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First Look: 2003 Porsche Boxster/S

Chasing the 911--the gap grows smaller

Sherri Collins
Nov 15, 2002 SHARE

In the realm of particle physics, there exists an extraordinary symmetry, called supersymmetry, in which completely dissimilar types of particles behave like each other--fermions act like bosons and vice versa. In everyday terms, supersymmetry is analogous to holding up an apple to a mirror and seeing and tasting an orange. Or, seeing and driving a Boxster/S, but experiencing the behavior of a 911 Carrera.

Porsche engineers aren't also particle physicists (as far as we know, although a supercollider at Weissach could make things very interesting), yet the new 2003 roadsters are so similar to the 996 Carrera that you have to wonder if the guys in the white lab coats had supersymmetry in mind as they worked on updating the Boxster.

Visually, it's still a Boxster. The body changes are more refinement than redesign. The front skirt's side air intakes are more curved, which along with the recontoured and body-colored intake grid, increase air throughput for better engine cooling. As with the previous models, the Boxster S sports a third center intake that feeds air to a third radiator (the base model has two). The headlight units are the ones found on the new Carrera--the broken-egg look of the previous models is thankfully gone. In addition, the side intake scoops have more pronounced grids--they are now flush with the side panels--and are body colored as well.

To my eye, the rear gets the better end of the redesign. The new bumper, tailpipes (the Boxster has one; the S, two), taillight clusters and rear spoiler create a more dynamic and sportier look. Those who complained you couldn't tell the front of the car from the rear will have to find something else to grouse about. The 2003 Boxsters also sport new wheels, the Boxster still with 16-inchers as standard. The new 17-in. light alloys, standard on the S, knock 2kg (4.4 lb) off all four corners, and the optional 18-in. alloys lighten unsprung mass by an impressive 10.8kg (23.8 lb).

If and when you need to put the top up, you'll be delighted to discover that the rear window is now glass (heated, of course). To accommodate the new rear window, the folding roof has a fourth supporting bracket. The roof now meets the rear deck at a steeper angle, similar to the optional hardtop. It looks very right on the car, not like a last-minute add-on. The added weight of the glass doesn't affect the opening and closing time either; it is still just 12 sec.

With the top up, the interior is much quieter compared to the plastic-windowed Boxster. Something else that should add to the interior's peace and calm is the upgrade in materials. The rather cheap plastic look of early Boxsters (and its tendency to squeak) has been replaced with better quality material. The aluminum look looks, well, more like aluminum. The steering wheel, gearshift lever, door handles and handbrake lever are now the same color as the rest of the interior (the center console, door-pocket covers, climate vents and door-handle surrounds remain black), giving the Boxster a more elegant environment. And, just like the 911, the Boxster has a new cupholder mounted in the center console just under the air vents and a lockable, 5-liter glovebox that holds the previously intrusive, placed-under-the-steering-wheel- column owner's manual. As before, the Boxster S has white-faced, aluminum-ringed gauge faces; the Boxster's are black faced. The speedometer is also different on the S: its range is extended to 300 km/h (186 mph).

Electronic options have been upgraded as well. The new Porsche Communication Management system (PCM) is available for both models. The system integrates an AM/FM radio, CD player, navigation unit, trip computer and an optional GSM dual-band phone. The digital BOSE sound system, premiered on the new Carrera, is also offered, as are an onboard computer and fully electronically adjustable seats with driver's seat memory.

The technical changes are where the new Boxsters begin to resemble the 911 in regard to power and handling performance. The Boxster's 2.7-liter engine has been re-tuned to produce 228 bhp at 6300 rpm and 192 lb-ft of torque at 4700. The 3.2-liter S engine now outputs 260 bhp at 6200 rpm and 228 lb-ft of torque at 4600. Zero to 62 mph is reached in 6.4 sec. and 5.7 sec., respectively. Both engines feature Porsche's VarioCam technology, which provides adjustment of the intake camshaft angle up to 40 degrees. A new Motronic ME 7.8 engine management system (introduced on the 911 Turbo) controls the VarioCam, plus other engine systems.

Obviously, the Boxsters can't run at the level of the 911's 3.6-liter and the 320 bhp it produces, but the sensation of power, the ready pull of torque, especially with the Boxster S, gives the impression the roadsters can hold their own against their more powerful brethren. One other clue to the new roadsters' Carrera-ness is the exhaust note. Gone is the sound of an overstressed Hoover vacuum cleaner. In its place is a deeper, throatier rumble that evokes a clear indication of the power within.

That power is transmitted to the new wheels via a five-speed manual for the 2.7-liter base model and a six-speed manual for the 3.2-liter S. Both gearboxes are sport tuned, and both have Porsche's unerring feel for perfect gear transitions. So perfect, in fact, that Porsche didn't have to change the gear ratios to match the increased power of both engines. Porsche did, however, upgrade the S's six-speed with a modified single-plate clutch with new specifications and pressure ratings to handle its newfound torque. A five-speed Tiptronic S tranny is, of course, optional on both models.

There was nothing wrong with the previous versions' suspension, thus Porsche opted to simply fine tune the Boxsters' setup. The base model uses the damper and spring rates from the 2002 Boxster S. For the new S, the rear anti-roll bar has been repositioned higher for better stability. An extra-low sports suspension package is offered for both models and features larger anti-roll bars and firmer damper settings. The PSM (Porsche Stability Management aka "please save me") system is also available as an option. The Boxster's handling characteristics are so precise and controlled (the S's are even more so) that it's hard to imagine ever really needing PSM, but I'm sure a few drivers (a staffer or two come to mind) wouldn't mind the system's help in preventing or extricating them from a potential disaster.

The brake system also stayed the same for both vehicles and is comprised of monoblock calipers, front and rear, fitted with four-piston aluminum-swing calipers and internally vented discs. The redesigned front-skirt air ducts, which channel fresh air, combined with air flow over the light alloy wheels, help maintain the necessary thermal balance for the entire brake system. The base model, with the standard 16-in. wheels, has front discs measuring 11.7 in. in diameter and 0.94 in. thick. The rears have 11.5-in. diameter and are 0.78 in. thick. The 17-in.-wheeled S sports 12.5-in.-diameter and 1.10-in.-thick front discs, and 11.8 x 0.78-in. rear discs. In addition, the discs are cross-drilled, as on the Carrera, for improved response in the wet.

The Boxsters are, as is expected, well equipped in the safety arena, beginning with an extremely stiff and stable passenger cell and its surrounding crumple zones. The fuel tank is housed behind the crumple zone, and all fuel pipes are positioned outside of the deformation areas. The rollover safety system includes extremely stiff A-pillars and a high-strength steel rollbar. Front and side airbags are also standard.

The backroads and hills outside of Rome, Italy, were ideal for testing the new Boxsters' improvements. The roads are narrow, twisty and yet surprisingly smooth. The hills have switchbacks that would intimidate a mountain goat. The impressive vistas and charming rural scenery didn't exactly hurt either. My driving partner and I spent the morning running the Boxster through its paces and the afternoon punishing (at least trying to) the S. The base model's fine tuning has turned a very sporty roadster into an even better one, with crisper handling and improved off-the-line grunt. We were quite satisfied with its improved performance, that is until we got into the S version. The S is as close as one can get to a 911 without paying the extra 30 or so grand. The 260 horses felt more like 300. Low-rev twist was instantaneous and transformed entering and exiting traffic circles into an entertaining game of "me first." The aural tone of the exhaust would make any Porschephile smile as would its superior handling capabilities. The car took a last-second, hey-look-an-open-gelateria four-point turn with nary a tremble. If you concentrated solely on its performance aspects, you could easily be fooled into thinking it had to be a Carrera in disguise.

Which is why the Boxster S will never have one--let alone two--turbochargers, nor will it ever boast all-wheel drive. It is already too close to mirroring the 911 for Porsche's marketing comfort. Granted, the Boxster has yet to attain (if it ever will) the history, mystique and accompanying cache of the Carrera, but with a fit and finish that rivals the 911's, stellar performance and a less-damaging-to-the-bank-account sticker price (actual U.S. prices had yet to be announced as of this writing), the Boxster could very well give its older sibling a run for the money. Hold a Boxster S up to the mirror, and you'll see a 911's reflection.

Still in doubt? Go test drive a 2003 Boxster S, and you just may find yourself experiencing the phenomenon of supersymmetry.

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By Sherri Collins
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