixes.
So Porsche has tried to make the four irresistible by mating it to a comprehensively reworked platform — rear bracing, half-inch-wider rear rubber — that produces staggering performance numbers. It even gets a new name: the 718 Boxster-Cayman (the numbers are tattooed on each car’s lower back), a reference to the early-1960s 718-badged Porsche racers that punched above their weight.
Despite two fewer cylinders, the 718 milks 300 horsepower from its base, 2.0-liter engine. That’s 35 more than the outgoing 2.7-liter six. For the S model’s 2.5-liter four, output soars to 350 horses (over the retired 3.4-liter six’s 315).
With so much power on tap in the familiar 2,900-pound, aluminum-intensive chassis, my 2.0-liter $68,390 Cayman exploded from corner to corner through Austin’s hill country (an area not dissimilar from Hell, Michigan — an oasis of twisties in the midst of Lone Star prairie). More than once, I found myself rushing apexes carrying waaaaay too much speed.
Cayman shrugged. No problem. Where mere mortal sports cars would push through the corner, taxing momentum, the 718 rotated as if on rails, displaying an organic goodness baked into the cars from hours of Nurburgring cooking.
Cayman vehicle dynamics engineer Daniel Lepschi and his team spend six to eight weeks a year at the famed, 154-turn German track putting this production car through race training. Then he drives it home at night.
The mid-engine Boxster has always been a special athlete. But only in its last generation did aesthetics catch up with the goodness within. The 2017 continues that evolution.
Though more sculpted with sharper creases defining the wheel wells, the front is still easily mistaken for big brother 911. But the hindquarters are uniquely Boxster-Cayman. The thin “Porsche” strip across the rear makes the car look more planted. And the black side air-scoops are more elegant than the awkward ribs that used to scar the Cayman.
The topless thrill of the full flat-6 made the Boxster my pick of the litter in previous generations. But with 718, I like the Cayman very much — especially as it is now cheaper (a first) than its topless sister, $54,950 to $57,050 base-to-base. Get it in white with black rims and you’ll attract more paparazzi than Angelina Jolie.
From there, buyers can pay another $12,400 for the 350-horse S. But for my money, the best upgrade is the $3,200 PDK transmission and the $2,440 Sport Chrono package. I’m a manual romantic, but the PDK-Chrono marriage is dynamite. Think 100-millisecond upshifts, hair-raising launch control, barking downshifts, and a push-to-pass button that will slingshot you past slower traffic. Sad about the loss of the flat-6? This high tech package will put a smile on your mug.
Porsche gets zinged for its a la carte pricing (my Cayman tester up-charged $140 for an extended fuel tank). But the advantage of a la carte pricing is you can pick what you want, nothing more. My ideal PDK-Sports Chrono base car tops out at a nice $65,000 that will give you joy for hours.
If only I could choose the 911 Carrera’s six-pack soundtrack.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Porsche 718
drive two-passenger sports car
2.0-liter turbocharged flat-4;
2.5-liter turbocharged flat-4
6-speed manual or 7-speed,
dual-clutch “PDK” automatic
2,944 pounds base Cayman
(3,054 Boxster S as tested)
$54,950 base Cayman ($93,535
Boxster S as tested)
300 horsepower, 280 pound-feet
(2.0L); 350 horsepower,
309 pound-feet torque (2.5L)
0-60 mph, 4.0 second Boxster S
(manufacturer, as tested);
top speed: 177 mph
EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway
/24 mpg combined (2.0L base Cayman);
21/28/24 mpg combined (2.5L Boxster S)
Knife-like handling; easy on the eyes
Six-cylinder withdrawal, cluttered console
Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★ Fair