Cosmic Forces From Porsche
These three glittering cars are the current Porsche hierarchy of two-seat roadsters, which run from the brilliant to the… well, words fail us…
There’s a line in the original – and much underrated – Men In Black film (it’s 22 years old this year, goddamit!!) where D, the ageing partner to Tommy Lee Jones’ K, says: “They’re beautiful, aren’t they? The stars. We never just look any more.” And it’s a line which, later in the movie, K then recites to J (Will Smith), as he reveals he hasn’t been training his partner, but his replacement.
It’s the centrepiece to a wonderful couple of slow, poignant moments in a film which is otherwise very much ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’. And it’s a line running through our head repeatedly as we hurtle through the darkness, the cold night air whipping about our ears, part of a four-car convoy headed by a facelifted Porsche Macan S – its wide-beam rear lights shining like a familiar, guiding beacon in the blackness – plunging into the depths of Northumberland’s dark-sky national park for a rendezvous with Liam Reid.
Reid is an affable, amusing, energetic and engaging astronomer/cosmologist, who lives up on the high ground well to the west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (he’s a bona fide Geordie himself, ‘from the west of the city’) in a village right in the heart of the national park.
He used to work in a factory in nearby Hexham, but such was his enthusiasm for the huge vastness of the known universe up above us, he used to volunteer at a local observatory. He asked if they had any jobs, they said ‘yes’, he quit his factory role and now he does the thing he loves most – expounds about the enormity of the visible universe.
Over the course of a riveting hour spent standing under a sky glistening with the enduring majesty of the universe – and a sky that is occasionally mirrored off by low-lying, milky cloud cover, which elicits some fabulous euphemisms and colourful Geordie cursing from Reid as he tries to show us the starry depths beyond through a powerful telescope – this fella blows our tiny minds with some astonishing stats on the sheer numbers of stars, galaxies and possibilities that are out there, drifting around in a vast universe that’s 13.74 billion light years to its outer edge.
What’s beyond the visible universe? Why is it accelerating in its expansion, instead of slowing down? What are dark energy and dark matter? Is there life on other worlds? All these matters are discussed, in fantastic fashion, as we laugh and joke and gasp through Reid’s presentation.
Of course, while we’re looking at the near-infinite number of stars up there in the cosmos, there are three dazzling stars of the automotive world sitting parked nearby, waiting to be fired up again and driven, hoods down, through the crisp Northumbrian night.
The reason we were privileged enough to have some of Reid’s precious time (he was heading off to do a presentation on telescopes at the Kielder Observatory at midnight, lasting until 3am, and he was having to chat to us dunderheads at 9.30pm…) is that Porsche GB had very kindly taken us up to the extreme north of England to do a little stargazing. And, to sample its three current roadsters.
The holy trinity of Porsche convertible world right now, these were represented by a Racing Yellow 718 Boxster T, a White 718 Spyder and then, perhaps the one that shines brightest of all, a Guards Red 911 Speedster (991).
We’re going to start in reverse chronological order of the cars we drove, with the Boxster T. In this sort of GT-derived company, it could almost be seen as a pointy stick in the middle of a full-on, semi-automatic gunfight. Yet that would do this superb sports car a grotesque disservice.
True, in the presence of the enhanced 9A2 in the Spyder, and that astonishing powerplant housed in the rear of the Speedster (again, more on this in a moment…), the 718’s familiar Achilles heel comes to the fore once more. We’ve said it countless times and we’ll say it again: in the context of four-cylinder turbocharged engines, the 2.0-litre, 300hp unit housed in the middle of the Porsche Boxster T is a long, long way from the worst of its type. In fact, it’s probably one of the best – didn’t everyone love the old Subaru Imprezas for their boxer burble?
A burble derived from a 2.0-litre, horizontally opposed, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine. Admittedly, the T’s motor isn’t quite as vocal as an old WRX STi, but it still has that nice gargle to it from time to time, while it has quite astonishing power delivery right throughout the rev band.
In the context of Porsche engines, though, and certainly the flat-sixes that have been fitted to Caymans and Boxsters previously, it is the main drawback of the otherwise-splendid T. Mainly for the noise, of course, as the actual way it goes about its business is fine – and, coupled to a six-speed manual, as tested here, it’s a really involving sports car.
We spent many, many miles haring about southern Spain in the T twins earlier this year and adored them both. You come away from driving either, thinking it is all the sports car you could ever need.
Until, of course, you then jump straight into the Spyder (or, in our case, you’ve just come from the Spyder). Not only does this address the one major criticism levelled at the 718 family – as it packs a 4.0-litre, normally aspirated flat-six derived from the turbocharged 3.0-litre unit found in the current 992-generation 911 – but it also serves as the flagship of the 718 Boxster range, sitting above the former champ in the shape of the 365hp, 2.5-litre GTS.
The Porsche engine delivers 420hp and a corresponding 420Nm at the rear wheels, through a choice of gearboxes, although on this occasion we were in the excellent three-pedal manual. And the Spyder is a monumental performance car. Honestly, it’s absolutely sublime… if a bit… spiky.
unusual choice of Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres on the Spyder, rather than Porsche’s preferred supplier Michelin, might be one reason for this, but even in this company the Spyder felt the biggest handful of the lot. It can snap into quite large oversteer in low-grip conditions, with its traction control fully engaged, and it always feels like it has the most nervous energy, dancing across the road with fizzing levels of feedback.
That doesn’t alter the fact that this is a simply a stunning mid-engined sports car, by any reasonable rationale. Truthfully, this thing will probably go down as one of the best open-topped vehicles we’ll ever drive, all throughout our careers, mainly because all of the steering, the brakes, the gearbox, the body control and the compliance in the dampers are operating at a higher level than on even the 718 T.
The pace the Spyder delivers is outrageous, the throttle response is as pure and as wonderful as you’d expect of a big-hearted naturally aspirated engine like this, and the overall driving experience is sensational – maybe the suspension is a little on the firm side for the worst of British road surfaces, and the Spyder is as afflicted by the stupidly-long gearing in the transmission as all of the four-pot 718 models, but apart from these minor drawbacks this is exquisite.
It also sounds magnificent, the obvious baritone tune of the 992 Carrera’s engine coming through but replaced with a sweeter top-end voice, one which sings around to a lofty 7,400rpm point of maximum horsepower and a redline at 8,000rpm.
But then there’s the final roadster to sample. It, too, has a peaky power delivery, its 510 normally aspirated horses stampeding into the fray at 8,400rpm. It also has a 4.0-litre flat-six engine, but it’s not one derived from a 992 Carrera mill minus the turbos. It’s the engine from a 991.2 GT3.
It is, of course, the Porsche 911 Speedster. An utterly majestic creation, impeccably wrought in all departments and – in our opinion – the finest convertible car you could possibly hope to drive that has yet been created.
That it costs around three times as much as the 718 Spyder is neither here nor there: it absolutely does not deliver a driving experience that’s three times better than its smaller, mid-engined relation. Yet it is still – somehow, bafflingly, brain-meltingly – more rewarding to be in control of it in every single regard.
It is based on a 991-generation 911, meaning that – if you go to Zuffenhausen and the production lines of Porsche – you’ll see 911s old and new coming down the line together, as the final Speedsters and customer-ordered GT2 RS models of the 991 era mingle with the Carrera 4S and Carrera versions of the 992.
Anyway, the Speedster has the older cabin, with less advanced infotainment, plainer dials and a lower, narrower centre tunnel. You sit good and low in a two-seat-only cabin enlivened by door pulls, Speedster logos and a production plaque commemorating Porsche’s 70th anniversary of making sports cars (which fell in 2018, hence why only 1,948 examples of the Speedster will be built), but the interior doesn’t feel like one necessarily befitting of a silly money collectors’ item.
Which is why it’s such a good job that the chassis and drivetrain engineering is seemingly from another civilisation altogether, one more technologically advanced – perhaps a race living on one of those distant planets that Reid was talking to us about on the frozen Northumberland moors.
To drive, the Speedster goes beyond heavenly and into the celestial realm. Its steering is the best of all three cars here, by some distance, while there’s a most unexpected yet fantastic suppleness to the two-stage adjustable dampers in Comfort model that makes the 911 breathe with lumpen road surfaces; this is why it drives in a calmer, more accessible fashion than the less powerful Spyder in the same frosty conditions.
Hook it all together and the Speedster handles as well as any 911 GT3 you care to mention. It loses nothing dynamically as a result of losing its head, as the use of carbon-fibre composite for many of the body panels (the front wings, the bonnet and the iconic double-bubble rear deck) keeps its weight gain over a comparable 991.2 GT3 manual down to a mere 50 kilos or so, while much clever work has gone on underneath to ensure high torsional rigidity in the frame. That it is sublime for all of ride, handling and performance is perhaps not a surprise, given the GT department source material… but then you listen to it.
That 4.0-litre engine has two gasoline particulate filters (GPFs) in the exhaust system to make the car compliant with the latest emissions regs. These can negatively affect the sound of an engine, which has been proven on other fast cars which have gone through this change recently (the five-cylinder Audis being victims of green conformity).
Also, the mill has been treated to detail changes to liberate the extra 10hp over a 991.2 GT3 (500hp), which could – again – have harmed the mechanical symphony. Well, thankfully this is not the case. And in that age-old cliché of saying ‘you can hear the engine all the better in a convertible’… then ‘you can hear one of the best production engines ever committed to the road all the better in this convertible’.
It has a soundtrack to die for: emitting a supernova of noise as it builds through the mid-range and dazzles you on the way to a high-pitched, shrieking crescendo that makes the immense asking price of the 911 Speedster worth the money alone. Seriously, you will not hear a road car that is more beguiling than this.
Shame all 1,948 of them have been snapped up, then, by eager investors. And a shame we couldn’t spend longer listening to Liam Reid telling us about the infinite wonders of the cosmos.
But then, while there’s much to marvel at out there in the deepest reaches of the universe, there’s clearly plenty of be getting on with in the Porsche roadster line-up. And cars don’t have much more star power, glister or gravitational pull than the completely sensational Porsche 911 Speedster.
But let’s not forget the other two 718s, which have their own undeniable allure as well. So, just like K says in MiB, we never just look at the stars anymore. Therefore, take a good, long look at these three, people – because you are very unlikely to ever see vehicles which can reach their galactic levels of engagement and thrills again.