Once upon a time, they put a four-cylinder in the 2019 Porsche Boxster GTS. This was widely regarded as a bad idea and everyone hated it, so Porsche has already brought back the flat-six. But I didn’t drive the new one. I drove the one everyone likes to hate.
(Full Disclosure: Porsche left me a 2019 Boxster GTS with a full tank of gas in Brooklyn for a week, and I decided to use it to get brunch.)
Many people hated that the new fourth-generation 718 Cayman and Boxster “downgraded” from a flat-six engine to a flat-four, with the GTS model getting a turbocharged version of the new 2.5-liter engine. People demanded a six-cylinder, and now Porsche has backtracked to meet that demand.
But the car I drove last year represents a rare disconnect between Porsche’s decision-making and those it makes the cars for. While many now regard it as a mistake, the flat-four GTS doesn’t deserve to be forgotten just yet.
This controversial 2.5-liter turbo flat-four engine makes 365 horsepower (we’re talking about a four-cylinder people!), and either 317 lb-ft of torque for the optional PDK transmission (which my car had), or 309 lb-ft for the standard six-speed manual.
It is a pure Porsche sportster, with the engine mounted behind the driver and passenger, rear-wheel drive, a collapsable folding soft-top that is available in a variety of colorful options, no available rear seats (and not much storage behind the front seats, either), with both a frunk at the front and trunk in the track. I mean back.
The 2019 718 GTS offers shoppers more value for money over a heavily-equipped Boxster S. A similarly equipped S would cost nearly $2,000 more than the GTS, and it wouldn’t get the 15 additional horsepower this car has.
Some of that GTS kit includes the Sport Design Package which gives it unique styling on the faces of the car, 20-inch satin black wheels, sport seats, active suspension management, a locking diff with torque vectoring, Alcantara steering wheel and shift boot, and of course, the Sport Chrono Package. I think it would be much harder to enjoy this car without, at least, the locking diff and Sport Chrono.
My favorite part about this car is the interior. Porsche is one of a short list of brands I can think of with multiple interiors that don’t make me overwhelmingly irritated. I love the drive mode dial on the steering wheel—somewhere I’ll actually play with it on an open road, not buried down next to my thigh.
The steering wheel isn’t some thick padded stress ball like most modern cars. It feels tight and hard in your hands, in a way that inspires confidence and a little aggression. I have a theory about steering wheels, and this is a good one.
Everything you touch seems bolted in tight, all of the buttons have a tactile feedback to them, and it’s all still refreshingly so simple. No giant screen with hidden menus. No giant screens, plural. How refreshing. No rotary or dial interfaces will less intuitive user-orientated design than a Playstation controller. You get in the car, you get comfortable, and then you drive the car. That’s nice.
Porsche’s PDK is still one of the best automatic transmissions, too. While the manual is standard on the 718 and I definitely missed not having it, most customers opt for the PDK, and it awards them with slightly more torque (eight lb-ft).
Shifting this farty little four-cylinder isn’t a breeze. It’s like a gust of hard air tearing through the room when someone opens the door; the shifts knock you back in your seat a little every time under hard acceleration, but are smooth and calm when you’re taking it easy. It’s all the torque.
I was nowhere near pushing the potential of the car’s torque-vectoring system, at least I don’t think. But on any given decent stretch of road, the power delivery is so strong and the acceleration quick enough, it’s nice to know those systems are maximizing traction as you first start to explore its handling capabilities, which will only make you want to push it harder and harder.
The mid-engine layout of the Boxster is what convinces me the swap to a turbo four-cylinder isn’t such a big deal. People buy Porsches not just because they’re competently assembled, not just for the racing pedigree, not just the design legacy, but because of how all of those qualities translate into a truly unique driving experience. Or so Porsche thought.
People of science and engineering will try to locate this secret sauce. They’ll tell you it has to do with weight distribution, and chassis design, and then the marketing department will tell you that, actually, you also need various thousand-dollar packages to make it do everything those other people said it could.
But the truth doesn’t need to be so complicated or expensive. It’s very simple. This car pushes you. The sensation of acceleration feels like a wind at your back, and cornering makes the world feel like its rotating around you.
The car centers you comfortably between the power and the handling—you are the axis around which the rest of the car operates and functions, and it’s as direct a connection to a vehicle as you can experience in a modern car. The action of driving it makes you feel important, confident, bold and—this last one is tricky for your typical Porsche owner—it makes you fun.
But if you want that communicated to those outside of the car, well it admittedly falls a little flat.
There are little things I do not like about the Boxster GTS, and then there are broader issues with the company’s approach to the car on a conceptual level.
Visibility is not great, at least for a five-foot seven-inch young man with a perfectly youthful neck and pair of eyes that should otherwise be more than suitable for peering around my physical form. If you want to look any direction that is not directly forward or directly up (with the top down), you may struggle as I have.
I do not like the clear taillights, which are a $580 option on the Boxster S but are included in the GTS trim. Especially on this particular car, the nature of two frunk and trunk spaces, and the proportions kind of make it look like either end could be the front, which at a distance makes it more anonymous. And if this specific car wasn’t optioned with the red roof (which I would actually keep), it would be incredibly depressing to look at.
From inside the car, windows and roof down, I don’t think the GTS sounds bad—one of the car’s chief complaints from flat-six lovers.
However, as I compare exhaust notes between the old flat-six and the new flat-four, the six definitely holds a solid lead. Its notes linger around longer, and it doesn’t seem to bounce as much as the four, which in comparison sounds rattly and starts up with more of a grunt than a howl. There’s no contest for which is better.
What makes the four-cylinder in this car so hard to justify on any level, though, is fuel efficiency. In 2015, the Boxster GTS (optioned with the PDK) got a combined EPA-estimated 25 MPG. In 2019, this car (with PDK) gets an estimated 22 MPG combined. So we’ve downsized and actually lost efficiency.
This likely has something to do with the 2015 car being naturally-aspirated and the 2019 car being turbocharged. In a way, the turbo on the 2019 GTS hails from an older application of the turbocharger, when it was the tool of a different engineering philosophy than the down-sizing, efficiency-crazed market we experience today.
Back in the day, turbos were put in sports cars to boost horsepower and torque, which is what happened in the case of this 2019 GTS, and weren’t really expected to have many other benefits. But over the years, as automakers struggle with global government regulations to improve fuel efficiency, the turbo has become the tool of choice for a new cause.
But smaller, turbocharged engines may not always be inherently more efficient. Many cars that go through testing, either with the EPA or Consumer Reports or elsewhere, are found to be less-efficient with newer, smaller turbo engines. Here’s a solid explanation of how that could be, from The Globe And Mail:
The real-world results that drivers are getting with turbocharged cars seem to defy engineering theory. The concept behind turbocharging is a sound one: by using the exhaust gas to spin a turbine that compresses the fresh air going into the engine, you recapture thermal energy that would otherwise be lost out the exhaust pipe.
Driven carefully, turbochargers do offer efficiency gains. But that efficiency can quickly disappear if you don’t drive with discipline. A turbocharged engine turns into a fuel-hog under hard acceleration, because the large volume of air being pumped into the cylinders must be matched by a larger volume of fuel.
You could see why, on a sports car that people buy to drive hard, a small turbocharged engine is not the best choice for efficiency. So all the four-cylinder rewarded the GTS with was improved statistical performance over the larger, naturally-aspirated car. Barely. With no efficiency gain. Only the gain of the ire of Porsche’s fanbase.
Because of that, perhaps the most notable issue for this car is how it will now be remembered.
The Boxster GTS feels exciting to drive. It’s quick, it’s customizable, it’s very good looking, and it grabs attention while lowering the bar, in the best way, for enthusiasts to know what it’s like to drive a Porsche. But, for Porsche, there was an unavoidable problem.
The foundations of all of our relationships are built on intangible connections. The four-cylinder Boxster GTS doesn’t sing the right tune, literally, for the people who would normally be desperate to have it. It’s plenty of fun while you’re in it. But when you start to realize you’re not experiencing the full potential of something, you’re stuck wondering about what you’re not getting.
But for all this talk of secret ingredients and intangible connections, none of that plays into Porsche’s actual decision to try to write this car out of history with the flat-six. That move was motivated by some very real, very stark data.
Sales tanked. In the U.S., sales of the Boxster model dropped from a recent high of 4,632 cars in 2013 to 2,097 cars in 2018—an average loss of nearly 400 Boxster sales per year, including a drop in sales the year the latest generation was introduced with the new engine. It’s not good when your brand new car with a new engine sells worse than the outgoing model. Cayman sales have been much more steady, but Porsche still sold less in 2018 than it did the old car in 2015 and 2016, just before the new generation.
The controversy over the 718's four-cylinder is very simple to understand. When a high volume automaker with a huge lineup makes the decision to replace an “enthusiast choice” powertrain with likely downsized and likely turbocharged options, it usually makes sense on a larger scale. It’s easier and more cost-efficient to supply one powertrain for most of a large, non-performance lineup, and the technology behind inline four-cylinders has improved to the point where it’s very easy to justify wide adoption of that engine, at least on paper.
This is fine in something that’s supposed to be fairly average, utilitarian and can get away with being boring. A car most people buy because, well, they need a car. At the end of the day, who cares if it sounds a little worse but it looks the way I want it to and I don’t lose any measurable performance capability?
But that’s not what a Porsche is. Volkswagens are slow and fuel efficient. Porsche makes fast performance cars. It should be that simple.
It’s the difference between buying a $30,000 four-cylinder car and buying a $100,000 four-cylinder car, which this GTS prices out to after options. For $70,000 more, people deserve something special. That’s the point where quality, dynamics, technology, and aesthetics go out the window and what really matters is the noise and the revs and the bragging rights of owning something different enough to talk about.
And while my argument here is that the four-cylinder GTS is another fantastic performance car from Porsche, it does degrade the uniqueness of the car. In some people’s eyes, it slides from being able to kick it other performance cars out of its class just on reputation and appeal, to pulling up with the hot hatch crowd. Looking at the numbers that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s all about optics and credibility which are not numbers on a page. The Boxster GTS should be a high-revving sports car making fantastic noise, and this one doesn’t do that anymore.
If any company is going to commit to what enthusiasts simply like because it has a reputable quality, it should be Porsche. Sometimes they do, like keeping the manual transmission around and making it standard on the 718. But when it came to the powertrain, they didn’t. It feels like compromise. Nobody likes to pay a lot of money for compromise.
Now the GTS is missing core ingredients that used to set it apart, which was always the appeal of buying a Porsche.
Another mid-engine car, the underpowered, fuel-efficient and budget-friendly Pontiac Fiero, was not a great sports car, but it still sold in the hundreds of thousands. I think this is because it offered a completely different driving experience to a regular commuter coupe of the time.
This downsized, less fuel-efficient four-cylinder Boxster feels like it deserves the same attention and appeal, but where GM could be forgiven for missing the mark in the midst of the oil crisis, along with all of the other standard apologies one might have for a GM product, the Porsche has no room for excuses among its core demographic.
Porsche is not 1980s GM. We are not in an oil crisis. The economy, on the surface, is going great. Downsizing just isn’t the selling point for the GTS.
The core problem in contrast to the Fiero story is that the GTS is actually a damn good sports car by design, and the compromises only exist in the opinions of those who can afford it—the only opinions that matter.
Enjoy the return of the 4.0-liter flat-six, but you shouldn’t forget that Porsche has engineered one of the purest, most engaging, and damn-near timeless four-cylinder sports cars ever made.