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In the late 1990s, Porsche was under severe financial pressure. To avoid bankruptcy, the iconic sports car manufacturer needed a new, affordable model to replace its aging 924/944/968 platform – and it needed the car quickly.
Mazda’s MX-5 had shown there was high global demand for affordable, two-seater roadsters and, by putting a distinctive Porsche spin on the open-top sports car concept, the Stuttgart-based company developed the Boxster.
The model, which was launched following significant revision of production processes at the factory, helped the brand to return to profitability. About a decade later a hard-topped Cayman version was introduced, followed by the Cayenne, the nameplate’s first SUV. Each of the successive models helped to pump up company profits even more.
Twenty years down the line, Porsche is doing extremely well from a financial perspective – and it’s again putting a spin on the idea of what makes a great compact sports car.
Though both Boxster and Cayman have earned high praise through the years from many motoring critics, there has been a lingering perception among die-hard fans that, as “baby” models, the derivatives do not represent real Porsches and, therefore, are not really worthy of total respect.
While the previous-generation versions did much to change those sensitivities – even winning South Africa’s Car of the Year title in successively in 2013 and 2014 – the theory of continuous development has seen the unveiling recently of brand new models, this time wearing 718 badges.
A bit of history: The original 718 was a development of the successful 550A, with improvements made to bodywork and suspension. Featuring a mid-mounted engine, the car was built by RennSport and boasted a shorter wheelbase than its predecessors – hence it was often referred to as the RSK; RS denoting race sport and K referring to the shape formed by its front torsion bar springs.
When it made its debut at the 1957 Le Mans 24-Hour race it was powered by a 106kW, 1,5-litre, four-cam engine. Though it didn’t win that event, it took victory in its class the following year, also finishing second in the 1958 Targa Florio – a race in which it triumphed in 1959. From this perspective, it’s apparent that the new 718 Cayman and 718 Boxster have their pedigrees in place.
That said, a change in engine strategy for the models – driven by ever-tightening global environmental laws – has drawn criticism from sectors of the purist lobby; not because the units are less powerful than their predecessors – on the contrary, they produce more horsepower and torque – but because of the sound they emit.
To the ears of purists, the new 718s lack aural pleasure and that, in their eyes, takes precedent over the fact that the new units are more powerful – and far more environmentally friendly – than their predecessors. “Ah, it’s a very good performer,” they’ll say, “but it doesn’t sound like a Porsche should.”
The new engines – horizontally opposed, turbocharged, four-cylinder units compared with naturally aspirated, flat-six predecessors – tend to underline the company’s determination to right-size its power plants to maximise performance potential while improving fuel consumption and reducing carbon emissions.
The 2,0-litre variant develops 220kW and 380Nm. The S model, with a displacement of 2,5 litres, produces 257kW and 420Nm thanks to its larger capacity and the use of variable vane geometry for the turbocharger.
Incidentally, Porsche was a pioneer of adjustable vane turbochargers and, according to its spokesmen, remains the only manufacturer to use the technology on petrol-fuelled engines.
In each version, the new units offer a power gain of 26kW over their six-cylinder predecessors, while torque output has been improved by 100Nm in the standard model and 60Nm in the S.
Off the line, the higher output translates to a 0 to 100km/h time of 5,1 seconds for a manual-shift Boxster or Cayman, while S derivatives stop the clock at 4,6 seconds. When the engines are mated with automated PDK gearboxes, 0 to 100km/h times improve even more, dropping to 4,9 seconds for each of the standard models and to 4,4 seconds for S versions.
Further, if a Sport Plus button is activated in models which feature an optional Sport Chrono package, another 0,2 seconds can be lopped off the benchmarks.
In my view, the PDK transmission does a great job of keeping the engine in the torque band, which means the feeling of tractability the unit imparts remains impressive whether cruising on the highway or accelerating through the gears.
Partly to compensate for greater low-end torque, the stiffness of the 718’s rear sub-frame has been increased, while the width of the rear tyres has been increased by half an inch.
An added benefit of the new generation engines is their efficiency, a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 6,9 litres/100km for manual-shift S derivatives and 7,3 litres/100km for PDK equipped equivalents representing a saving of more than 10% compared with predecessors.
Now to some really interesting stuff: Models fitted with a Sport Chrono package have a rotary dial on the steering wheel – similar to that introduced in the latest Porsche 911 – through which a preferred driving mode can be selected.
Importantly, the dial also houses a Sport Response button which, when pressed, puts the engine and transmission on high alert for a period of 20 seconds by closing the turbo’s waste gate and building boost. This in turn allows the engine to reach its maximum power faster, which is great for fast overtaking manoeuvres.
Additionally, the Sport Chrono package adds Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) which allows the 718 to drop 20mm closer to the tarmac than non-equipped siblings. Also, it adds a sports exhaust system, a stop/start function and an adjustable rear spoiler.
Porsche spokesmen say that every panel on the cars is new, but most noticeable are the prominent intakes, lower side profile and narrower front lights, which are now Bi-Xenon with integrated LED daytime running lights.
On the side there are new air intakes with louvres that feed air to the engine and turbocharger. The restyled rear has a stronger presence, thanks to the accent strip with integrated Porsche badge between the tail lights.
The interior is comfortable and driver focused, with all switchgear intuitively placed within easy reach. The centre console is home to a newly designed instrument panel which includes as standard feature the latest generation of Porsche’s Communication Management system with touchscreen functionality.
Work on the chassis included retuned damping, higher stabiliser and spring rates at the front and re-geared steering. Braking too has been upgraded and the 718 models now feature four-piston callipers similar to those found on the 911 Carrera.
The mid-engine layout allows the car to carry immensely high corner speed in a very balanced fashion. This was evident when the Cayman made some of its bigger brethren – carrying more horsepower and more weight – work hard for their lunch on the fast sweeping roads where the cars’ launch took place.
Both Boxster and Cayman turn in beautifully, holding their lines with precision. Acceleration is immediate from anywhere in the rev range.
In my view, this 718 is truly a treat for the driving enthusiast, whatever its configuration. Also, it offers good value for money, being as capable – if not more capable – than many sports cars which cost double the money.
While the new engines may lack slightly in terms of aural pleasure, they make up for it in terms of efficiency as well as offering increased power and torque outputs. And, in terms of design, they stick with the traditional flat-four layout.
Reuben van Niekerk