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BBC Autos

Review

Porsche Boxster S, meet Canada

HIDE CAPTION

Winter on the North America’s west coast, and Vancouver wakes to find itself shrouded in Pacific fog: thick, white, cosseting, muffling, chilling.

Dampness clings to every surface, rendering the fabric convertible top of the 2013 Porsche Boxster S a tilt-shift photograph of glacial rubble.

It could be metaphorical: a Porsche blunted and made indistinct by this soft-focus miasma. Once, Porsches seemed uniformly svelte and nimble, single of purpose. In the past decade, however, the German automaker has been in the cash-cow business, hawking larded-up machinery like the Panamera full-size sports sedan and Cayenne SUV: vehicles as extraordinary for their physics-defying abilities as for their relative ugliness. The coming Macan mini-SUV, expected to squeeze beneath the Cayenne in the model line, could just as well be called “The Golden Egg”.

A whir, a thrum, a characteristic bark and the S’s flat six-cylinder engine has come to life. The chittering from its high-pressure direct fuel-injection system has the aural quality of metallic spiders scurrying beneath the sheetmetal. Boxsters in basic guise receive a 2.7-litre motor with 265 horsepower; the flashy chrome “S” designation on this Guards Red machine (and its gruffer voice) indicates the presence of the same 3.4-litre unit found in the base specification of the august 911. In its Boxster S application, this engine makes 315 horsepower compared to the 911’s 350 – a gap which sticks in the craw somewhat, even given the relative price difference (pricing for the 911 begins at $85,000 and quickly spirals above $100,000).

As the defroster blasts the sheet ice off of the S’s windshield, there is much to admire in a walk-around. Whereas the new 911's extended look and fussy ornamentation are still being digested by the Porsche faithful, the more modern Boxster has grown up. Gone is the double-ended lozenge of the past, replaced by a machine with broadened haunches and squared-off lines. The littlest Porsche has a demeanour all its own, compact but coherent. Viewed in profile, it almost resembles a miniature version of the limited-edition, $400,000 Carrera GT hypercar of a decade ago.

For January driving in British Columbia, the S wears 19-inch alloy wheels shod with winter tires. (The options list shows a $1,790 charge for charcoal-grey 20-inch alloys, but the Porsche press fleet in Vancouver could not get snows to fit them.) The swap necessitates dark centre caps that sit in the middle of the wheels like Blind Pew's Black Spot; bling obsessives who would ruin the aesthetics of their Boxsters with wagon-size alloys would surely rather leave their cars parked over the winter.

Pity on them. Porsche loudly trumpets the flexibility and relative practicality of their sports car range, and as the “poor man's Porsche” – $61,850 to start, mind – a Boxster S is more likely to see year-round use than a 911.

With the windshield cleared, it is time to start pushing more buttons. The Boxster’s centre stack resembles a TV remote less than other Porsches, but it is still loaded with tiny things to press.

The S hits an acronym jackpot with PSM, ABS, ABD, PASM, PTV, ASR, TPMS and DFI. Memorising them all could leave you with PTSD. Surveying the most readily appreciable dynamic features of this car, intelligent stability management works to keep all four wheels planted on the road, a must on this frosty morning; Sport mode is engaged for a slightly sharpened throttle response; adjustable suspension is tuned to softness; heated seats are set to reduce fertility – and the top is down, of course. Remember what your favourite settings are, as you will have to reset virtually everything every time you start the car.

One option left unchecked on this model is the much-vaunted Porsche Doppelkupplung (PDK) dual-clutch automatic transmission, and thank goodness for that.

The standard 6-speed manual is an improvement over the old gearbox, in addition to being sharper than the 7-speed-stick available in the new 911. The PDK-equipped Boxster is a half step quicker from zero to 60mph than the manually shifted one, but if a buyer is so concerned about straight-line superiority, a conversation with the folks at Ford or Chevrolet about their oxygen-huffing ballistic muscle cars might be in order.

If the driver has a heavy commute, plans to lease the S for a couple of years and does not care about the poor guy who eventually shells out to replace the PDK's clutch pack, then the $3,200 flappy-paddle box is justified. If, on the other hand, the driver has lusted after a Porsche for years, the manual is the more emotionally satisfying choice – and it saves about 65lbs over a PDK-equipped car, too.

On the highway, traffic splatters the little red roadster with Sno-Melt and dirt. Inside the cabin, the S continues to feel like a maturation of the original Boxster idea born 15 years ago: quiet, comfortable and a minimum of buffeting. The engine hums away contentedly, doling out big lumps of torque nearly everywhere in the rev range. It feels extremely compliant, and even quieter with the top up. It is, in a word, nice, but that is hardly this car's raison d'etre.

The next exit is for a local ski hill. The road wriggles through the mist along the side of the mountain. A speed trap sits before a long sweeping right-hander; creep past, then downshift, leaning into the throttle as the road slants upward and the engine crescendos from whuffling complacency to high-pitched eagerness.

Ripping faint shreds of vapour into twin trailing vortices, a true sports car comes barrelling out of the fog of mass-market anonymity like a rocket straight out of Ferdinand Porsche's crypt. Slick though these alpine roads may be, the Boxster is poised, nimble, a joy. Below, Vancouver lies smothered in damp cotton wool. Up here, the car dances in the sunshine.

Nit-picking, the electric-power-assist steering has the faint cloying aftertaste of an artificial sweetener. It is sharp and accurate, but carries less feel than the old model. The mid-engine layout continues to charm in its balance, and if trickery like active engine suspension mounts and rear torque-vectoring – braking the inside rear wheel to transfer power to the outside wheel and improve cornering – are working behind the scenes, the driver still feels a direct connection to the machine. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

The snowbanks build and the temperature drops. Turning off into an abandoned parking lot and switching off the electric assists, the Boxster S eagerly shows that, despite a 77lb weight reduction over the outgoing model, it is still awfully fond of powdered doughnuts. Even so, the slides are remarkably easy to control.

This is a superlative machine, finally come into its own. The only caveat? If the Boxster is this good, how great will the coming Cayman – its stiffer, tin-top cousin – be, particularly when  it is unleashed in coming years carrying the higher-performance “R” badge on its posterior?

(BBC Autos)

(BBC Autos)

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