With the sun setting over Circuit of the Americas, the magnificent new Ford GT Le Mans racecar roars, snarls, and pops as the driver lifts going into a series of chicanes flanked by broad red, white, and blue stripes. A bald eagle flies overhead. Maybe. It’s quite the spectacle. But it’s all rather put to shame when a four-cylinder Porsche blitzes past the GT at full throttle as if it was a rental Mustang that took a wrong turn out of the nearby Austin, Texas, airport.
Which brings us to the 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster that is the real reason we’re in Austin. It’s the latest version of the brand’s 20-year-old mid-engine roadster, now featuring a numbered middle name borrowed from one of those pretty classic Porsches from the late 1950s and early ’60s. Tucked just behind the cockpit, slung ever-so-low in the revised chassis is one of two turbocharged four-cylinder engines – a 2.0-liter in the base Boxster and a 2.5-liter in the S. In a move to improve fuel economy, these engines replace the old 2.7- and 3.4-liter naturally aspirated flat-six engines previously found in the Boxster and its Cayman coupe sibling, which receives the same updates and 718 name for 2017.
However, these new engines fundamentally sound different from those they replace. There’s certainly a less thrilling zing to the way they build revs – though some tell-tale flat-engine song is there, it is overwhelmed by a deep bassyness that only grows stronger when the loud flap is opened in the optional Sport Exhaust. It’s certainly distinctive, evoking neither a Subaru WRX nor a boomy AMG Mercedes. Absent the knowledge of its predecessor, you’d probably think it adds to the car’s sense of automotive theater.
And really, that show has always been more about handling than power in the Boxster. Indeed, the chassis underwent its own litany of changes for 2017 that only improve what was one of the finest, most involving cars to drive.
Beyond spec’ing new engine mounts and wider tires to accommodate all that torque, engineers brought over the 911 Turbo’s electric power steering and thus quickened the rack by 10 percent for an even sharper driving experience. The Boxster serves as proof that EPS doesn’t have to be devoid of feedback. It’s perfectly weighted, behaving naturally on center before building up weight in a progressive, linear manner and returning to center just as it should. Steering effort has also been reduced at parking speeds, but this is not a variable-ratio system, nor are there any adjustable steering settings. Good, they’d be pointless.
The brakes for both models were enlarged, while body motions were reduced by numerous suspension changes. The $1,790 Porsche Active Suspension Management system (PASM) once again available on Boxster and Boxster S lowers the car by 10 mm and features two fixed settings of Normal and Sport, which have been moved further apart from each other on the comfort-sportiness scale. Same goes for the new $2,070 PASM Sport, available only on the S, which essentially combines the updated PASM with the previous Sport suspension’s 20-mm drop.
But finally, back to that engine. The switch to four cylinders is supposedly for the purposes of fuel economy, and yet if you compare EPA ratings, you’ll discover the numbers for the S are virtually the same as the 2016 model and the base Boxster has gotten worse. Yet, the 718’s estimates of 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined for the Boxster and 21/28/24 for the S (all with PDK) were achieved with the EPA’s new measurement procedures for 2017 that have lowered, drastically in some cases, estimates from year to year. Comparisons are therefore dubious, but according to Porsche, the 718 Boxster is 14 percent more efficient despite the significant increase in power and torque.
If so, then maybe all the 718’s many changes really can make up for whatever was lost when a pair of cylinders was replaced by a turbocharger. For, much as it was at Circuit of the Americas, the sun is setting on the naturally aspirated engine – it’s probably best to just move aside and accept it.