A Stunning Value Proposition: the 981 Boxster

In 1997, Porsche gave the world the Boxster.  If you squint through the prism of the past just right, it was the first completely new car from the company in 19 years, dating back to the introduction of the 928 in 1978.  The Boxster reinvigorated the brand and launched the company into 15 years (and still counting) of absolutely astronomical success.

 

Price for the original Boxster was $39,950.  For that sum, the buyer got an all-new water-cooled 2.5-liter flat six making 201hp and 181 lb-ft, mated to a five-speed manual transmission.  The car weighed in at 2,822 pounds, svelte for a ragtop with the rigidity required to back up its sporting pretensions.  “Sexy” was the term almost universally utilized to describe its look.  It raked in awards almost immediately: one of C&D’s 10Best for 1997, Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year, Motorweek’s Driver’s Choice for Best Sports Car, Autocar’s Best Roadster in the World—these were just a few.

The Boxster only got better with age, and many say that it was the strong sales numbers put up by the Boxster that kept Porsche financially strong enough to continue to operate independently and free from the threat of takeover, especially in the dot-com financial boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Lest we go on too long praising the Boxster, suffice it to say that the car is utterly brilliant, has by this point won over even its most strident detractors, and has firmly entrenched itself in the annals of Porsche history.

But let’s get back to the beginning.  Let’s get back to that $39,950.  For that sum, you got the sexy shape, the Porsche badge, the signature flat-six howl.  But you also got (thanks to Porsche taking tips from Toyota on parts sharing) the nose, headlights, and the doors from the forthcoming 911 Carrera (996).  Some might say this was a steal, but some might have preferred the metal from the outgoing 993.  You got a plastic rear window which tended to scratch easily.  You got an intake vent on each side, but actually the vent on the right was an exhaust.  The interior quality was less than stunning, and there was no glovebox.

I test-drove a used first-gen Boxster in fall/winter 2002, and while it was amazing to feel the car pivot around my hip bone as I dialed in steering lock, in the end I settled on a new Acura RSX Type S.  The cockpit ambiance and overall interior quality of the RSX absolutely crushed those of the Porsche.  Between that fact, the fear of high maintenance costs (we whisper here of the dreaded rear main seal failure), and the fact that the ’03 Type S made almost exactly the same peak horsepower number as the Boxster, I had to go with the Acura.  Clearly, astounding driving dynamics, great looks, and Porsche badge aside, the very first iteration of the Boxster left a few things to be desired.  Especially for $39,950.

Now, let us play a numbers game.  If we take our year-1997 $39,950 and convert it to 2012 dollars with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator, we get $57,097.88.  The base price here and now, today, for the brilliant new Boxster 981 is $49,500.   In 1997 dollars, that $49.5k amounts to a mere $34,633.95.  Put another way, if you were to carry your 2012 $49,500 back to 1997, its value would dwindle so much that the salesman at your Porsche dealer would have to steer you to the trade-ins.  But stay in 2012 with that money and you get an absolutely stunning new car.  Point: the new 981 is actually cheaper than the new 986 was.  And it is a vastly better product in every worthwhile measure.

The 981 is a truly special thing to look at, with regard to both the design and the spec sheet.  Motive force to the tune of 265hp/206lb-ft is provided by a 2.7L flat six.  Curb weight is a mere 2,888 pounds, a scant 66 more than that of its 15-year-old ancestor.  This all means you’ll scoot from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and top out at 164mph.  The interior is a work of art, incorporating the rising center console that is the new standard across the Porsche range, and overall quite honestly putting the 20th-century slabs of plastic in the 986 completely and utterly to shame.  Both of the intake vents are now actually intake vents, and the doors are bespoke—no more hand-me-downs from big brother 911.  Finally, if you don’t think every single other automaker is scrambling to somehow copy and incorporate the “subtle mechanical rear decklid spoiler that slashes into the taillights” design touch, you just don’t know how this business works.

Trust me, this is gonna be like when Audi put LEDs on the R8.

 

This description already adds up to an extremely desirable car that doesn’t need to lean on its badge and heritage to warrant sales, and yet we have hardly scratched the surface.

With the extra dough left over from our CPI-adjusted $39.5k, we can make our new Boxster even more awesome.  Throw on the twin-clutch PDK automatic tranny and the Sport Chrono option, and you’ve got a launch mode that shaves three tenths off the 0-60 time.  But that’s not all PDK is good for—aside from spectacularly fast power-on upshifts and perfect throttle-blip downshifts, it’ll also shift itself into neutral during lazy off-brake decelerations, allowing fuel-miserly coasting.  Additionally, both the PDK and the standard six-speed manual include automatic stop-start functions that will certainly save a great deal of fuel expense, especially when the commute features heavy traffic and/or stoplights.

 

Only after tacking on the above-mentioned PDK & Sport Chrono, plus the ‘Convenience Package’ (wind deflector, 2-zone A/C, seat heaters), does the 981’s window sticker manage to draw even with the equivalent inflation-adjusted price of its ancestor, the 1997 Boxster 986.  Without doubt, this is an astounding car–an open-top, mid-engined, 2.7L flat-six twin-clutch beauty of a Porsche–that is within the reach of lots of working professionals.  In fact, I’m trying to figure out how I can own one and still bring the kids along.  I’m thinking a tow hitch and parasail with a dual harness.  Done and done.

 

Evo X Mr Touring & Audi B8 S4 — Comparison

A few days back I caught up with a good friend of mine who’s owned a Mitsubishi Evo MR Touring since he bought it new two years ago.  While catching up and running some errands, we simultaneously gave the car a pretty thorough wringing out on the tumbleweed-swept B-roads on the outskirts of Las Cruces, NM.

Coincidentally, I was just a few days ago discussing respectable-looking, respectable-performing sedans with another friend.  His daily driver is on its last legs, and he’s looking for something not too expensive, not too boring, and not too impractical—he’s got a Boxster for the weekends.  Our discussion brought us to a 2010 Winding Road magazine comparison test pitting the Evo MR Touring against the B8 Audi S4.

I once drove the S4 as well, back in late 2010 after the loss of my beloved RS6 tossed me unhappily into the “without a performance car” pool.  I found the car barely used at a very small racing shop-slash-dealership in Anaheim, CA, where the owner himself was kind enough to offer me a test drive.  The experience was indelible, and I still recall vividly the sensations of driving what was at the time Audi’s newest, hottest sporting sedan.  There are only two reasons I do not own that S4 now—it was too new/hot for my budget, and honestly, I really wanted a 911 anyway.

But if you’re looking to spend more or less $40k and want front engine, four seats, and a trunk, plus daily-drivability, long-haul capability, and admirable all-weather on- and off-track performance, the S4 and MR Touring should be atop your list.  Let’s break ‘em down.

Disclaimers: the Evo I drove sits on Eibach Pro-Kit springs which drop it a little more than two inches, and is sporting Conti ExtremeContact DWS tires on the gorgeous BBS wheels instead of the stock Nittos.  Even after two years of ownership, it still showed less than 20k on the odometer (and everywhere else).   The S4 was bone stock with mileage in the low teens.

First, the Mitsubishi.  I always thought the interior feel of the Evo would turn me off to it.  But from the driver’s seat, the MR Touring looks far better than any photo had told me I could expect.  Sure, there’s an economy-car bit here and there if you look closely—the interior door handles are one example—but the overall fit and finish, inside and out, are easily on par for a $40k-new ride.  The look of the TC-SST transmission lever is especially stunning—one can tell that the Mitsu engineers were particularly proud of their work there and wanted the driver interface to match the competence of the invisible bits under the hood.  The paddles on the steering wheel are well-sculpted and properly weighted, as well.  The driver information graphics are very cool, presenting just the right data in just the right places with just the right amount of emphasis.  While there’s plenty of plastic visible, it’s all pebbled and textured in a way that keeps it looking inviting.  The Recaro seats are leather-wrapped, heated, grippy, comfortable…but they also limit blind-spot checking a bit with their wide-top one-piece design.

On the outside, the menacing stance brought on by the Eibach Pro-Kit helps the car out in a big way, working in concert with the classy, subtle trunk-lip spoiler to bring down the visual height of the car a bit (the Evo X always seemed very tall to me, especially compared to its predecessors) and minimize the fender-well gaps.  But even without the Pro-Kit, the MR Touring would still look great—the narrowed-eyes look of the front fascia planes smoothly into the side profile creases, which flow perfectly with the angular nature of the menacing BBS rolling stock.

Speaking of the BBS wheels, they wrap themselves nicely around red-painted Brembo calipers.  The brakes are vented discs and slow the car with serious authority, and the way I’ve seen Evos shredding tracks, I can’t imagine fade is a problem.

On the aural side, the Evo’s four-banger disappoints a bit.  If you were buying a car only for the pure joy of sitting in your driveway and revving it, the Evo would not be a good purchase.  On the positive side, the subtle sound of the spooling turbo never fails to send a thrilling crackle across your cerebral cortex, especially as you reapply the power on corner exit.

The MR Touring’s TC-SST twin-clutch auto is excellent, always shifting quickly and in the right place.  In fact—and this perhaps had something to do with being unfamiliar with how exactly the car works—I found myself clicking a paddle a split second before or after the transmission had already decided to do so itself, resulting in double upshifts.  It’s better to just let the car do its own thing.  I will say that with one additional ratio available in the transmission, the Evo would be even more usable as a tourer—the interior is a bit noisy at 80-mph cruise in top gear, with the engine making 3500 rpm.

The steering is light and lively in the driver’s hands.  It draws attention to how quickly the car responds to inputs.  It doesn’t grant a sense of authority by being weighty, but inspires trust by allowing the driver to feel like he can be oh-so precise with minimal effort, even midcorner.

When driven hard, the Evo exhibits a twinge of understeer for the briefest of moments…and then the computers step in and send power rearward.  The resulting neutrality of the car as you tear through a corner at seemingly impossible speed makes it hugely confidence-inspiring and incredibly easy to drive fast.  Just leave your foot on the gas and let the car sort itself out.  You won’t be complaining about the Recaros’ visibility issues anymore—you’ll be happy to have them holding you in place.

A nationwide search on cars.com at time of writing nets only three 2010-2011 MR Touring-spec Evos with asking prices ranging from $30,595 to $36,000, so this is a somewhat unusual car that you’re not likely to see every day on your commute.  A point for exclusivity there.

The Audi, contrary to what the market position might have you believe, is not so exclusive.  Another nationwide search on cars.com with the price cap at $45k, and you get 48 2010-2011 Audi S4s.  Cut out the manual gearboxes for equivalency and you’re down to 31 (all of the MR Touring Evos are twin-clutch auto TC-SSTs).  Except for two low outliers, the Audis all fall in the $40-45k range, so a used S4 commands a $10k premium over a similarly used Evo.

Is it worth it?

The Audi exudes a straightforward German seriousness of design and purpose.  The colors are black over black leather with white alcantara inserts, so putting on the seatbelt is akin to buttoning up a Teutonic metal tuxedo.  There’s a weight to everything—the doors, the steering, the knobs—indicating that harnessing all of the performance this car has to offer is a task not to be taken lightly.

The engine is a distant thrum-hum.  The S4 abandoned its 4.2L V8 with the B7-to-B8 redesign, and the heavenly signature burble of that beastly powerplant is gone.  The 3.0L supercharged V6 that replaces it is a wonder of technological achievement and has been put to use across the spectrum of VW brands, but it’s no more aurally arresting than the Evo’s 4-cylinder, except that it sounds more distant and refined, and therefore more expensive.

The Audi’s interior is quieter overall and the dash and console are a class up from the Evo.  Again, this is not because the Evo is lacking per se.  But not a single piece of non-conformist cost-cutting trim meets the driver’s eye, and that no doubt explains another big chunk of the ten extra grand you’ll shell out for the Audi.

The twin-clutch automatic transmission dubbed “S-tronic” in the S4 is almost unfathomably fast.  Mash the go pedal and watch the tach needle wind up (remember, there isn’t much of an aural clue as to how hard the engine is working).  As the needle reaches its’ height, there’s a near-imperceptible “clik!” (it leaves out the last “c” for brevity) and before your brain can comprehend it, the car is in the next gear.  The sensation is completely addictive.  You’ll find yourself at extralegal speeds very quickly and very often as a result of the incurable and insatiable desire to experience it over and over.

It’s almost okay, though, because the brakes are just as ridiculous as the power.  I had never before personally felt a braking action literally pull the skin forward off of my face with negative-acceleration-G until the day I drove the S4.  It was such an exercise in ruthless decelerative economy, I can liken it to nothing but the Death Star’s tractor beam.  Basing my analysis purely on the tactile sensation, the brakes in the Audi seem to be far and away better than those in the Evo.

Regrettably I didn’t get to corner the S4 hard enough to determine how or how well it handles.  Again, this S4 was a dealer’s car, not a friend’s.  Maybe someday.  In April.  At Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, NV.  With the Audi Club of Southern California.  Maybe.  A guy can dream.

So again, is the Audi worth the extra dough?  Hate to straddle the fence here, but it’s hard to say.  You could crack open the magazine tests and point out that the Evo does this or that objectively better, or the S4 does that or this objectively better.  To my eye, the Audi looks a little more grown up, a little more mature, a little less boy-racer.  But the Evo is such a screaming deal for a no-kidding sporting sedan that it’s impossible to ignore, even if the old money at the country club might not smile at the sight of you cruising up to the valet stand.  Both of these cars command respect on the road and the track.  Both will happily do grocery runs with baby seats in the back.  Both will load up the lateral G, smoke their tires, and make their rotors glow with heat.  Both can be trusted in inclement weather.  So, really, I can’t tell you which of these is best for you.  All I can tell you is I’d be a little jealous of you if you owned either one.

Your Next Car Will Most Assuredly NOT Drive Itself

In the February 2012 issue of Wired, Tom Vanderbilt authored an article titled “Let the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here.”  The front cover of the magazine featured a robotic arm grasping a 5-speed shift knob with the surrounding type proclaiming in all caps, “YOUR NEXT CAR WILL DRIVE ITSELF.”  Mr. Vanderbilt followed up his headlining article three weeks later with another related one, posted to the Wired website and titled “Five Reasons the Robo-Car Haters Are Wrong.”

Not wanting to dive into this fray without preparing, I Googled Mr. Vanderbilt and was delighted to find that he had also authored the book Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).  Traffic had received a round of recommendations in the car mags when it was first published, but I had since forgotten about it.  Hungry for knowledge, I tracked the book down, bought a copy, and devoured it at my first opportunity.

Traffic has nothing to do with robotic vehicles, but very much to do with the dangers of leaving your home in a motorized metal cocoon and merging with the flow of crazies, nearly all of them distracted, unprofessional, and unfamiliar with their cars’ limits, but equally convinced they are every one of them “above average” in the performance of the duties necessary to drive from point A to point B.

I highly recommend the book—just reading it will make you a better and safer driver.  However, Mr. Vanderbilt is wrong to claim in his Wired article that the autonomous car is “here,” and Wired is wrong to leap to the conclusion that all of their readers’ next cars will be self-driving.

First, let me rattle off the “Five Reasons” I would be wrong, were I a “Hater.”  Vanderbilt presents these by listing each of the haters’ arguments, and then refuting each one.  Hater Point #1: Autonomous vehicles will be inherently more unsafe than humans.  #2: People like driving.  #3: The infrastructure for autonomous cars does not exist.  #4: Autonomous cars won’t survive the litigious environment in the United States.  #5: When you ride in an autonomous car, you ride with Big Brother.

My reasoning has nothing to do with any of these.  After reading Traffic, one knows that these five arguments are factually and statistically invalid.  #1: Over 90% of vehicle accidents are caused by human error.  Remove humans from the driving process, and the majority of crashes simply do not happen.  #2: People by and large, do not like driving.  If they did, they wouldn’t be staring at their smartphones and/or paying through the nose for distracting in-car technology to in an attempt to mentally remove themselves from the road-going experience.  #3: Infrastructure is not a problem.  Autonomous cars make use of the existing transportation network—that is what makes them so attractive as a transportation alternative.  #4: The “litigious environment” argument is an admittedly strong one.  As Vanderbilt concedes in his Wired article, the automakers’ legal departments are at this point actually forcing conservatism on their engineers—they do not want to deal with the legal backlash that would most certainly accompany the sudden unleashing of massive amounts of automation onto an uneducated user market.  But lawyers cannot stop the economic laws of supply and demand—they can, at best, only slow them down.  Autonomous cars will be a part of our lives, sooner or later.  #5: Given the amount of government paperwork involved with owning and driving a vehicle, plus the existence of GPS navigation systems, satellite radio, and the cell/smartphone in their pockets, drivers were in bed with Big Bro long before autonomous cars came along.

My argument is not against automation, but against the assertion that my next car will be autonomous and/or that the age of full automotive automation has indeed arrived.  I’m quite certain it will not and has not.  Why?  Two reasons: cost and user competence.

First off, at no point in either of his articles does Vanderbilt discuss what this high level of automation costs.  His examples of automated cars include the VW Junior, the Audi TT Pikes Peak, a BMW that drove itself on the autobahn from Munich to Ingolstadt (presumably so BMW could show Audi that they can do automation, too), and Google’s autonomous Prius.  He also brings up the Mercedes S-Class as an example of a current production car that is not autonomous, but features an extremely high level of automation.  Other than the S-Class of course (a steal starting at $91,850), I am unable to find any published information on what creating these autonomous cars cost the manufacturers, let alone what their sticker price would be if they were sold to the public.

The average sale price of a new car in the US is right around thirty thousand dollars at present.  Unless the autonomous car marketed for the masses was able to exist in that arena, it would not be a sales success in the numbers necessary to significantly ease metropolitan traffic or prevent human-error accidents.  Why not?  For a somewhat similar example, we turn to the Chevrolet Volt.

The Chevy Volt can theoretically achieve infinite miles per gallon, so it offers a huge advantage over a normal small car (as an autonomous car does).  Instead of saving time (as an autonomous car would), it saves money.  Here’s the Volt’s problem: it stickers at over $40k, instead of less than $20k as its platform-mate the Cruze, shackled with an oh-so-20th-century standard internal combustion engine and transmission, does.  The Cruze is selling well, whereas Volt production was recently suspended because dealers are having such trouble selling off existing inventory that they are avoiding purchasing Volts from the factory.

My point here is that despite offering a massive advantage over a similar car, as say an autonomous Google Prius would, the Volt is a sales failure because consumers are not willing to pay the large premium that the massive advantage demands.  I’m sure if autonomous cars were inexpensive to create, information about their cost would be easy to obtain.  If the average person could afford an autonomous car, we’d have heard about it by now.

The second reason my next car will not be autonomous is that people are bad enough drivers as it is, let alone after a computer has been doing the driving for them for the last six months.  Then, as they’re leaving the office after a long day at work (or worse, as they’re leaving the bar after a few cocktails on a rainy night) their flux capacitor won’t boot up correctly and they’ll get a “PC Load Letter” error message.  The car will revert to manual mode.  Desperate to get home, they take the wheel themselves.  They’ve never turned the steering wheel before, don’t know where the turn signal buttons/stalks are, and aren’t familiar with the feel and feedback from the gas and brake pedals.  Their seat doesn’t place them in an optimal eye position.  Their mirrors aren’t adjusted.  And it’s been six months since their brain fired the “driving” synapses.  Now, they are a greater hazard to everyone else on the road than they ever were before autonomous cars existed.  As much as I adore embracing new technology, I refuse to be that person—I don’t harbor any illusions about my ability to drive well in an unfamiliar car after a long layoff, and neither should anyone else.

Thus, until autonomous cars are a) cost-competitive and b) flawless, never requiring manual input, my next car (and yours as well, I hope) will NOT drive itself.