The Porsche Boxster S moves out of the shadow of its big brother and earns its own crown from Neil Vorano on the twisty roads of St Tropez.
Royal performance from a 2013 Porsche Boxster S
Pity poor Prince Harry. His big brother, William, is in line for the throne of the United Kingdom one day. In royal terms, Harry is set for a life in the shadows, there simply to decorate the table at official functions with his red tunic. William will be King; Harry will be a prince.
And yet, who would you rather hang out with? If you're looking to curry favour with the court, say with a taxation problem or perhaps overthrowing a third-world country, then there's no question: William has the power. William has the capacity and the authority to help you get things done. And that's great.
But what if you're looking for a good time? What if you're out to have fun at the basest of levels, a good laugh with the lads and a scout around town for some of the ladies in an exotic locale, perhaps? I don't know about you, but I'd call up Harry in a second; if you've ever picked up a tabloid magazine at the barber shop (when someone else has already snagged the Motoring section, of course) you'll know this prince has a reputation for being the king of good times. William is a noble; Harry is a rogue. I like that.
I used to think Porsche's mighty 911 was the king of sports cars, the one I'd want to spend my time with, the absolute seat of power. But all that's changed, because I've finally met its little brother, and he's an absolute barrel of monkeys. He's the Prince Harry of the Porsche family.
The Boxster suffered a bit of a reputation as a "hairdresser's car" in its early days since it was introduced in 1996 (has it been that long?); at least, a "hairdresser's Porsche". But lately, people have started to notice that this is a proper, mid-engined sports car, with power increasing model by model, and the latest generation of this baby Porsche has me sold on it, completely. Sure, the 911 is built to win races, outpowering other supercars in high-speed, high-pressure competitions around the world. But if you want real-world, out-and-out driving pleasure - pure fun - with all the luxuries you'd expect in the 911, the Boxster is your car, guilt-free.
Fittingly, the international launch for the new Boxster and Boxster S was recently held in St Tropez, in the south of France - a place you're more likely to find Harry cavorting around than his stiff-upper-lip brother, don't you think? The new, glamorous lines of the Boxster are a good fit for this picturesque, seaside vacation spot - this might be the perfect car for a romantic yet splashy weekend getaway. Why, it even has two boots for luggage.
It's far more muscular looking than it has ever been, with the hulking front and rear wings even more pronounced, and sharp lines introduced into the design for the first time. Yes, this is now a man's car, even if it will appeal to women, too. There are new headlamps reminiscent of the 918 sports car and a very lovely and swoopy rear end - if we're still talking royals right now, think less Kate and more Pippa; I could sit and admire that back end for hours. The car's, I mean.
The windscreen is more raked, the wheelbase is elongated by 60mm and the wheels now go up to 20 inches. The biggest - and best - change, though, is the side intake treatment, with the rakes extending into the doors, giving it more of a supercar look, much like the Porsche Carrera GT - what a difference a few creases in the bodywork makes.
The Boxster has the perfect proportions for a classic, mid-engined roadster, and I think it looks better than the 911, especially with the top stowed, even if this car shares 50 per cent of its parts with its big brother.
And inside, the fun never ends; there's no lacking for sporty luxury even compared with the 911. Sumptuous leather lines almost every surface of the dash and doors, and optional features include heated and cooled seats, a sat/nav system, an analogue clock and lap timer on the dash, even an automatic start/stop feature to save fuel. The full leather seats are comfortable yet tight-fitting - perfect to keep you contained in tight corners. In front of the driver are three round gauges, one of which is a TFT screen that allows you to scroll through various functions, such as a navigation screen, lap times and even a funky g-force indicator.
The only feature I'd like added would be a backup camera - passengers are sunk way down into the cockpit (it's even difficult to rest your arm on the door) and that hulking rear end makes it impossible to see past. In fact, looking back at the looming roll bars with integrated screens, which do a good job of shielding the cockpit from the wind, you'd almost think this was a targa roof and not a full convertible. At least it has parking sensors fore and aft to help guide you into those tight spots outside the high-end clothing shops in St Tropez.
But the real fun isn't trolling the side streets of sleepy towns, it comes when you hit the winding, twisty roads out into the countryside and up the mountains surrounding St Tropez. In fact, part of the route I took included a special stage of the Rally Monte Carlo, and who better to prepare me for the drive than Walter Röhrl, a three-time winner of the event.
"Porsche is very courageous in choosing this route," the former rally champion told the media the night before the drive. He wasn't kidding, either. The road is a constantly winding sliver of tarmac, going up and down the scenic hills of southern France, in some places barely wide enough for one car to pass, much less two. The curves come at you one after another after another, with straight stretches the rarity rather than the norm. In some places, there are rock faces inches from the road on one side and sheer drop-offs on the other; and it's all perfect for this open-topped sports car.
But even before then, in just a kilometre of driving from the hotel, I could tell this car would be fun. Steering is crisp and the chassis has not a hint of shudder or shake. I was in the Boxster S, the high-performance version, with 315hp coming from its 3.4L boxer six engine. With just two normal Boxsters out of the fleet available on this trip, I didn't get a chance to see if the 265hp from a 2.7L boxer six would be enough for that one. But really, if you want to have a good time, go big or go home. Harry would approve.
My car was in silver with a red interior, the choice I would get for my own Boxster S - classic for a Porsche roadster, with a flair emanating from the bright interior. It was also equipped with the PDK double-clutch, seven-speed gearbox and, thankfully, optional paddle shifters behind the wheel; I can't stand the standard and frustratingly confusing push-pull switches Porsche still insists on offering to manually switch gears. The six-speed manual is fantastic in itself, with crisp snicks of the short-shifting lever that falls just under your right hand, but this PDK is so good, you won't need to change cogs yourself in normal driving. It's sedate in normal mode and revs up in sport and sport plus, but it always seems to be in the right gear for your driving mood - and smooth, too.
But on those roads, I wanted the control, and in sport plus, which changes the engine mapping and sound for a more guttural, excitingly sporty tone, as well as stiffening up the already capable dampers, I could let loose like Harry at a frat party. And whoohoo! First of all, that flat six is a screamer, and will push you back in your seat when you drop a gear and flatten the throttle; not in the same, fill-your-pants kind of way that a Ferrari or even a 911 Turbo will do, but, really, you can't use that kind of power in everyday driving - 315hp is more than sufficient to get you into enough trouble to find yourself in one of those scathing tabloid features, complete with pictures of you being led away in handcuffs by the local gendarmes. It will also get the Boxster S up to 100kph in just 4.8 seconds (5.5 for the normal, 265hp Boxster).
And honestly, there are very few cars I have ever driven that can turn as quickly and lithely as this little beast. It's like the car is sucked to the ground, and I was constantly surprised as to how fast I could enter a curve and come out with no screeching or understeer. Helping with that is the Porsche Torque Vectoring feature, which, like the 911, brakes the inside rear wheel in a corner to help turn the car on its axis.
And yet, even with the eye-opening horsepower, the chassis feels like it could take much more - Porsche did a lot of work in not only strengthening the body but also making it lighter than the last one, with extensive use of aluminium and other weight-saving techniques to bring the Boxster S in at just 1,320kg. Considering the 3.4L in the Boxster S is based on the 911's engine, it would be easy to bump up the roadster's horsepower, but Porsche wouldn't dream of overshadowing its halo car, and that's a shame.
The rest of the car suits a lively driving style; the only way you'd have more road feel than the electro-hydraulic steering transmits is if you were dragging your knuckles on the tarmac, while braking matches that flat six's horsepower excitement. There is not one aspect of driving the Boxster S that would make you want for more. Not one. And to top that off, it's so much better than the last generation Boxster that it lopped 12 seconds off its time around the Nordschleife test track in Germany, completing it in seven minutes, 58 seconds. After a full day of driving around St Tropez, I didn't want to get out of this roadster - in fact, with a higher salary, I would buy it.
And speaking of money, look at the price: at a base of Dh217,100, the Boxster S comes in at more than Dh115,000 less than the base 911 Carrera (while the normal Boxster can be had for just Dh196,900); for that difference, you can keep your heavy crown. In everyday, real-world driving, I'll take the roguish Boxster S any day. For far less than the princely sum of its big brother, I'd still feel like a king behind the wheel.