I get it, I really do; I love a naturally aspirated flat-six as much as anyone. I had a 3.0L version of my own at one point that is still—hands down—the single best engine I have ever owned. If you asked my favorite model of 911 for every year up to 2017, they would be naturally aspirated. If I can give the new turbocharged flat-four in the 2017 718 Boxster and Cayman a chance, then all of you should be able to as well.
The very first Porsche 356 was powered by a mid-mounted flat-four engine. Porsche's 2016 victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans was thanks to the four-cylinder turbocharged 919 hybrid. Those of you who want to debate whether the new turbocharged, mid-mounted flat-four is appropriate to Porsche heritage will have to go back to complaining about the switch to water cooling and the disappearance of the neighborhood milkman.
I drove the new 718 models in Austin, Texas. I know you guys must be tired of reading that name by now, but bear with me. The week of the event, not coincidentally, fell on the same weekend as the WEC race at Circuit of the Americas. On track, Porsche showed off the abilities of a four-cylinder mid-engine car, while inadvertently showcasing what is surely the future of performance cars: hybridization.
First, let me assure you, Porsche is well aware of our concerns about switching everything over to turbochargers. We all knew this was coming—if we wanted to admit it or not. Porsche has actually held off longer than most of its contemporaries. Look around. How many companies selling cars in the same volume are still naturally aspirated? Porsche sells more 911s in a quarter than Audi sells R8s and all Lamborghini models combined in a year. Even Ferrari, the Italian masters of the naturally aspirated flat-plane crank V-8, is now downsizing and adding forced induction.
This brings up a point we have touched on in the past: how much I detest corporate-marketing-speak and Porsche's use of it to synergistically punch through on different levels; Porsche's "right-sizing" of engines. As a sub-point, it also ticks me off that this use of corporate-mission-critical-B.S. is sadly accurate. The base 718 Boxster and Cayman are powered by 300hp 2.0L turbo fours. Running 19 psi of boost enables them to produce 280 lb-ft of torque from 1,950-4,500 rpm. The 718 Boxster S and Cayman S are powered by a 2.5L version of the same engine, running 16 psi of boost from a VTG turbo making 350 hp and 309 lb-ft of torque. But wait, you say, less boost but more horsepower? Yes, as you've no doubt read in these very pages before, looking at boost pressure alone really only means something if we are comparing boost levels on the same engine with the same turbo. What we are really interested in is the mass of air that turbo is moving. Turbos create heat when they compress air. The more heat, the higher the pressure, however, if you have a tiny turbo creating 10 psi and a big turbo creating 10 psi, the larger turbo will create less heat, meaning a denser charge. So not all boost is equal.
But I could talk science all day—back to the new 718 engine. Rolling out of the hotel parking lot in a Cayman S and out into traffic instantly reveals how much more torque is available from the new engine. At 2,000 rpm, it has nearly 100 lb-ft more torque than the old flat-six. It sounds different, but at this point I still haven't decided if it's good or bad.
It probably won't come as a surprise that the new turbo-four is remarkably similar to the turbo-six in the 991.2 Carrera. The crankcase has been optimized in both shape and material; Porsche claims the extra effort has saved 18 pounds of mass from the design. The cylinder walls are coated using a spray-on plasma process and the wall thickness in the heads is as much as 40 percent thinner than previous models. But that's not the end of the optimization as both the water pump and dry-sump oiling system will deliver demand-based flow to save on pumping losses.
The Cayman I'm driving is a PDK car. The newest version has a dual-mass flywheel for smoother operation as well as new software calibration for more natural behavior in normal driving. The printed literature I read the night previous says it now has "sportier" shifting in high loads; luckily, Porsche hasn't made it bang gears like some other manufacturers who shall remain nameless and Italian. Shifting is fast, as always, maybe faster—my brain doesn't log in kHz this early in the morning. If I were buying this car in S trim, I would probably opt for the PDK. Especially in early-morning traffic.
Both the base and S engine use direct injection with a peak fuel pressure of a staggering 3,625 psi between the cam-driven high-pressure fuel pumps and the individual injectors—more than twice the pressure in the previous car. The fuel injectors are now situated very near the center of the combustion chamber dome, instead of off to the side as in previous engines; the positioning, along with a new seven-hole design equals more efficient mixing with less cylinder wall wetting.
To control air and exhaust flow, Porsche employs VarioCam Plus, which is cam timing and lift adjustability on both intake and exhaust cams. At this point, just about anything that has the ability to control airflow through the engine is being employed by the ECU to maximize boost. No longer is the engine reactive to the driver's right foot, but it is predictive and proactive. The throttle body is being used less and less to actually throttle the engine; when the driver lifts out of the gas, it is left open for the boost to blow through and keep the turbo spooled. The engine is no longer strangled for air, but rather starved of fuel when coasting. The computer will keep the turbo spooled up and the intake system pressurized as long as possible, meaning almost no lag. Sadly, in morning traffic around the hipster-ish downtown area of Austin, there isn't much chance to try out the upper ranges of the powerband. Obviously, I'm sold on the forced-fed low-end.
Stopping and going in traffic, along with the occasional cloverleaf, did allow for some chassis exploration. Porsche's PASM suspension now offers a greater spread in abilities and feel between modes. Sport Mode is a good 20 percent sportier and Normal Mode feels at least 80 percent more normal. In the past, selecting Sport Mode mostly meant that ride quality decreased without necessarily much of an improvement in handling performance. The difference now, at least from what I could feel on the road, leads to better handling. Besides the work on electronic damping, Porsche has also stiffened up the chassis, added an extra engine mount—now using four and adopted the steering rack from the 911 Turbo. In the few handling exercises presented and for road and freeway comfort, the 718 is better than the car it replaces.
Although Austin has become the go-to spot for car launches, there is really only a single good driving road. Of course, it attracts all the local riffraff on both two and four wheels, so the traffic takes it down a precious notch in fun factor for those of us earning a living as traveling riffraff. While dodging oncoming locals with no respect for the center line and other locals with no respect for pullouts to let faster cars by, we found a couple of opportunities to get a feel for the 718.
Some black magic has taken place that has made the mid-engine car feel freer to rotate, while somehow doing the opposite and making it feel more controlled. Torque-vectoring at the rear makes the car more anxious to turn and that is the first part of it, but the stiffening at the back has rid it of the secondary motion that turns fast yaw into uh-oh moments. Combine that with the best and most transparent stability management system on the market, PSM, and you have what it takes to make anyone feel like a superhero.
The new steering is better than ever. It's quick and accurate without being darty. Electric power steering is now at the point that it delivers as much information as the old hydraulic, even if it has dropped the noise levels down as well. The brake pedal is exactly what you would expect from a manufacturer obsessed with racing. The PDK is even better in the twisties than it is convenient around town.
Although the one good road here is fairly technical and relatively low in speed, I've finally had the opportunity to run it through a couple of gears, completely. First, the sound, which around town is decidedly Subaru-esque, and I don't mean that in a bad way. It, however, doesn't sound like any previous Porsche. It burbles away some punk kid's STI with a 3-inch straight exhaust, just not quite so loud. When you really get some revs in it, the sound comes alive, at least on the outside. Inside the car, it becomes more Memorex, as the soundtrack is provided by a dedicated speaker behind the seats. Yes, folks, this isn't even a soundtube, it is an actual electric loud speaker. I have already begun asking tuners if they will offer a flash to make it sound like a 917. With that said, there are few turbo cars out there without some sort of sound-enhancing device, so I guess that's just the way of things. It sounds good; I will leave it at that.
The feel of the engine, however, can't be joked about. It pulls, falling off a little just before the 7,500-rpm redline. It doesn't surge, I can't heatsoak the water-to-air intercooler, and even with the car's firmer grip of the powertrain, the vibrations are never harsh. It is powerful, noticeably more so than the previous car. If I had to guess, I would put my money on a 718 Cayman S showing the old Cayman GT4 its taillights in a drag race.
If someone offers you a double cheeseburger, how often do you turn it down for a single? As some of us know, there is joy in balance—and that is the beauty of the base 718 cars. If it were me and my money and I wanted a simple, fun weekend sports car that might see occasional track duty, I would buy a Boxster manual. I jumped in a relatively bare-bones version, put the top down, and tore up some roads with both feet. While the PDK is the obvious choice for track work, the manual is an absolute pleasure on the road. The 2.0L doesn't feel great with the PDK to be honest—I wouldn't buy the car like that. It hesitates every once in a while accelerating from slow rolls and just doesn't feel "right" in the way the 2.5L PDK combo does. The 2.0L with the manual, however, takes you back to a different time, maybe a simpler time in canyon carving.
The downside of this trip was spending time at COTA and driving a brand-new mid-engine Porsche sports car without being able to combine the two. Like all Porsches before it, the 718 is no doubt a great track car. The 718 Cayman S ran a 7:42 at the ring, while the previous generation of Cayman GT4 ran a 7:40. But keep in mind, the GT4 is equipped with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, while the 718 is using a full tread-depth Pirelli P Zero. With the same tires, a 718 S will probably beat the GT4 around the ring.
It's too easy to look at lap times and quantitative data and proclaim a car as better; if that's the only reason you're buying a Porsche, I think you're missing the point. The 718 is a continuation of a philosophy that started at Porsche genesis and then slipped away over time. The rebirth of the mid-engine sports car, which is now as separated from the 911 as much as it's been since the days of the 914, is a new Porsche chapter. If you're saying it isn't a "real Porsche" for any reason, you're wrong. If you give the 718 a chance, it stands on its own as one of the new greats.