(Pictured above: the original Porsche Boxster clay model in all its painted glory.)
This past December, Porsche unleashed a surprising and somewhat befuddling announcement upon the car world: In addition to changing the name of its mid-engine roadster to the 718 Boxster, the company revealed that the car's naturally aspirated flat-sixes would be replaced with turbocharged fours. The expected hand wringing and hair pulling ensued: A turbocharged four?! What is this, a Saab?
But once the initial shock subsided, the changes made sense. Increasingly strict emissions and fuel economy standards have pushed Porsche, like so many others, toward turbocharging across its lineup. The plumbing for the new turbocharged six developed for the 911 won't fit into the Boxster's engine bay, so running six cylinders in both cars as Porsche has done in the past is out. A blown four does fit, however, and it recalls one of the earliest Porsche racing models.
The mid-engine, four-cylinder Porsche 718 RSK racers from the late 1950s and early 60s captured numerous podium finishes and class wins on circuits such as Le Mans and Sebring, as well as an overall victory at the 1959 Targa Florio—ahead of Ferrari's V12s. With a lineage traceable to the first days of Porsche's illustrious motorsports history, the 718 name connects Porsche's storied four-cylinder past with the Boxster's four-cylinder future. And in that regard, with this year being the 20th anniversary of the Boxster, the changes seem a fitting transition out of the first two decades of the sports car responsible for saving the brand.
Yes, saving the brand.
To the Brink and Back
Given Porsche's high-flying success today, it's easy to forget the company was on the verge of bankruptcy back in the early 1990s. In fact, Porsche's annual sales had fallen from over 50,000 units in 1986 , and only 3000 of those sales were in the U.S. Among the chief causes for this decline were a faltering U.S. economy and Porsche's bloated production process. The latter of which was steadily driving prices higher at the worst possible time.
To turn things around, Porsche needed a new, affordable model to replace the aging 924/944/968 platform. For inspiration, it looked to the success Mazda was having with the Miata. Introduced in 1989, Mazda's sports car had proven there was a strong market for two-seat roadsters. So Stuttgart decided to do something similar—but with a Porsche twist. This new car would be a mid-engine roadster recalling the 550 Spyder of the 1950s.
Hans-Juergen Woehler is a 31-year veteran of Porsche who served as lead development engineer for the original Boxster. "The mid-engine concept offered a high potential for optimal dynamic performance and is typical for sports cars—hence, it was a good fit for Porsche," Woehler said in an email. "The segment for roadsters was growing when the 986 (Boxster's internal model designation) was conceived and developed, so it proved to be an opportune time to enter it."
While the management team at Porsche agreed that a relatively inexpensive roadster was what the company needed, it knew it had to find a more efficient way to build the car. In 1992, Porsche turned to former Toyota engineers to help implement the Japanese company's "just-in-time" production method. Dictating the complete elimination of waste, the philosophy promotes building only what is needed, when it's needed, and in the exact amount needed. This includes parts procurement as well. Following these guidelines, Toyota had eliminated inconsistencies and inefficiencies, resulting in better productivity and lower costs.
At the time, Porsche's manufacturing process was a complete mess. According to a 1996 , engineers would have to sift through parts bins and climb ladders to search shelves while building a single car. The impact of the Toyota team was swift and evident. After instituting leaner production methods, Porsche said it had reduced the assembly time for one car from 120 hours to 72, and the number of errors per car had fallen an astounding 50 percent.
"The suggestions we received from Toyota and the improvements we made streamlining the production process led to significant advantages," Woehler said. "They also helped improve our competitiveness in the industry."
But Porsche's embracing of cost-conscious production measures raised red flags for purists. Further fueling this apprehension was the fact that these efforts also meant the 986 and the 996, the first of the liquid-cooled 911s, were co-developed. The car's engines were largely the same, save displacement, and to the casual observer, the 986 and 996 were virtually identical from the nose to the dash. Most notable among the derided similarities are the "fried-egg" headlights abhorred by many Porsche enthusiasts. While Porsche thought this synergy gave the Boxster more legitimacy, traditionalists viewed the Boxster as the cheap car responsible for dumbing down the 911. Of course, Woehler disagrees with these sentiments.
"Yes, the 986 and 996 were designed at the same time and were engineered together," Woehler said. "However, key components were different. For example, the 986 had three primary instruments instead of the five the 996 had. Furthermore, the front fascias were different, and the 996's windshield was larger."
The 996 was also considerably more powerful. After all, Porsche couldn't have its upstart sports car blowing away its highly revered (and more expensive) older sibling. Considering the handling advantages of the Boxster's mid-engine platform over the 911's rear-engine design, with sufficient power this could have been entirely possible. Because of this, throughout most of the Boxster's lifetime, Porsche has had to make a special effort to keep the roadster in its proper place within the company's lineup. So, behind the 911.
Despite all of this, the Boxster was a runaway success. Between 1996 and 2003, the Boxster was Porsche's best-selling model until the Cayenne came along. And by 2007, buoyed by a growing lineup, Porsche had become the most profitable automobile manufacturer in the industry on a per-unit basis. So, love it or hate it, the Boxster got the job done, and it did so while maintaining Porsche's core principles.
"My key goals were to provide a maximum amount of emotion, driving pleasure, and performance," Woehler said. "That the Boxster is regarded as the benchmark in its segment in these areas and has received many international awards is very gratifying."
The Evolution of the Boxster
The Porsche Boxster concept made its debut at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show. Designed by Harm Lagaay, the car was reminiscent of the 550 Spyder (from which the 718 RSK was developed) and reflected the evolutionary nature of Porsche's styling. A conjunction of the words "boxer" (for the engine configuration) and "roadster" (as it was a two-seat convertible), the Boxster immediately fired enthusiast's imaginations. Fanning those flames into an all-out conflagration, Porsche's reps promised to bring it to market with the concept's styling largely intact.
Three years later, the production Boxster made its official European debut with only minor detail changes. The first new model from Porsche in 18 years, the 986 was only the sixth in the entire history of the company (following the 356, 911, 914, 924, and 928). Americans had to wait until 1997 to get our turn behind the wheel, but when the Boxster finally arrived, it was met with waves of adulation, including from Road & Track.
"I love the car's lines and the fact its look is reminiscent of the 550 Spyder and the Porsche RSK," Joe Rusz, R&T's then editor-at-large and resident Porschephile, wrote in the March 1997 issue. Declaring the torque curve "as flat as year-old beer," Rusz marveled at the way the liquid-cooled engine somehow even sounded like Porsche's air-cooled, horizontally opposed six. He also praised the Boxster's handling. "Pitch this Porsche into a corner and you'll discover why proper racing cars have the engine in the middle, or at least behind the driver and ahead of the rear axle for balance, optimal grip, and the ability to overlook a driver error or two."
With a curb weight of 2756 pounds, the original Boxster featured a 201-hp, 2.5-liter aluminum engine delivering 181 lb-ft of torque. Redline was 6700 rpm. It ran double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and a dry-sump oil-circulation system. A five-speed manual transmission was standard equipment; Porsche's five-speed Tiptronic S automatic with shift buttons on the steering wheel was an option.
In 2000, the Boxster got its first upgrades. Responding to enthusiasts clamoring for more power, the engineering team upped engine displacement to 2.7 liters, delivering 217 horses. More importantly, torque output was increased to 192 lb-ft, giving the Boxster better tractability at low revs.
The same year brought the debut of the Boxster S, an even sportier version of the base model. Paired with a six-speed manual transmission, the car's 3.2-liter engine made 250 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. With its upgraded suspension system and a set of 17-inch wheels from the 996, the Boxster S clipped apexes with considerably more resolve. Braking was also improved with larger cross-drilled brakes from the Carrera. The bigger engine required additional cooling, so a third radiator was added, necessitating the signature opening in the lower front fascia. A set of twin tailpipes further distinguished the design.
"There's a great oneness between driver and machine with the Boxster S, even at the trailing edge of its handling envelope," wrote Douglas Kott, then R&T's former executive editor, in the September 2000 issue. "You're never compensating for an inadequacy, or wrestling with a shortcoming; you're just guiding it, pure and simple."
By 2003, Porsche had sold more than 120,000 copies of the Boxster, and accolades were near universal. But competition in the segment had heated up significantly. To fend off the Mercedes-Benz SLK and BMW Z3, Porsche upgraded the standard Boxster's 2.7-liter engine to 225 horsepower, and bumped the S to 258. Fuel consumption was reduced by two percent for both engines. To improve handling, the base car borrowed the Boxster S's springs and shocks, which meant that the S now needed longer and thicker stabilizer bars to help maintain some distance between the two models. Both cars also got lighter wheels.
To close out the first generation of the Boxster, Porsche offered a 264-hp 550 Spyder 50th Anniversary car for 2004. Based on the Boxster S, 1953 cars (reflecting the year the 550 Spyder was shown at the Paris Motor Show) were outfitted in GT silver metallic paint with cocoa brown full-leather interiors, a sport exhaust system, and Porsche's M030 suspension package.
Fittingly, the second-generation Boxster, designated 987, was shown at the Paris Motor Show in 2004. Introduced as a 2005 model, it was upgraded in every way. The look was more assertive , with larger air intakes to accommodate the power increases and pronounced fender lines borrowed from the Carerra GT supercar. The base model 987 made 240 horsepower from its 2.7-liter flat-six, while the 3.2-liter engine in the S was increased to 280 horsepower. A variety of suspension upgrades, including the first application of Porsche Active Suspension Management to the Boxster, improved handling.
At this point, the Boxster was considered a success, but some of the earlier cost-cutting and efficiency measures had come back to bite Porsche. One issue was that early versions of the shared M96 engine in both the 986 and the 996 had an uncommon but particularly disastrous bearing failure, plaguing both car's reputations. Customers were also complaining about the Boxster's interior quality. Handsome enough at first glance, after some time, the price-conscious plastics did not live up to the quality expected of Porsche. This discontent was quelled by the 987's revised passenger compartment. Prominent elements included a more premium-looking dash treatment with oval HVAC outlets, a three-spoke steering wheel, a revised center console, and a set of 911-style seats.
"This is a wonderful sports car, now with a bit more style and power," wrote R&T editor-in-chief emeritus Thomas L. Bryant of the 2005 Boxster S. "The engine winds beautifully, pulls strongly through the rev band, and the gearbox is excellent."
A year later, following the second-generation Boxster's success, Porsche debuted the roadster's hardtop Cayman S sibling with a 295-hp, 3.4-liter flat-six featuring variable valve timing (VarioCam Plus in Porsche-speak). This engine would make its way into the 2007 Boxster S. The same year, VarioCam was applied to the standard Boxster's 2.7-liter engine, raising its output to 245 horsepower.
If you've been reading closely, by now you might have noticed that a limited edition Boxster S typically foreshadowed significant revisions. In this case, the 2008 Boxster RS 60 Spyder marked a turning point in the 987's run. The first Boxster to cross the 300-hp threshold, its GT silver paint was accompanied by a full red leather interior treatment, 19-inch wheels, Porsche Active Suspension Management, and a freer flowing exhaust system. Output was 303 horsepower.
For 2009, with competitors like Nissan's 350Z delivering 300- horsepower for considerably less money, Porsche had to up the Boxster's swagger yet again. Direct fuel injection, the first 987 application of Porsche's seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automated manual gearbox, and a displacement increase to 2.9 liters for the base car brought the 2009 Porsche Boxster models to market with significantly more muscle. At 255 horsepower, the standard Boxster surpassed the original Boxster S in terms of output for the first time. Meanwhile, the 2009 Boxster S (which stayed at 3.4 liters) was up to 310 horsepower.
"The new car has even more grip, speed and stability, and the ultra-fast PDK gearbox makes the S a superb track-capable machine for drivers of all levels of experience," wrote R&T's then senior technical editor, Patrick Hong, in our first drive review of the 2009 Boxster S.
Having taken the 987's platform just about as far as it could go, Porsche showed a lightweight 320-hp Spyder at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show. Officially introduced in 2011, the 987 Spyder was significantly pared down, losing its top mechanism, audio system, interior door handles, glove box, and storage compartments. Further weight reductions were accomplished through the use of aluminum door skins, an aluminum rear deck, carbon fiber seats, and lightweight wheels. Unlike previous Spyder editions however, this Boxster Spyder was considered a regular production model. But once again, change was coming.
The 2013 Porsche Boxster was launched under the 981 model designation. Improvements included better fuel economy, less weight, revised suspension systems, and updated styling inside and out. The car got new engines and transmissions too. While the standard 981 saw a displacement decrease to 2.7-liters, output increased to 265 horsepower. It also received a six-speed manual transmission for the first time. For Boxster S, a revised 3.4-liter flat-six produced 315 horsepower and a singularly addictive sound.
"The 2013 Boxster S is sweet and viceless, but the powertrain is the heart of the package," wrote R&T contributor Steven Cole Smith after testing the car. "There are a lot of 'variables' in this engine—among them VarioCam Plus variable valve timing and lift, and the Variable Resonance intake manifold. At full acceleration, the exhaust note is intoxicating, as all of these variables line up to create a yowl reminiscent of something far more exotic."
Completely eclipsing the competition, an even faster Boxster GTS arrived two years later with a 330-hp version of the 3.4-liter engine. Front and rear fascias with blacked-out elements, 20-inch wheels, and an upgraded interior treatment distinguished its appearance. Even with this extra potency, the underlying nature of the platform shined. "It has that characteristic mid-engine balance, and it places a powerful and pleasant-sounding flat-six behind you," observed former R&T editor David Gluckman.
Finally, just when it seemed the world had seen the ultimate Boxster, Porsche delivered the 981 Spyder. In addition to incorporating the weight-saving strategies of the 987 Spyder from 2011, the 981 got the 3.8-liter engine from the Carrera S—the largest displacement powerplant ever fitted to a Boxster. This gave the Spyder 375 hp and a 180-mph top speed. The suspension system was substantially upgraded, the steering was yanked from the 911 Turbo, and the Carrera S also chipped in its brakes. The Boxster faithful had long asked for 911-levels of power, and for what turned out to be six-cylinder Boxster's swan song, Porsche delivered—hugely.
"The Spyder is compliant, balanced and moves beautifully," wrote former R&T editor Max Prince, "It's also fluid, and hugely forgiving without feeling too sanitized. Hot-rodding is easy, and a pumped-up Boxster is great. But one that's had each needless pound, every malignant ounce, carefully extracted? That's an archetype for the ages."
Which brings us back to the upcoming 2017 Porsche 718 Boxsters. The flat-sixes are done, replaced by horizontally opposed fours. The base model 718 makes 300 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque from 2.0 liters. The 718 Boxster S puts out 350 horsepower and 309 lb-ft from 2.5 liters. In addition to a 100-hp increase over the original Boxster S and nearly as much over the original standard Boxster, both turbo fours make 35 horsepower more than the six-cylinder engines they replace.
There's no question the Boxster's screaming flat-six will be missed, but our first experience with the growling turbocharged 718s has us intrigued rather than worried about Porsche's newest mid-engine roadster. More its own car than ever before, the 718 will likely prove excellent in the new configuration, though the Boxster's importance to Porsche's bottom line has certainly diminished.
Ironically enough, once the car tasked with saving the company, the Boxster is now one of Porsche's lowest volume sellers. Shifts in consumer demands and industry trends has seen it far surpassed in sales by the Cayenne—the vehicle now largely responsible for fueling the Porsche engine—and even its 911 sibling. Big people movers are what's selling, and interest in roadsters is waning. But Porsche as a whole is thriving, a far cry from the company once on the brink of bankruptcy, when it decided that maybe an affordable, mid-engine roadster could help turn the company around.