Porsche Boxster Spyder — Fast for those who can

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Under the enthusiast’s heading of “Porsche can do no wrong” find the sub head – “challenges.” The crux of the matter — the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder is a challenge simply because this car is strictly for serious driving enthusiasts, for the people who spend considerable weekend time at the race track.

If you don’t fall into that category, ask about the Porsche Boxster S when visiting your favorite Porsche dealership and leave the new Spyder in the showroom.

To say the Boxster S is more civilized than the Spyder is to say the weather is better in Honolulu than Bismarck. There’s simply no room for argument.

Yes, the Spyder is a hoot to drive — a machine so wonderfully balanced that the challenges offered by our favorite stretch of back-road twists and turns deep in the heart of farm country became less challenging and more routine (like, why can’t we find a better stretch of rural test track?) is not surprising.

Porsche set out to create the ultimate roadster, the open-air car that will become a race-track legend. Porsche says “a pure roadster reduced to the essentials.” Reduced to the essentials means the Spyder, with a base price of $62,150, derives much of its 176-pound weight savings over the Boxster S by dumping the air conditioning, radio, standard door handles and cupholders. Weight loss also comes via aluminum doors, a lighter battery, carbon fiber-backed sports seats, and lighter 10-spoke, 19-inch alloy wheels.

The Spyder’s base price, sans the basic amenities of life — living without air conditioning south of the Mason-Dixon Line is akin, we suspect, to waking up each day in hell — is a whopping $3,250 higher than the considerably more civilized Boxster S. Our test car including the Sport Chrono package priced out at $67,820.

If you must have the Spyder, but you need some musical entertainment and perhaps a little cool air in the face on those 95-degree summer afternoons, Porsche will be happy to add an audio system as well as air conditioning and other features found on any car over 15 grand. But there goes most of the weight advantage.

But the big Kahoona is the top. In place of the Boxster’s standard one-touch power cloth top you’ll find a thin soft top that must be removed in pieces, rolled up and stowed away by hand. And that’s a challenge.

We didn’t have the courage to touch it — for fear of being unable to get the thing reattached — after watching a nearly five-and-one-half minute instruction video of how to take it down and then put it back up.

Our thought through the entire video  — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ny8qcnhrkBs — was incredulity that Porsche with its world-class automotive engineers could not have come up with a better solution to save a few dozen pounds.

Imagine a sudden storm approaching. You stop to put the top up, which in the best of times would take at least a couple minutes, but you panic and fail miserably to retrace the steps as your new toy fills with water.

Does a car this beautiful — and it is a stunning machine — this much fun to drive car endowed with handling traits to straighten the curves of Laguna Seca or Watkins Glenn have to have perhaps the most clunky drop top in the world?

OK, so we are down in weight (the Spyder comes in at 2,811pounds) from the Boxster S and we expect a huge boost in straight-ahead performance. Not quite. But there is some improvement based on times provided by Porsche.

All this configuring, which includes adding 10 horsepower to Porsche’s direct-injection 3.4-liter flat six with variable valve timing and lowering the suspension, results in a modest blip in straight-ahead performance. Porsche says the Spyder will complete a 0-to-60 run in 4.9 seconds with the standard 6-speed manual and 4.6 seconds with the dual-clutch seven-speed automated manual transmission. Fast, indeed. But the Boxster S, which you can live with seven days a week and costs less, will accomplish the same task in 5.1 seconds with the dual-clutch, so say those same Porsche stats.

Granted, the Spyder is a handling juggernaut with its multitude of Porsche go-fast suspension pieces. And again we say the Spyder is designed for serious track fanatics. Top track speed without the top is 166 and with the top on, a mere 125 mph. You need a lot of expertise to meet the challenge of those speeds. The everyday Porsche driver – whether they believe it or not – more than likely will find the Spyder too much of a challenge, especially on city streets.

The 3.4-liter flat six that powers the Spyder makes 320 horsepower and 273 lb.-ft. of torque reaching peak output at 7,200 rpm, 800 revolutions more than the Boxster S. Gas mileage  (that will concern very few enthusiast buyers) is 19 mpg city and 27 highway with the manual shifter and 20/29 with the slick automatic.

But while the driving position is excellent with the hand falling into the perfect position of the shifter and the feet reaching harmony with the pedals, the seating for wide-bodied middle-agers is less than desirable. Those of wider posteriors will find the severely bolstered seats too narrow for comfort. And the seatback does not recline so the driver must accept the rake offered by Porsche.

As you might suspect from the rather thin, weight-saving top, noise levels are high at highway speeds, and there was some whistling coming from the gaps. As mentioned above, we didn’t partake of the roadster with the top down.

Same as the Boxster S, cargo space is at a premium with 9.9 cubic feet of combined storage front and back. Golfers need not take the car to the course unless their clubs are stored at the clubhouse.

Safety includes reinforced doors and windshield; a stainless-steel alloy roll bar; front, side, head and thorax protecting airbags; four-wheel antilock disc brakes; and traction and stability control.

This car is generally head and shoulders above other roadsters in driving dynamics. No argument here. But while the Spyder is a blast to drive, the more civilized Boxster S is so good that only true driving enthusiasts are likely to discern the difference between the two.

Base price: $62,150; as driven, $67,820
Engine: 3.4-liter flat 6
Horsepower: 320 @ 7,200 rpm
Torque: 273 @ 4,750 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2
Wheelbase: 95.1 inches
Length: 172.1 inches
Curb weight: 2
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 9.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.9 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 19 mpg city
0-60: 4.6 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: BMW Z4 roadster, Porsche Boxster S, Lotus Elise

The Good:
• Outstanding driving dynamics
• Stunning styling
• Race track ready

The Bad:
• Uncomfortably narrow seats

The Ugly:
• Fussiest drop top in the business