2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

California. A camera. An unemployed friend who loves road trips and a 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder. We drove the hell out of it. Here's five things we learned. Hint: You will be jealous.

Background, for the uninformed: There is a German sports-car company called Porsche. This company has been around for some time; it produces vehicles rooted in history and competition. (It also produces SUVs and a very fast, very strange-looking four-door sedan, but this is beside the point.) One of those machines, the 911, is expensive. Another, the Boxster, is not. The former is widely considered to be the company's greatest triumph; the latter is an amazing car that is scoffed at by idiots for being inexpensive and relatively slow. (And driven by men who like small dogs and frosted tips and double nonfat macchiatos and automatic transmissions, but again, this is beside the point.)

In the Porsche world, there are three generally accepted truths:

1. The more you spend, the more you get.

2. The faster the car, the more fun you have.

3. The Boxster is a great car, but you only buy one if you cannot afford a 911.

Almost all of this is utter crap.

Three weeks ago, I had the chance to drive a 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder — a factory-built, lighter/stronger/faster version of the Boxster S — from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Because this opportunity came about on fairly short notice, I called my friend Bill Caswell, Jalopnik's $500 rally-car driver and a man with enough airline miles to fly business class to Jupiter and back. He got on a plane, I got on a plane, we landed in LA, we picked up the car, we hit the road.

This is what we found.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

What the Hell is It?

The best way to get you up to speed on the Boxster Spyder is to throw facts at you: It is based on the reworked-for-2009 Boxster S. It is 176 pounds lighter than that car, which doesn't really seem like much until you realize that the ordinary Boxster is not a heavy car. The base Spyder weighs 2811 pounds without air-conditioning or a radio, both of which are optional.

It has a one-piece aluminum rear trunk lid with twin Carrera GT-like humps in it (6.5 pounds saved). It has aluminum doors (33 pounds saved), a small gas tank (14.3 gallons, or 2.6 gallons less than a Boxster S), carbon-fiber-backed manual sport seats (26 pounds saved), fabric door-latch pulls, and 19-inch wheels that are lighter than the 18-inchers on a Boxster S. The convertible top, a buttressed, two-piece affair that you build yourself, consists of a piece of canvas Kleenex, a carbon-fiber header rail, and some steel tubing, and it weighs just 13 pounds. You do not get cup holders unless you ask for them.

More numbers: The 3.4-liter, direct-injected flat six produces 320 hp at 7200 rpm — 10 hp more than an ordinary Boxster S. The suspension has been lowered by eight-tenths of an inch and features stiffened springs and dampers and new anti-roll bars. The steering rack is quicker. The sprint to 60 mph takes a claimed 4.6 seconds.

You get a rear spoiler, a chin spoiler, "PORSCHE" graphics on the sills, and a few other cool trim bits. Blah, blah, blah. Numbers. Now you have them. Numbers are boring. Moving on.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

First, A Strong Statement

Question: How do you fix what isn't broken? How do you sharpen what isn't dull?

Digression: Porsche has taken interesting steps of late, branching out into four-door sedans, building a hybrid, track-only (!) version of its legendary 911, and, last year, attempting to buy Volkswagen, the company that spawned it, only to be shot down and get bought by VW instead. This is one of the most powerful brands in the world, but it is run by an odd — not stupid, not unintelligent, just odd — group of people. It is a brand governed by two German familes known for their infighting and distaste for convention.

This does not change the fact that the cars from Stuttgart are brilliant. They are not always perfect, they are not always even pretty (see: Panamera, above), but if you drive one hard on a winding road, they will crack your skull open and fry an egg on your brain. Porsches are a drug, and unlike Ferraris, Aston Martins, or similar hallucinogenic exotica, they are attainable for the ordinary man. (The ordinary man may have to take out a loan and buy one used and tell his neighbors that he is not having a midlife crisis, thankyouverymuch, and that yes, that is his wife's real chest, but this is not the point.)

I have driven many, many modern Porsches. Believe me when I say this: The Boxster Spyder is one of the best. More on that in a moment.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

Thing One: The Convertible-Top Thing

The Spyder's top is a build-it-yourself affair, the kind of Tube A/Slot B/Tab F contraption that fell out of favor back when most sports cars had carburetors. It consists of five pieces — the main top, which is attached to a carbon-fiber header rail; two side panels, which clip in just behind the doors; the rear window, which snaps into the main top; and a center steel brace that fits into the roll hoops. The buttresses hook into red steel loops in the trunk lid, and the whole thing is tensioned by a clever cable-and-clamp mechanism that lives above the engine. It is a pain in the ass; it is kind of fun; it builds character.

I wrote the following in my notebook somewhere between San Luis Obispo and Monterey:

elemental, raw, top flaps in the breeze and in a hard rainstorm water comes in the sides just a tiny teensy little bit, not enough to make you wet but enough to let you realize that dammit, you have made some compromises for speed and you are a real man and this car is loud and visceral and angry and why did you do it again and what is all this for and then you drop it down a gear and floor it and the earth erupts and pours liquid gahhhhh into your ears and sunshine and breezes and OH MY GOD IT'S WORTH IT

The first time you put it up or down, it will take you fifteen minutes. Every time after that will take you five. It's satisfying to assemble — you feel like you've accomplished something — or down — you feel as if a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders — but just enough of a pain in the ass that it inspires a bit of stoicism, a bit of die-hard, it's-just-a-drizzle, cold-is-for-pansies asceticism. It is the Spyder's sole compromise, a reminder that somewhere, somehow, you should have to pay, if only a little, for your speed.

View gallery »

There is a section in the Spyder's owner's manual that suggests you not drive above 120 mph with the top up. Completely random comment that has nothing to do with anything and doesn't reference an illegal activity: This is probably a good idea.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

Thing Two: The Suspension Thing

The steering rack is quicker. The springs are stiffer. The dampers are stiffer. In the big scheme of things, this is minor, minor stuff. And yet somehow, the Boxster Spyder is not a Boxster — it's better. It's more nimble, more forgiving, and grippier by a factor of eleventy billion. It's easier to go quickly in than Porsche's hallowed 911, When you are not hammering on it, when you are driving around at relatively sane speeds, it is compliant and docile. When you flog it, it is edgy, rotatey, and angry. Hammer into a corner with a bit too much entry speed, the nose washes; lift a little, get back on the throttle, and the car goes neutral. Pound over off-camber lumps on the throttle with stability control off and the tail slews out a few degrees, but it's always correctable, always predictable, always within the bounds of sanity. I've driven balls-out dirt rally cars with less compliance than this.

A conversation between Bill and I, Highway 1, just south of Carmel:

Me: "They... they... fixed it."

Bill: "I've never driven a Boxster before. What was wrong with it?"

Me: "Nothing."

Bill: "Oh."

Me: "Yeah."

A base Carrera is not this friendly. A GT3 is not this forgiving. No 911 pivots this well. This is the best-handling car Porsche currently makes, which puts it high in the running for best-handling new car, period.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

Thing Three: The How-It-Makes-You-Feel Thing

How do you think it makes you feel?

Few things are as flattering to the soul as a docile, forgiving sports car. You are good, it says. You know what you're doing, it says. You can dance off into the sunset with the tach needle a hair away from the limiter and your ass feeling everything and the front tires scrubbing just a tiny, tiny bit, and you will sit there and know that, in the entire history of humanity, no one else has been as talented, as smooth, and as remarkably capable as you.

You will also come home and write very long sentences with lots of commas. But you get the picture.

The 911 is a wonderful car, but it is also an anachronism, an ancient pattern updated and coaxed into relevance. As most people know, it is also inherently flawed — the rear-engine sports car is a silly, pointless thing, a machine that defies logic and throws a great big middle finger at the laws of physics. The Boxster makes sense, and the Spyder — the first truly sharp mid-engine car that Porsche has sold in America in decades — makes even more sense.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

Random thoughts: Purpose-built racing cars are mid-engined; the Boxster is mid-engined. Sports cars are supposed to be light; the Boxster Spyder is some two hundred pounds lighter than the average 911 GT3. Porsche purists will point out that the 911 is part of the Ferdinand/Ferry/Butzi dream, is more in line with the company's original mission.

This is bunk. In many ways, the Boxster and its derivatives follow the company's founding ideals — we build speed, we look forward, and we do what makes sense, in spite of what anyone else thinks — far more than the backwards-looking, forward-marching, all-things-to-all-people 911. In terms of feel and purity of execution, the Spyder has more in common with the pared-down Stuttgart speed missiles of old than anything the company currently makes.

It makes your toes curl.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

Thing Four: The Money Thing

Boxster S: $58,950

Boxster Spyder: $62,150

Price Difference: $3200

What You Lose: Air-conditioning (it can be added back in for extra charge), power seats (if you are both lame and dull, you can order standard Boxster S seats at no cost, but there is really no reason, as the Spyder's carbon shells are supportive, comfortable, and fit fat people), a radio (like the seats, free if you want it), and cupholders (ditto).

What You Gain: More grip; more stability. A greater connection with history. Mini-Carrera-GT looks. A car that feels more special and more finely honed than a base Carrera, which costs twenty grand more. More talent. Better looks. A larger _______. In other words, everything.

'Nuff said.

2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder: First Drive

Thing Five: The Future-of-Sports-Cars Thing

What we have here is nothing less than a revelation. The Boxster Spyder is not excessive or exotic. It isn't the kind of thing that gets 14-year-old boys drooling. It's like a good knife or really expensive guitar — if you don't have the right background, it just comes off as a needlessly expensive version of a simple tool.

In a nutshell, this is where sports cars need to be going: doing more with less without making you suffer.

Complaints? The Spyder's base brakes (carbon-ceramics are optional) don't offer the rock-solid pedal feel you get on a 911. The howly yowly six-cylinder that lives behind your ears doesn't sound as ear-meltingly awesome as the engine in a 911 GT3, which costs around $50,000 more. And it'd be nice if the badge on the trunk lid just said "Spyder" instead of the long, obnoxious "Boxster Spyder." That's it. Everything else — everything — is perfect.



Photos: Overhead and mountain fisheye shots: Bill Caswell; all others, Sam Smith/Jalopnik