Story and photos
by Laurance Yap
In the history of unnecessary makeovers, this has got to be near the top of the list, but what would you do if Porsche invited you to drive the supposedly new-for-2003 Boxster on a racetrack in the prettiest part of Quebec? I thought so.
It’s not like the Boxster wasn’t aging well – the 2002 model’s lines were as pretty as ever, and the thing always drove like a dream – but it’s always been Porsche tradition to up the horsepower a little bit every couple of years, and throw in a few more features. And, admittedly, the ’03 does all of this to a greater – or at least more noticeable – degree than previous upgrades, like the improved interior, and 2.7-litre engine upgrade brought about in 2001.
If a Boxster’s so great at $60,000, is there any point in spending double that for what has always been Porsche’s brand icon, the 911? The short answer is no. And yes.
For pure driving fun, the Boxster has a surprisingly easy time beating the 911. On the road, it feels smaller, lighter, and more willing to turn thanks to its mid-engined configuration; in comparison, the rear-engined 911 feels heavier (it is), wider (it is, if you get the wide-bodied 4S) and a little less responsive to your touch. The Boxster also has the advantage of a convertible roof; though the 911 is available as a convertible, it’s a four-seater that doesn’t have the tight, intimate feel the Boxster has.
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But though the Boxster may be a fun car, in the end it’s not as serious a car as the 911, and that’s both its major advantage and disadvantage. Everything about the Carrera screams aggressive, race-car intentioned messages at you, from the blocky font on the gauges (compare this with fun italic numbers on the Boxster’s) to the deep-chested engine note to the way the thrust from the 320-hp boxer engine just keeps coming and coming.
With its engine hanging out back behind the rear axle, the 911 may be a bit more of a handful for a less experienced driver – certainly with my own clumsy feet and fingers, I was a lot more comfortable in the Boxster – but its unique weight distribution can make for a much faster drive if you know what you’re doing, as the weight over the rear wheels means you can brake and turn that much harder.
And let’s be honest here: people buy Porsches as much for the image factor as they do for the driving experience, and for that kind of person, nothing other than a 911 will do. Given its utterly distinctive design, and the incredible challenges and rewards of its driving experience, who can blame people for wanting the ultimate?
More noticeable is what it’s all about, because almost all of the 2003 Boxster’s changes are cosmetic. There’s a new, more square front that gives the nose a much more macho jaw-line; where there were once beautiful, and if one could suggest, feminine curves, there’s a definite aggressive streak in the new Porsche’s front end: the air intakes jut out of the bumper instead of tucking into it, and there are new fins in it to improve airflow. On the sides, the air intakes have been revised with thicker, body-colour gills, and the rear bumper is also harder-edged, with air vents on either side of a redesigned central exhaust (still with one single pipe on the base Boxster, and two circular ones on the 3.2-litre Boxster S).
The interior is kind of different, too, thanks to some improvements inherited from the latest round of revisions to the 911. The materials are even better this time around, there’s standard aluminum trim on the gauge package, a new glovebox big enough for some real gloves (with the most beautiful handle I’ve ever seen on a glovebox), and – ta-dah – a dash-mounted cupholder that springs out from underneath the central air vents.
This piece, adapted from the one used on VW’s Passat a couple of years ago, offers you the option of one or two cups, and has a nice silky action to it. Yes, a cupholder may be out of place in a Porsche – your cups will surely fly at the first fast corner you take – but it’s also there to remind you that this car can be a comfortable tourer as well as a back-roads weapon.
And comfortable it is, too. There’s enough stretch-out space for two big people to, well, stretch out, along with numerous storage compartments – in the doors, in the sills, in the console, and even behind the seats. The seats themselves are easily adjustable and offer just the right balance of sideways support for the twisties and long-haul comfort, and there are trunks in the front and rear – one for you and one for your passenger. Plus the new folding roof (it still takes just 12 seconds to go up or down) now gives you a bit more headroom, and a glass rear window, which is a lot easier to see out of, even though it’s a bit smaller than the old, foggy, version.
What’s perhaps most impressive about the Boxster is how well-rounded a car it really is. After flinging the car around on the racetrack for a couple of hours with some expert tuition from Porsche Driving Experience instructor Rick Bye (let’s just say that I brake too gently and that I don’t transition to full throttle fast enough), and enjoying the amazing steering feel, the powerful brakes, and the wonderful thrum of the flat-six at full throttle, we drove right back out onto country roads and settled into a more relaxed rhythm. One that the Boxster liked just fine.
Really, it shouldn’t be a surprise, because much of what makes the car such a pleasure on the track make it that much better on the road. The stiff structure, which only exhibited cowl shake on the most pockmarked and poorly paved Quebecois roads, meant stable and predictable handling on the street as well as a firm foundation for the suspension on the track. The new, wider 18-inch tire package meant the car had amazing grip in either situation, and what was even more impressive was that it didn’t ruin the ride; this despite the fact that the base car now runs the old Boxster S’ standard sport suspension, and the S being treated to a stiffer rear stabilizer bar. Brakes that provided signature Porsche stopping power and feel on Le Circuit Mont Tremblant meant a generous safety margin in road driving, and the race-bred sound – well, frankly, you want that everywhere you go.
The sound is one reason, however, that I question whether the faster, supposedly sportier $73,000 “S” version is worth the extra money, when the base $60,500 Boxster is already so good. Though its extra grunt is perceptible and very welcome, the car doesn’t feel much faster than a base Boxster except when going uphill. Its brakes, sourced from the 911 Carrera, are indeed more powerful, but they take a firmer shove to start working than the beautifully delicate and responsive items in the base car. The S’ six-speed shifter isn’t as fluid, its extra air intake looks tacked on, and travesty of travesties, its engine note has a hard-nosed, almost gruff edge to it that takes the smoothness right out of the base car’s whiskey-tenor tune. Don’t get me wrong – the 3.2 engine still sounds fantastic, but it’s nowhere near as fantastic as the 2.7.
With such a broad range of capabilities, and with prices unchanged from the 2002 models, despite the better interior, the glass window, and the more aggressive look, the Boxster remains what it has always been: the no-brainer choice for both people who just want a really good-looking, usable sports car, as well as those looking for the ultimate performance and handling in its price segment. Nothing in its class – and even some cars in many classes above – can match its depth of ability.