Now seven years old, the 2004 Porsche Boxster is officially a classic. We fell in love when we first drove it and that love has not diminished over time in spite of other roadsters now vying for our affection.
Porsche has been improving on this mid-engine roadster ever since its introduction as a 1997 model. Boxster got a bigger engine and an improved interior for 2000, and Boxster S was introduced that same year with an even more powerful engine. There were significant improvements for 2003, though they are subtle. All of these improvements enhance the quality of the original without affecting the basic attraction.
The basic attraction is the Boxster's embodiment of the Porsche 356 Speedster and 550 Spyder. Steering response, clutch take-up, shift tension between gears, all are familiar in a fashion that can only be labeled Porsche. Yet the Boxster has that mid-engine, pivot-at-its-center feel, with none of the tail-heavy temperament that was the hallmark of the rear-engine 911 for so long.
The standard Boxster offers plenty of performance, and its engine was revised last year (2003) for quicker acceleration. More important, it sounds much better. Dipping into the throttle at higher revs rewards the driver with a deep, muscular whoosh of air rushing through the intakes that's satisfying, intoxicating. Yet the Boxster engine is quite tractable, great for putting around residential areas or busy parking lots at low rpm. It handles superbly yet rides very nicely, a wonderful balance.
We prefer the Boxster S, though. Boxster S retails for $9,000 more than Boxster, but, after all, it's your money. The S does everything better than the Boxster while maintaining what makes the original wonderful. The 3.2-liter engine delivers noticeably more thrust than what's on tap from the 2.7-liter. Though the standard Boxster is no softie, the Boxster S has firmer suspension tuning. Most important, the S is gratifyingly distinguished by its bright red brake calipers, easily seen through the elegant spokes of its specially designed wheels. Gotta have 'em.
From a practical standpoint, the Boxster is eminently livable. The top can be raised or lowered at a moment's notice, making top-down motoring an easy decision. It rides smoothly and feels tight and rigid. It's impressively free of the vibration that normally accompanies convertibles. It may not be as comfortable as a new 911, but its seats are supportive and comfortable and it comes with a high level of standard equipment. There are other roadsters that cost less, but the Boxster offers a style and character that is uniquely Porsche and very satisfying. In short, we've never tired of driving the Boxster.
Driving the Porsche Boxster is a joyful experience, whether on a winding mountain road, on a closed racing circuit, or putting around town. Its excellent balance between handling and ride quality makes it easy to live with.
One of the things that impressed us while driving a standard 2004 Boxster was its tractability. It motors along with no complaints at very low rpm, making for pleasant cruising around town. Stand on the throttle, and the 2.7-liter engine springs to life, emitting a deep growl (actually more of a rowl) in the upper rev range. The standard Boxster offers plenty of performance for most folks and we'd be completely happy with it, assuming we stayed out of the Boxster S.
Revised for 2003 with Porsche's VarioCam technology and a new engine management system, the standard Boxster's 2.7-liter engine puts out 225 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 192 foot-pounds of torque at 4750 rpm. Boxster can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in only 6.4 seconds, according to Porsche, an improvement of 0.2 seconds over the 2002 model. Top speed is estimated to 155 mph in the Boxster.
Boxster S gets a bored out version of the same engine, a 3.2-liter that serves up 258 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 229 foot-pounds at 4600 rpm. The added power reduces 0 to 62 mph acceleration times to 5.7 seconds.
At a glance, the Boxster engine is classic Porsche with roots that date to Ferdinand Porsche's early work in the 1930s. The horizontally opposed six-cylinder "boxer" layout offers packaging advantages because the pistons lie flat, which helps keep the center of gravity low. But the Boxster engine represents the state of Porsche art with twin overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, variable cam timing, and liquid cooling.
Boxster comes standard with a wonderful 5-speed manual gearbox, while Boxster S comes with a similarly wonderful 6-speed manual. Porsche's 5-speed Tiptronic S automatic ($3,210) is available for both models. The Tiptronic offers its operator the choice of full automatic operation or fingertip push-button self-shifting. It's the best compromise between stick and automatic on the market and works extremely well, but it's also the most expensive. A manual gearbox provides better performance and efficiency and seems more fitting for the Boxster. We prefer it.
Porsche brakes are legendary and braking in the Boxster is superb. Oversize vented discs are used on all four wheels plus Porsche's excellent antilock system. Porsche Stability Management ($1,235), or PSM, is a recommended option as this anti-skid system can correct skids can help you stay on the road in an emergency handling maneuver.
The Boxster generates impressive grip in the wet, whether braking or cornering. PSM helps greatly in slippery conditions, making it more difficult to make a mistake in this car. You can apply the throttle aggressively in a slippery turn and the stability system will prevent a spin.
As much as we like the standard Boxster, the Boxster S has more power and the engine revs more freely. Both engines sound wonderful at high rpm, generating a classic Porsche sound similar to that of the 911 and Porsche race cars. The Boxster S develops 85 percent of its peak torque at just 2000 rpm, providing outstanding throttle response.
But the real fun lies in the Boxster's precise response to driver commands. Mid-engine balance, an excellent chassis, and firm suspension tuning add up to a level of agility and stability that seems a cut above the Boxster's key competitors. No wrestling is required to guide this roadster down to the apex of a fast turn. It seems to anticipate the driver's intentions without a hint of hesitation or uncertainty. The ride quality is firm, but that adds to its appeal. The Boxster gets the same shock absorbers as the Boxster S, and the standard 16-inch wheels can be upgraded to lightweight 17- or 18-inch wheels.
So, Boxster or Boxster S? It's a much tougher call than it was before the base model was improved and
The Porsche Boxster is an almost flawless sports car. It looks great and it sounds great. It provides a wonderful driving experience. And it has its own persona.
There are, of course, other roadsters available, the BMW Z4, Honda S2000, Mercedes SLK, and Audi TT, plus less-direct competitors such as the Mazda Miata, Nissan 350 Z, Chevrolet Corvette, and Lexus SC430. These are all good choices in their own right and most of them cost less than a Boxster. But none of them is a Porsche. And as they say, there is no substitute.