If you believe owning a sportscar is all about prestige, luxury and getting the chicks, then stay away from the newest Porsche Boxster. This is a pure driver's car, and everything that's not there for performance or light weight - like air-con and stereo systems, for example, has been treated as excess weight and thrown overboard. The 2010 Boxster Spyder is Porsche's vision of how its high-performance, low-weight road-race scalpels of the 1950s would look if reimagined using current day technology, and it deserves a lot of respect for its sheer purity of vision.
There are two ways to build a fast car - make it extremely powerful like the Bugatti Veyron, or make it extremely light like the Caterham Levante. The former, with the right aerodynamics, tends to produce cars with very high top speeds. The latter tends to produce cars with the kid of sharp handling that helps them dominate in road and track racing. And since there's only a handful of places where you can open a car up above 200kmh on the road without risking your life and license, you'd have to say that lighter cars would tend to be better performance machines for the road.
Still, sports cars in general have put on a fair bit of weight in the last 50 years. Most of the Ferrari lineup of the 1950s, for example, came in under 1000kg, where the average Ferrari of 2009 is closer to 1400kg. Motorcycle fans frequently agonize over dry weight figures in their purchasing decisions, but in the sportscar world, horsepower seems much more important - and as safety and emissions regulations get tighter and tighter in all the major markets, weight seems to creep upwards.
But since the oil crisis of 2008 forced fuel economy back into the minds of consumers, all the major manufacturers have started making economy a high priority. Massive engines with huge horsepower are getting harder to sell, so now's a good time for lower weight to become a selling point again in the performance market.
To that end, Porsche looked back 50 years in time to its most iconic model to find inspiration for its 2010 Boxter Spyder. Back to 1953, when the German company unveiled the legendary 550 Spyder, a car designed without compromise for racetrack success, and then homologated for the road.
The 1953-58 Porsche 550 Spyder
When the 550 Spyder launched, it weighed a stunning 550 kilograms - little more than double the weight of a motorcycle. No electronically adjustable seats or air-con or 10-speaker DVD systems here, the 550 was a purebred racecar - and despite the fact that its 1500cc Volkswagen-based engine only made around 70 horsepower, its feather weight combined with its incredibly low and stable center of mass to make it an instant racetrack success.
With the ability to carry huge corner speed, the first 550 Spyder ever built won its first race at Germany's famous Nurburgring. That car teamed up with the second off the production line to take a 1-2 finish at the world's most prestigious sportscar race - the 24 hours of Le Mans.
When those same two cars came over to Mexico and conquered the Carrera Panamericana in 1954, blitzing their class and grabbing a third place overall against far more powerful cars, the company suddenly found itself with a degree of notoriety in the United States; the 550's racing prowess was essentially what launched the brand into the hearts and minds of the American public.
A classic sportscar legend
The 550 cemented itself a place in classic racecar history with two almost mythological events. In 1954, Hans Hermann was racing the 550 in the Mille Miglia road race, and his progress was blocked by a boom gate at a level crossing. But the Porsche was so low to the ground that he simply sized up the approaching train, ducked his head and went straight under the gate, going on to win the race in spectacular and memorable fashion.
But the car is probably best known in pop culture for its role in a horrific accident. Movie star James Dean traded in his 356 Speedster Porsche for one of the first 550 Spyders in America, and had it named the "Little Bastard." Dean was driving the car to a race meeting in California, when the setting sun behind him blinded the driver of an oncoming car on Route 466, who turned in front of him and caused the catastrophic T-bone accident that killed the 24-year old Hollywood star.
To this day, the 550 is one of the most popular classic racecars on the restoration circuit - in fact, there's several companies still making replica 550 Spyders today, although they tend to run a fair bit heavier and more powerful than the original.
The 2010 Porsche Boxter Spyder
Looking back at the phenomenal success of the 550, Porsche has put together a new Boxster Spyder for 2010 that takes a firm less-is-more approach to sportscar design with the driving purist in mind.
It's based on the Boxster S, but in order to get the car down to 1,275kg, a lot has been taken away. The Boxster Spyder has no air-con, no stereo, no running lights, beverage holders or fog lamps. The motors that open and close the soft-top roof have also been dropped - making this a manual convertible that's made to be driven fast with the top down. Losing all this extraneous gear has saved about 80kg from the weight of the Boxster S, or roughly as much as your buddy weighs in the passenger seat.
While the Spyder taketh away in large quantities, it giveth in just one - the engine is naturally a horizontally opposed flat six displacing 3.4 litres, mounted beneath an aerodynamic twin hump arrangement in front of the rear axle. It's been slightly breathed on to rev higher than the S and develop 10 more horsepower, with final figures of 320 horsepower at 7,200rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque at 4,750rpm.
The net result is near on 10% more horsepower per kilogram. It's worth noting that the engine here is the same as the one in the Cayman S. Now, there's a lot of people saying that this engine could do a lot more if Porsche would only let it - and that it's possibly been deliberately watered-down to protect the 911, Porsche's flagship model, from being embarrassed. If there's any truth to those rumours, a little aftermarket tuning could unleash a lot.
In stock trim the Spyder makes 60mph in just under 5 seconds, and can be pushed to a top speed of 166mph, or 267kmh with the top down if you need to get your hair dry pronto.
The engine can be upgraded to deliver power through the PDK transmission found on the top-line 911 and Panamera models. PDK stands for Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, and it's a beautifully sorted double-clutch sequential shift - meaning that there's actually two transmissions, one handling reverse and all the odd-numbered gears, the other handling all the even numbered gears.
What this means is that when you shift from third to fourth gear, the second clutch is actually engaging fourth at the same time as the first clutch is disengaging third. The end result is that you can have uninterrupted power delivery to the wheels as you accelerate through the gears. Quite nifty. You can also opt for launch assist, which brings your 0-60 times down by around a fifth of a second.
In terms of handling, the Boxster Spyder benefits not only from the 550's light weight focus, but from its low centre of gravity. A new, stiffer sport suspension package lets the Spyder ride 2cm lower than the Boxster S does.
The Spyder will hit markets worldwide in February 2010, with a US list price of $61,200. That's just a couple thousand up on the Boxster S, and within the reach of a lot of buyers. And that raised rear section does make it look a whole lot more muscular. It's certainly no racecar, and while it's austere by today's standards, it's nowhere near as light or focused as the 550 Spyder of old, but there's every chance that the back-to-basics Boxster Spyder will strike a chord.
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