What do you get when you mix one of Americaís greatest race tracks with one of
todayís best sports cars? I donít know exactly, but it canít be anything less
than a fast, giddy treat thatís sure to conjure wistful daydreams for weeks to
How could it be anything less? Iíll be driving a quick lap of Road America in one of Porscheís latest models, the ď50 Years of the 550 SpyderĒ Boxster S. (Yes, the name is a mouthful. For the sake of brevity, Iíll refer to it as the ďAnniversary EditionĒ from here on.)
The original Porsche Spyder, introduced in late 1953, was a stripped-down, purpose-built race car that successfully did battle with front-engine machines that had far more displacement. Piloted by such drivers as Ken Miles and Hans Herrmann, it racked up an impressive competition record, sealing its place among the more famous cars in the history of this German manufacturer.
Today, Porscheís closest thing to a direct heir to the Spyder is the Boxster, first introduced for 1997. Yes, there are significant differences: the Boxster is larger, heavier and vastly more plush than the original Spyder. Whatís more, the Boxster is powered by a smooth-running liquid-cooled six that makes more than twice the power of the Spyderís rattley, VW-derived, air-cooled four-cylinder.
Those things aside, the cars share one key element: a horizontally-opposed engine mounted between the cockpit and the rear wheels. And, like the Spyder, the Boxster competes in a market packed with mostly front-engine machines.
Road America should prove to be an excellent setting in which to evaluate this new version of the Boxster. With long, open stretches punctuated by corners that range from an autocross-tight chicane to a sprawling carousel, it can gauge the mettle of anything you want to put on it. Whatís more, Road America is simply beautiful. Built in the mid 1950s to replace a public-road circuit that ran for several years amid the nearby village of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, the track is nestled in a picturesque green valley thatís as nice to look at as it is to drive through.
And that valley reverberates with history. Over some five decades, Road America has played host to practically every major North American racing series, including Trans-Am, Can-Am, IMSA, and Indycars.
Accompanying me on this trip is David Donohue, son of famous driver Mark Donohue. The younger Donohueís racing career includes a GT-2 class win at Le Mans, and he now earns his living piloting one of Brumos Racingís Porsche-powered Daytona Prototypes in Grand American Rolex Sports Car competition.
After waiting awhile in line to get on the track, the green light on the
starting tree flashes. With a hearty blip of the throttle and quick lift of my
left foot, weíre off. The clutch pedalís smooth, easily modulated action serves
as the first of many subtle hints at the Boxsterís substantial, all-of-a-piece
feeling. There are many more such reminders to come.
The car pulls strongly off the line, perhaps aided a little by the Anniversary Editionís extra six horsepower over the standard Boxster Sís 258-hp rating. While not exhibiting the burly punch of bigger-engine rivals such as Corvette, the car acquits itself well in this short initial sprint, and we arrive at the first turn running a brisk pace, already in third gear.
Turn one opens to a daunting little kinked downhill section, terminating in a tight bend that looks like it could easily fool the uninitiated into carrying too much speed here. But itís not a problem this time; the Boxster S four-piston brakes haul the car easily down to an appropriate velocity, while the light, communicative steering gives all the information needed to make good decisions about how to best use the carís considerable grip. In fact, the Boxster communicates so well that I already feel confidently at-ease behind the wheel, despite thus far having spent less than thirty seconds on-track with it.
Coming out of the turn, I gradually roll into the throttle, reaching full power as I cross through the safe, late apex Iíve chosen. ďYou hit your marks really well,Ē says Donohue. ďYouíve been around here before and it shows.Ē Iím obviously quite flattered, but I canít help but suspect the carís making me look better than I am. Boxster is that sort of machine.
From there we blast all-out into a gradual, uphill bend that basically acts like one long straightaway. As can be expected, thereís considerable wind noise as we rise into triple-digit speeds, but itís not annoying.
At the end of this fast section is a hump, which obscures the tight turn that lies just past it. As I come up over the crest on the brakes, I work my way down to second gear. The pedals are wonderfully placed for heel-and-toe work, making it easy to do clean, race-track-appropriate downshifts. Also aiding the process is the Boxsterís smooth, precise shifter, which on the Anniversary Edition has 15-percent shorter throws than on the regular Boxster S.
I dive quickly into the turn, reveling in the carís composure; the stiff chassis and quick steering ratio are well matched to make for turn-in thatís sharp but never twitchy. The carís inherent good balance is evident here too, with barely a trace of understeer.
One thing that hasnít particularly called attention to itself during our time on the track is the interior accommodations - a good sign, signaling how well-suited the design is to such a performance environment. Although the seats in the Anniversary Edition donít have the big, winglike bolsters found in many performance-car interiors these days, they nonetheless provide plenty of lateral support.
And before we started our lap, I noticed that this carís seats are also quite
nice looking, covered in unique, dark-brown Cocoa leather thatís used throughout
the interior and matches the convertible-top color. A black top with gray
leather interior is also available. Adding further luster to the Anniversary
Editionís cabin is an abundance of silver-colored trim, topped off with a
bright-metal, individually-numbered, ď50 Years of the 550 SpyderĒ plate on the
center console. While perhaps not mimicking the stripped down, ready-to-race
ambiance of the original 550 Spyder as much as Iíd like, the accommodations are
quite impressive and undoubtedly better suited to the expectations of todayís
typical Porsche buyer.
From turn five we quickly climb a steep uphill, to another somewhat sharp, flat turn. Itís just the first of two more, before another at the end of a quick, twisty downhill called the Hurry Downs. Through the whole sequence, the Boxster remains unflappably agile, maneuvering crisply with help from the mid-engine designís low-polar moment of inertia. Our progress through the courseís twisty middle portion is undoubtedly also aided by several suspension tweaks that are part of the Anniversary Edition. These include a ride height thatís lowered 10mm, and a slightly wider stance achieved by 5mm wheel spacers all around.
As we dash under the Snap-On bridge, we enter the carousel. ďYou can carry a lot of speed into here,Ē says Donohue. Who am I to argue with a Le Mans-winning Viper driver? Especially since I havenít sensed any nervousness in his voice during our trip. And thatís no small point. Ask any driving-school instructor - few things have the potential to scare sweat out of you like riding in the passenger seat with some leadfoot you just met a few minutes ago.
But Donohue also has a backup in case of impending idiocy behind the wheel: Porsche Stability Management, which is standard instead of optional on the Anniversary Edition. The system uses the same basic throttle-and-brake-control principles employed by other manufacturersí stability control systems, but Porsche has programmed its system for enthusiast drivers. ďIt allows you to get a good feel of what the car is doing - understeering or oversteering - before it becomes active,Ē says Donohue. ďItíll only save you when you really need to be saved.Ē
Indeed, as we press closer to the limits, the car remains pleasantly free of the lurching, nannyish intervention often exhibited by such systems in more prosaic cars.
Throughout our drive, the engine treats us to a symphony that sounds part contemporary megabucks exotic, part vintage Porsche. The pleasing sound is another extra that comes with the Anniversary Edition, the result of an exhaust system that differs from that of the standard Boxster S.
The rest of the track plays out in a succession of elements that span almost the entire gamut of performance-driving conditions - a maddening, blind little chicane; another long, bent straightaway; and a series of medium-tight turns in succession. Through it all, the Boxster cooperates, shirt sleeves rolled up, eager for whatever you put it through.
It seems almost tailor-made for Road America. And thatís saying a lot. Some lower-powered sports cars can feel lost - almost tediously slow - on this trackís abundance of long, open sections. Conversely, high-powered, front-engine haulers often seem a tad clunky on Road Americaís tighter parts.
Boxster is at home everywhere here. Whatís more, itís nimble enough to negotiate smaller, club-oriented tracks with equal aplomb, making it a worth considering for enthusiasts looking to pick up good track-day car.
The Anniversary Edition Boxster starts at $59,900, which seems reasonable, considering that a comparably equipped regular Boxster S wouldnít be all that much less money. Whatís more, other Boxster models donít even offer some of the Anniversary Editionís features, including its lowered suspension, short-throw shifter, and unique silver paint.
As Donohue and I power through the last corner and ease onto the pit road, I can only sigh. Itís a shame lifeís more delicious treats sometimes come in such small servings.