The pleasure of driving an automobile. What is it exactly? And what are the key components required to obtain it?
Two things are certain. Firstly for each of us it’s different, and secondly, if it were not for that elusive category of ‘driver enjoyment’ most of us car journalists would be out of a job. So thank God for that!
In many ways it’s the ultimate question for us petrol heads. And every once in a while someone tries to come up with a credible answer. I personally can remember one issue of Car Magazine titled “What is it about cars?” A whole special edition was devoted to the concept of ‘what makes a car person tick’. Inside it had interviews with just about everyone from Jean Alesi, through Steven Bailey and Jay Leno, to Jeremy Clarkson and Martin Brundle. More then two hundred pages of pondering and pontificating and still the mystery stayed unsolved. Then again countless documentaries, TV programmes and feature films have also been made in an attempt to answer this (the likes of “Grand Prix”, “Le Mans”, “Love the Beast”, “Victory by Design”, and the very recent “Apex”), and still no one comes close to figuring out what driving pleasure actually means.
Car manufacturers have also been trying to figure it out. For decades pursuing that Holy Grail of customer insight. ‘Shall we build them the car that they want? Or shall we tell them what they should want and build that instead?’ And I’d have to say that both these strategies work at around a 50% rate. With the current trend leaning towards sportiness and sporty looks (tapping into the inner vanity of the driver) instead of comfort and all-round usability. Practical and comfy cars seem to be for boring people. Those who have given up on life, and you – the customer – surely aren’t one of those! You like kayaking down mountain streams, surfing and bungee jumping. When you’re not doing any of the above, you and your Kia Cee’d (now available with the optional dual-clutch gearbox) do track days, or drive around with supermodels to glamorous parties. This can happen every single day of the week, if you believe the adverts, which tend to ignore the fact that you had to sell your soul to the corporate devil a long time ago to be able to afford all this. Nevertheless it’s fare thee well boxy Volvos, functional and pure in form like a Dieter Rams cupboard, comfortable like your grannies old sofa, and hello Nurburgring-tackling futuristic Volvos that look more like a Manolo Blahnik shoe on 21” rims.
Having said that, and keeping in mind that, you came to this website not to be lectured on the ‘state of the world’, we can return to the question at hand, and try to answer it by saying that speed and handling are the key to driver enjoyment. I mean, most of the films I’ve mentioned above are about motor racing! Then again what about those who get pure pleasure from rolling down the King’s Road slowly in their G-wagen Mercedes while listening way too loud to a ‘bangin’ tune’. What about those who dislike eager turn-in and sharp brakes, but prefer the ‘water bed’ qualities of a 1960’s Cadillac, or a slow and unsophisticated Citroen 2CV instead. Just go and Google ‘Chris Harris 2CV’ to see what I mean.
From a broad point of view this question is impossible to answer. The possible reasons can be as diverse as the people on this planet. Some get pleasure solely from heated seats, others from overtaking someone ‘on the inside’ of a corner in pouring rain (on a track, don’t try this on your way to the supermarket). But fortunately, this time, in an attempt to decipher this phenomenon, we can focus our field of research a bit and stick to a much simpler question – ‘What makes a sportscar enjoyable’. Or even focus it a bit more to: ‘What makes the Porsche Boxster, and the Porsche Cayman great to drive’.
The answer is – and here’s a twist you should have expected – the amount of pure, unrefined pleasure these machines give their driver. How is that achieved? Let’s see. First there’s the pinpoint, ultra sharp handling. The bang-on 50/50 weight distribution, which is partially due to the centrally mounted engine (handles much better then a 911). The Brakes that offer plenty of feel and more then adequate stopping power. The ride that is sporty and supple at the same time. The steering that is direct and communicative. The reactions you get from the throttle, whenever you get near it, immediate and raw. To top it all off – the high-end finish of the interior and an almost-iconic exterior shape, which you can catch in the windows of the shops you pass by. Oh, and the noise! That lovely metallic sound of a 6 pot boxer unit, that rumbles like rolling thunder in lower revs, just to change pitch into a noble, and pleasant lion like roar as the needle on the rev counter races towards the red line.
But now there’s a new Boxster/Cayman model out – the 718 – and dearie me… it has been fitted with a 2 litre (2,5 in ‘S’ spec) four-cylinder turbo engine. To test both of these cars (a standard Boxster with a manual transmission and a PDK equipped Cayman S) we were invited by Porsche AG to Schwartzwald – an absolute petroheads’ dream, with miles and miles of twisty, mountain roads. Some of them very treacherous, with mid-corner changes of camber, bumps in the asphalt reminiscent of a teenagers pimpled face, and blind, tightening corners that don’t ever seem to end. To push a car hard in these conditions, on a public road trying to avoid traffic coming the other way, one has be either stupid or have the right car for the job. A machine that inspires confidence due to the way it has been set up. A car, which gives its owner pleasure in a way where a perfect balance between reasonably fast progress and physical and psychological comfort (not to mention safety) can be achieved.
So, how does the 718 cope? Let’s start with the name. As a car brand, Porsche is known for its attachment to tradition. Evolution not revolution seems to be the company’s prevailing motto. The same attachment is displayed by the more devout of its customers. So every time a change is introduced to the brand’s line-up of cars, changes like: water-cooled engines, the production of SUV’s, Diesel engines and so on, people always moan that “it’s the end of Porsche as we know it”, and yet the brands on going success and growth seems to prove these folks (car journalists included) wrong. But has the introduction of all-round turbo engines done it this time? Have the EU’s emissions restrictions killed the world’s favourite sportscar? The answer is…almost.
The 718 name has been introduced for two reasons in particular. Firstly, so that the Cayman and Boxster models can finally be seen as equal. Offering the same displacement, power and torque. One simply being the open top version of the other (and therefore for the first time in Porsche’s history a Boxster is more expensive then a Cayman). Secondly the original 718 was a successful racing car, the successor to the iconic 550 Spyder, and 3 times Le Mans class winner. And yes, it too boasted a 4-cylinder engine mounted in the middle of the car. A unique message to all the purists: Porsche’s marketing specialists have successfully figured out a direct link to the company’s past to shut you all up. Therefore the 718 isn’t an atrocity, it’s a rebirth of an icon. But is it really? Let’s start with the Cayman S. With a certain youthful, silly eagerness I’ve opted for the top of the line model with the excellent PDK, double-clutch gearbox, Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) and a limited slip diff. I was going to OWN these German roads! Plus the Cayman was always the better car. Some say even better then the 911. The 718 definitely fits that description on paper. With a steering rack adopted from the 911 turbo, augmented power thanks to variable turbine geometry (350 bhp, 25 hp more then the previous model), more torque (420 Nm. 90 Nm more, and available lower down) and a faster 0-62 time of 4.2 seconds (0,5 s. faster). As the man from Porsche who was conducting the press conference the night before said, “More power and more torque equal more driving pleasure!”
But it doesn’t. The increase in power and torque not only means that the car is 5 kg heavier (the elaborate cooling is to blame) but has to be driven much harder to reach a sort of a groove where all the components are working together in harmony. It has to be driven at 100% and that on a public road can be scary. Or if you’ve got the skills required, simply unpleasant. The components, like the excellent chassis might be in sync with each other but the driver feels left out. Even with the revised brakes and steering on an unknown, winding mountain road, you get the feeling you don’t get enough info from the wheel, or bite from the pedals. And the artificial exhaust noise is simply deafening. A drone note, which only get’s louder and louder as the revs increase, with minimal change to the pitch, to the point where it just turns into a massive headache. The computer generated farts and bangs make the car sound like a Mini Cooper more then a real Porsche. Shame.
Then there’s the Boxster… Which I’m happy to report is brilliant. Especially the ‘basic’ model. First of all it’s a convertible, and even though it suffers slightly from a lack of torsional rigidity (compared with the Cayman) that doesn’t really matter when you have all of that sky above your head, and the smell of an ancient forest inside the cabin. With less power (300 bhp) and an excellent, direct, manual 6-speed gearbox (which can heel-and-toe for you if you’re a bit of a cheat) it’s much more manageable. You can drive this thing hard and not fear for your life. The extra torque making it even a little bit easier then previously. If you don’t get the right gear for a particular corner it really doesn’t matter. The car pulls eagerly from as low as 1850 rpm. The sound, when it doesn’t reverberate around the cabin but rather is left somewhere behind the car is also less annoying. It’s nowhere as good as its 6-cylinder predecessor, but it isn’t a tragedy. Just avoid downshifting in tunnels. I’d even prefer to loose the optional 20” alloys in favour of smaller wheels with more ‘rubber’ – to make it even more comfortable on a bumpy road, and to have a little more notice from the tire itself before the back breaks away into a drift.
So, what does driving pleasure mean? I don’t know. For me it definitely doesn’t mean lots of power, or a mountain of torque. Otherwise I would’ve been a Nissan GTR or Mercedes-Benz Brabus fan. I guess it means being in control. Reaching that sweet spot when your hand and eye coordination is just right. When you can adjust the whole behaviour of the car just so, only with the positioning of your right foot, a flick of the wrists, a perfectly executed, manual gear change. And when the car responds to these adjustments in some magnificent way – Nirvana. I’m happy to report that even if it has been turbocharged, the new 718 Boxster does just that.
P.S. I’d still choose the previous generation model.
Word and images: Błażej Żuławski