The Cayman GT4 RS was spellbinding on track but a bit much on road – can the Boxster version even up the score?
By Nic Cackett / Tuesday, 8 August 2023 / Loading comments
When Andreas Preuninger, the wiry, wily head of all things Porsche GT, bounded on stage last month to present the new 718 Spyder RS to the lucky few sods invited along to drive it, he didn’t oversell it. The new model was primarily about ‘old school driving vibe’ we were told, and, unlike the closely related GT4 RS, was intended as a road car first and foremost. More time was spent addressing Porsche’s sporadic use of the word ‘Spyder’ than reiterating that this, in point of fact, would be the last-ever 718 to feature a combustion engine.
We already knew this, of course, but a lesser maker of performance cars might have been tempted to dwell at length on the exceptional three-decade reign of the Boxster – not only Porsche’s saviour from its well-documented doldrums in the early ‘90s, but also one-half of arguably the defining mid-engined sports car of the modern era. Its maker would not be the same without it, and nor would the rest of us. The Spyder RS is the full stop at the end of a sentence that encompasses four generations of unceasing rear-drive excellence, and, thanks to its comparative accessibility, marks the high point of more than a few personal car histories.
The one thing Mr GT3 didn’t need to say (though he did) is that this final derivative is meant to top them all. The Boxster began life with a 204hp 2.5-litre flat-six; nearly thirty years later it ends with 500hp from the same 4.0-litre engine that powers the 992 GT3. That’s some journey. Porsche has always declined the opportunity to partner its race-bred naturally aspirated motor with either variant of its mid-engined sports car, and would likely have continued doing so were it not for the now-or-never moment forced on it by the decision to make the 718’s successor exclusively battery-powered.
For a division periodically charged with replacing (and markedly improving) the 911 GT3, Porsche’s Flacht-based employees are well accustomed to the weight of expectation – but there’s no denying the Spyder RS is a special case. There has never been a Boxster quite like this before, and because there will never be another, there is plainly no requirement to hold anything back. Conveniently, much of the hard work was already done: up to the beltline, the Spyder shares much with the trailblazing GT4 RS. Above it, the distinctive, ear-jostling air intakes have been modified for the roadster, but because they are a fundamental requirement of a flat-six effectively spun through 180 degrees, they remain.
The GT4’s dramatic, air-smooshing fixed spoiler, however, does not. For one thing, Preuninger reckons it would look silly on a Boxster (which is true); for another, the engineers were understandably less concerned this time around with generating downforce for the road-biased Spyder. Having said that, it earns a fairly substantial duckbill to rebalance the airflow in conjunction with a new, slightly shorter front splitter, and the open-top model is still festooned with natty (or possibly fussy) go-faster details like the NACA ducts and CFRP bonnet that were introduced with the Cayman.
Inevitably though, it is the roof (or lack of it) that defines the Spyder experience, and, it must be said, Porsche’s approach to the whole project. Nowhere else would it have conceived a two-piece DIY soft top comprising a separate ‘sun sail’ and wind deflector, and even allowing for the Spyder’s pedigree in manual arrangements, surely nowhere else in the Porsche lineup would it have met with approval. But its chief advantage is obvious enough: by doing without a frame or any kind of automation the entire roof including its various mechanisms weighs just 18.3kg, helping to make the new model 40kg lighter than the 718 Boxster Spyder. Even more impressively, the team reckon the roadster is 5kg lighter than the GT4 RS.
And that’s if you bother taking the roof with you. Leave it at home and you’ll be 13kg to the good. Small change, perhaps, as Preuninger himself grinningly accepted, but the rationale speaks for itself: the manufacturer has not stinted in taking the Spyder RS concept the extra mile, and it lends additional credence to the idea that the ‘most puristic and emotional derivative ever’, was a deeply-held ambition. (Plus, it’s easier to offer a convertible with some of the modern convenience removed if you know it’s going to be bought by people with access to plenty of other cars in the event of rain. Or winter.)
Still, the new arrangement is not complicated once you’ve remembered the steps in the correct order – and nor is it particularly time-consuming. Porsche reckons you’ll easily have it up in under two minutes once you know what you’re doing. We only half knew and it probably didn’t take much longer. As with anything that requires seating on the header rail and unfurling and latching further back, it obviously helps if there are two of you – but it all goes together nicely, is neatly stored under the hood without pinching boot space and PH can attest to its effectiveness. The halfway house format – i.e. with the ‘sun sail’ alone and the rear deck exposed – is probably the preferable (and quickest) way to do it if you’ve just encountered an unexpected shower, although experience suggests that it’s worth the additional time it takes to add the rear screen if you’ve got a long motorway journey ahead of you, not least because it’s helpfully quieter.
In most other regards, the Spyder RS is precisely what we’ve come to expect from a pricier constituent of the 718 generation. You’ll probably find yourself fitting into it like a glove, and almost certainly feel contended the moment you do. Predictably, all it’s peak Boxster inside – especially if you’ve had the good sense to spec the optional Weissach Package, which adds leather-trimmed CFRP bucket seats and a fleecy Race-Tex coating to everything – although it’s mostly left to the GT-specific ESC OFF and ESC+TC OFF buttons and manual look-a-like PDK shifter (because Preuninger likes to sequentially change gear the old-fashioned way, bless him) to confirm the presence of RS special sauce.
Well – that and the prospect of a 9,000rpm redline dead ahead. And the noise when you fire it up. Yes, the Spyder is still loud. Stridently so and right from idle. Preuninger suggested some of the GT4’s cold air-gargling excess has been gently reigned in, but there’s no mistaking the clamorous presence of the A-list flat-six or its scene-setting charisma. It ferments at low revs until the throttle opening is wide enough for it to break out the serrated, snowballing howl. Peak torque rocks up at 6,750rpm, and, if you’re flat-out, immediately recedes into the past, because it’s beyond 7,000rpm that the RS gets truly mesmerisingly – sufficiently so for it to strong-arm you into the soaring, through-the-clouds moment that occurs in the final stretch. A 1,000rpm of reverse nirvana. Part unbearable, bawling thresh. Part rapture.
Okay, granted – we’ve been here before. Very recently, in fact. But you’d need a heart of stone not to revel in the pulsating swirl of energy and high drama the RS surrounds you with. It’s like driving a cyclone. Suffice it to say, if your residual memory of the previous 718 Spyder was a nagging disappointment over the way its naturally aspirated (but wholly different) 4.0-litre 9A2 Evo flat-six sounded when revved out, then rest assured the follow-up fixes that problem. And then some. There’s not even time to mourn the absence of a manual gearbox: the shorter ratios applied to the PDK in the GT4 RS migrate to the Spyder wholesale, and, predictably, they do the same job. Not only does this Boxster seen considerably more accelerative than any version that has preceded it, it also makes 9,000rpm seem attainable across more ratios. Like second. And third.
Of course, were it mated to a Soviet tractor, we’d find plenty to like about the engine. As revelatory as greater exposure to the 4.0-litre unit seems with it churning convulsively through air and 98 RON at what seems like ear level, it’s probably no revelation to find it on the same bewitching form that turned the GT4 RS into a two-seat adrenal gland. No, the real epiphany – if we can call it that – is the way the Spyder RS drives. Because beyond the pleasure of having your hair tousled by a hurricane, that is the model’s chief claim to differentiated fame.
For the most part, the tricked-up chassis, lowered by 30mm on standard PASM but manually adjustable across ride height, camber, track and anti-roll bar settings, is largely unchanged from the Cayman, save in one crucial regard – the previously ferocious damper rates have had their efforts reduced by about half. Or, to put it another way, Porsche has aimed to make the roadster about 50 per cent more compliant than the coupe since it considers the car unlikely to ever face a red and white kerb in anger. Somewhat predictably given the GT4 RS’s white-knuckle approach to ride quality, it is this modification that duly unlocks a superlative 718 for the public road.
The most notable change – and undoubtedly the point of difference its maker was pursuing – is the welcome return of genuine, bump-moderating fluency. The last 718 Spyder possessed this trait in spades, and the engineer responsible for the RS chassis tune conceded that the more permissive damping rate was not too far distance from the one it applied previously. As a direct result, the straight-jacketed wheel control that helped the Cayman to a seven-minute Nurburgring lap is superseded by the kind of absorbency that you definitely want your 500hp convertible to have when its 20-inch rim meets a poorly installed drain cover late on a fast corner.
While the price for the more obliging secondary ride (and lower aerodynamic assistance) is likely measured in precious seconds on a circuit, on the road you’d need to be a helmsman of fanatical, clenched-jaw intent to favour the gnarlier GT4 – and that’s not PH going soft, that’s simply a factor of all the surrounding talent the Spyder retains. Because the ball-jointed suspension bearings, the wider track, the helper springs, the PTV mechanical limited-slip diff and the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber are all present and correct, which in turn means that virtually all the dynamic elements Matt identified in the GT4 – the meticulous steering, the benign yet entertaining chassis balance, the huge but negotiable traction, the communicativeness of virtually every control surface – is here, too. The Spyder has simply taken its more unrelenting moments and made them riveting.
So, best Boxster ever then? Well, yes and no. On most objective metrics, yes – clearly. Nothing else comes close to its speed or noise or sense of impending ravishment. Subjectively, it’s a rock star, too. Who wouldn’t want to be frazzled and euphorically uplifted one minute, then benignly comfortable the next? But the question of competing quantities is not a totally unreasonable one – and not just because Porsche has arrived at the same colossal £123,000 starting price for the Spyder as it did for the GT4. If you declared a preference for the deft and highly desirable Boxster GTS 4.0-litre, on account of it being widely available, nearly £50k cheaper and easily exciting enough with 400hp and a manual gearbox, you would hear no sustained argument from us. Its deficiency in spine-tingling greatness would be no impediment to full enjoyment whatsoever. And you wouldn’t have to get out to put the roof up.
Better then to view the Spyder RS as the spirit animal it really is: not just the final curtain call for a combustion engine in a mid-engined Porsche, but also a last, thrilling testament to the uncomplicated joy of installing a viciously powerful flat-six in a properly sorted, comparatively lightweight and very nearly too small rear-drive chassis. Preuninger has let it be known that the early stages of GT4 RS development were carried out in secret to guard against the project being thwarted by a pen stroke on a spreadsheet. What better, cooler or more memorable way could there be to throw down a GT-made gauntlet for the future sports car currently making its way through the compromises and concessions of electrification? The open-top RS is marginally slower yet markedly better. And a totemic final act in the best traditions of the Porsche motorsport way. As plausibly deniable, whisper-quiet dirty protests go, it is a sublime and screamingly good one.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 PORSCHE 718 SPYDER RS
Engine: 3,996cc, flat-six
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch PDK auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 500@8,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@6,750rpm
Top speed: 191mph
Weight: 1,410kg (DIN)
MPG: 21.7 (WLTP)
CO2: 294g/km (WLTP)
- 2022 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS | PH Review
- 2020 Porsche 911 Speedster | UK Review
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